Taj Mahal Restaurant
Address: 142 Clinton St., Schenectady
Year established: 2008
Owner: M.A. Waheed
Chef: Shammi Waheed
Quote: “Hard work does not kill anybody.”
Restaurant type: Indian with vegan and gluten-free options available.
Quote about restaurant’s origins: “We’ve always had such great respect for the American spirit of entrepreneurship. My wife is a born chef. I wanted to give her the opportunity,” said M.A. Waheed.
Most famous diner: Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling when they were in town shooting “The Place Beyond the Pines.” One evening, a party of eight walked in as the Waheeds were closing up. The couple had no idea who they were when they agreed to re-open the kitchen and serve them. The customers perused the menu and started talking about different dishes to order. “Bradley Cooper took charge,” Waheed said. “He said, ‘Listen, this guy was closing his restaurant and going. When he opens the restaurant to serve us, all of you just shut up and whatever he brings, let’s have that.’” He then told Waheed to bring whatever they could, because they were hungry and just wanted food.
Contact information: (518) 370-3664, tmahalrestaurant.com
SCHENECTADY — Shammi Waheed has always loved cooking. Even though she didn’t have any formal culinary training, she was known from her childhood days for her ability to effortlessly rustle up a high-quality dinner for a crowd of 50 people. Now, she has been doing that seven days a week for 11 years at Taj Mahal Restaurant in Schenectady.
After friends got a taste of her cooking, they encouraged her and her husband, M.A. Waheed, to open a restaurant. The couple, who had immigrated from India twelve years prior, didn’t really give it serious consideration, because they didn’t know anything about the challenges of the industry. A friend contacted them when he saw a restaurant go up for sale. “Before we could realize it, we became owners of a restaurant,” Waheed said. “And Shammi took to it like a duck takes to water.”
The move to the United States was a difficult one. Waheed gave up a posh, high-level executive position in advertising. In the U.S. he could not find a comparable job, despite his expertise and experience. He began working in the hotel industry, and Shammi, who had not had to work in India, also had to find a job in order for the couple to support themselves and their five children. She worked as a caregiver, and at one point, was working three different jobs.
When they had the opportunity to purchase a restaurant, Waheed wanted to give his wife the opportunity to do what she loved so much and the independence that would accompany it.
Culturally, there is a big difference in entrepreneurial opportunities between India and the United States. “The infrastructure is so positive here,” Waheed said. “In India, it’s so difficult for people of no means to start something.” That was not the case here. “We got a lot of support from the community,” he said.
People offered encouragement and guidance. His children’s high school teachers came to help them do their taxes. When his son’s scoutmaster stopped by and saw the family sitting on the floor to have dinner (like they might have done in India) because they didn’t have any furniture, he had a teakwood table that seated eight people delivered the next morning. “People helped us like you would not believe,” he said.
PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Chef Saba, left, M.A. Waheed, and Chef Safa in the kitchen of the Taj Mahal Restaurant Thursday, April 18, 2019.
Taj Mahal offers a lunch buffet Monday through Friday, serving dishes from Hyderabad, a city in India that has what Waheed describes as “a very good confluence of north, south, east and west” Indian cuisine.
For $8.99 plus tax, customers can eat in or even take out if they’re in a hurry to get back to work, dishes like chicken tandoori and chicken curry, as well as vegan and gluten-free dishes like saag paneer (homemade cheese cooked with spinach) and a carrot and potato in a mild sauce. There is also salad and Indian desserts such as cottage cheese balls in sweet syrup. The buffet is served with a sweet, hot tea.
Waheed likes to keep the price reasonable. “I want it to be like anybody can walk in and under $10 have food that is a very good option,” he said.
The dinner menu features a variety of traditional Indian cuisine including the restaurant’s signature dish, Biryani. This specialty dish is made of basmati rice with deep fried onions, yogurt, ginger and garlic, with a choice of having it with vegetables, shrimp, chicken, lamb or a mix of all four.
More from Dine 2019: Schenectady County
- Malcolm’s brings farm-to-table to Schenectady
- Good food and friendly setting carry Scotia’s Turf Tavern through eight decades
- Cornells in Little Italy offers Schenectady great Italian, cozy atmosphere
- Gershon’s still tops for deli sandwiches, salads in Schenectady
- Scotti’s the stop for Italian on Schenectady’s Union Street
One big challenge for the restaurant is the misconception about Indian food as always being spicy. There are spicy offerings, but any dish can be made to be mild, medium or spicy. Waheed wants to encourage people to give something unfamiliar a try.