“I am an Engineer by profession but a foodie by passion” says SHAMNAZ T THODIYIL, OWNER, LIL AMERICA. Tucked into a cozy corner at Panampilly Nagar, this prettily lit eatery much resembles a New York City diner. Done up neatly in white with a blue detailed pennant canopy, it pretty much says “walk right in and chill!” and that’s just what we did.
We caught up with Shamnaz who forms part of the new management team under whom Lil America has raised its flag anew. I’ve always noticed that several times, entrepreneurs who get into the food mix, do not come from that particular background. Sure, profession does play an important role but I guess passion always does win out in the end. It’s the same in the case of Shamnaz as well; though an established engineer, working in a reputed firm in Dubai, his mind was always attuned to the food industry and very soon, his dream turned to reality.
“I’ve always been passionate about food” says Shamnaz “I love trying out new foods whenever I can. I’ve always wanted to get into the food industry. I wanted to settle down in Cochin and start a business of my own and what better industry than that of food?” Lil America was started in 2014 by a Bengali business family who promoted it as the ultimate hot dog destination. “We have loyal customers coming in even today for our speciality hot dogs.”
The interiors are done tastefully without any compromise on comfort. The beautifully done mural of all things American, a quaint juke box playing some foot tapping numbers and interesting little wall hangings representing various American states completes the picturesque appearance. “We want to make Lil America go beyond being just a famous hot dog destination. We want to introduce a whole array of tastes and flavours that give us a full rounded appeal.”
The revamped menu boasts of a plethora of deliciousness! From yummy burgers to excellent cuts of steak, brought in from Bangalore, a selection of fresh salads and not to mention, fluffy waffles decorated with a myriad of toppings. “We believe in our motto of serving the customer only fresh food that is of the best quality. We have a lot of students coming in during day time to enjoy our juices and mocktails. During evenings, we see a mixed crowd. Families, bikers, musicians…they find it a good place to relax.”
According to Shamnaz, Panampilly Nagar is the ideal place to start a speciality restaurant. Research was done for about two to three years. Several cafes were visited, their ambience studied and most importantly, the likes, dislikes and requirements of consumers everywhere needed to be unearthed. “People have a much higher level of awareness when it comes to food. There is a large NRI community in Panampilly Nagar and most of them are out and out steak lovers. We have people coming in from as far as Thrissur to try out our steaks. With increasing knowledge levels, we have to ensure that our food stays on par all the time.”
And this is where Chef Arun comes in. An effervescent individual with a wealth of food experience, he quickly comes over with a good natured smile and proceeds to list out a variety of dishes he wanted us to sample. He tells us that all the raw materials used for cooking are procured in person. Fish markets are visited early in the morning to get the best catch of the day. Shrimp that still have a jump in them to the freshest fish right off the boats. It’s no different when it comes to the vegetables and fruits either. Only the freshest of both would do. Their cuts of tenderloin and T-bone, sourced from Gourmet House are brought down from Bangalore. All of their burger patties use beef that’s minced and grilled in house. The sauces and spreads are all prepared in house as well. The intent for all this being the satisfied customer.
Chef Arun brings over a beautiful plate of their best-selling DYNAMITE SHRIMP. First off, I loved the presentation! The crunchy prawns coated with their creamy dynamite sauce (a secret recipe we tried to decode many a time) was offset perfectly by the colourful side salad in hues of reds and oranges. The dish has been aptly named that’s for certain! One bite and my taste buds are reeling with a burst of flavours and textures! The prawn was an absolute delight. It was soft and tasted fresh nothing like the fried rubber that’s served in many restaurants. The crunch of the batter, the creaminess of that exquisite sauce all balanced with a hum of spice and a dash of sweetness. The salad was another amazing story! So fresh and flavourful! The artfully julienned cabbage, red bell pepper and carrot married so well with the flavours of that lush sauce! This dish is a must try!
Each time, Chef Arun appeared with yet another delightful plate of food, he would patiently explain each item to us. A rainbow razzle dazzle of a salad, the sweet berry dressing of which we could smell a mile away! The BERRY HERB SALAD came a-calling! It was hearty mix of perfectly cubed zucchini, carrots, cucumber, tossed with fragrant Rosemary and dill (which I learnt was the Chef’s favourite herb) on a bed of crunchy lettuce. The sauce was the best part! A sweet strawberry vinaigrette was lent a rose tinted shade to the vegetables. I was a little sceptical but the first forkful made me a convert! It was such a refreshing plate of food, an absolute palette cleanser with a great balance of flavours.
A freshly prepared burger graced our table. We were served the SOUTHWEST BURGER. Two grilled buns, one of which was topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, a house made beef patty, beef bacon (yes, you read right!) a decadent cheese sauce and grated parmesan. You need to bite down on all the layers at once to get a proper punch of flavours. You can seriously taste the fresh mince of the patty paired with the smokiness of the beef bacon all mellowed down with that cheesy sauce! It washes down real well with a tall, cold glass of LIME MINT JUICE.
The piece de resistance was an enormous T-BONE STEAK! “We had some foreigners visit Lil America. They have been travelling the world for 15 years and missed American food. They came in and ordered our T-Bone steaks. They said it was the best they have had!” shares Shamnaz. The steak was a monster! It had grilled vegetables and mash on the side. Chef Arun said that the jus was always served separately. If the steak if brought in soaked in jus, one would not be able to enjoy its meaty flavours of the cut well enough. The meat grilled with perfumed rosemary was absolutely flavourful! Best to dip each piece of meat into the jus rather than pour the whole lot onto the steak. Add a smidgen of mash on the piece, maybe a spear of grilled veg, put it into your mouth, close your eyes and enjoy! The only suggestion would be to order the steak medium rare rather than the murderous well done that we’d ordered (against the advice of the chef!)! It turned the meat a little tough and chewy. Not making that mistake again!
Shamnaz tells us he has expansion plans for the future. First on his agenda however, is to expand the seating capacity of the restaurant and also work on the seating style. “I want Lil America to be known as more than just a hot dog spot. I want people to see it as a place to sit, chill and enjoy some delicious food.”
Well, you are definitely on your way to achieving that goal Shamnaz! All the very best from Letstalkfood!
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