In postwar America, the traveling salesman found good restaurants on the road by looking for places with lots of big trucks parked outside--the sign of repeat customers.
These days you don't find big rigs jamming the parking lots of the San Fernando Valley's restaurants, but the principle still applies: Any place with lots of regular customers is probably a good bet for decent food at decent prices.
It's a theory, in any event--and if you want to test it, you could do worse than to start with the two Chicken Tikka restaurants in Chatsworth and Tarzana, which draw a regular crowd week after week.
Chand Hafeez opened the Chatsworth place in 1986, five years after she came here from Pakistan. She opened her Tarzana place in 1994 and may soon open a third in Westlake Village or Thousand Oaks.
The key to winning repeat diners, she says, is to give people good food again and again--in her case, the foods of northern India, cooked low-cal.
"I sent my five children here because I wanted them to graduate from American universities," Hafeez says. "But then I was all alone in Pakistan, so I came, too.
"We are here in Chatsworth nine years," she adds, "and we have the same customers who have been coming here since the beginning for low-fat and low-calorie Indian food that tastes good--skinless chicken and fresh fish, everything grilled.
"My cooks are Mexican immigrants, but the spices are mine--and secret."
Her big sellers:
* Chicken curry combo, made with boneless thigh meat curried and served with rice, fresh nan bread and a special salsa, for $5.99;
* Tikka combo, made with breast meat charbroiled and served with rice, nan and steamed curried vegetables, for $7.55;
* An 8-ounce halibut steak served with rice, nan and steamed curried vegetables, for $9.99.
You can also get Tikka sandwiches with white or dark chicken meat, a sub sandwich with curried chicken or beef, and pita sandwiches stuffed with Tikka chicken, curried chicken, or beef. Prices for these items top out at $4.99.
Hafeez runs Chatsworth Tikka Chicken at 21915 Devonshire in Chatsworth, (818) 998-6322. Her youngest, Amir Mohummed, who is pursuing a degree in marketing at Pepperdine University, runs Tarzana Tikka Chicken at 18966 Ventura Blvd., (818) 708-1445.
John Saffell and his sister, Annie Markey, also run two places with regular customers--Nicola's Kitchen in Woodland Hills and in Studio City, serving an eclectic mix of Italian and Thai foods.
"I'm one of eight kids in my family--number seven in the lineup," John Saffell says. "Annie is number five. And no relative was ever in the restaurant business.
"But a lot of us kids helped ourselves through college working in restaurants, and here we are, Annie and I, making a living at the hardest business in the world.
"I think a lot of people entertain the idea of running a restaurant--and the smartest ones are those who don't do it," he adds with a laugh.
With help from a partner, Chai Wongwaiwit, who is from Thailand--and who accounts for the Thai influence on the menu at Nicola's Kitchen-- Saffell and Markey opened the Woodland Hills place nine years ago, the Studio City place five years ago.
They knew they had to get a regular crowd to succeed in the San Fernando Valley, with its abundance of Italian restaurants.
"You have to serve good food at prices that don't make it impossible for your customers to eat at your place regularly," Saffell says. "We have lots of customers who come in once a week, and even some who come in once a day. When customers fall in love with a place, they get to feel like they have a stake in it."
The big sellers:
* The special chopped salad with grilled chicken, raisins, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, Roma tomatoes and tons of other ingredients, topped with a balsamic vinaigrette, for $6.95;
* The Thai chicken pizza, with Thai chicken, red onions and cilantro, for $14.95;
* The grilled fresh fish specials--ahi tuna, halibut, sea bass--for $13.95.
Nicola's Kitchen is at 12745 Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, (818) 508-7155, and at 20969 Ventura Blvd. in Woodland Hills, (818) 883-9477.
Juan Hovey writes about the restaurant scene in the San Fernando Valley and outlying points. He may be reached at (805) 492-7909 or fax (805) 492-5139 or via e-mail at jhoveygte.net