Photography by Paul Bostrom
Styled by Lisa Malott
With over 15 years in business, Café Roti’s story is mixed with unexpected opportunities that transformed it to being Lakeland’s go-to spot for traditional, gourmet Indian-Pakistani cuisine.
A coveted cuisine around the world, Indian food has captured the hearts — and taste buds — of those near and far. Typically comprised of heavy doses of cardamom, cayenne, tamarine, and other bold flavors, the complex pairing and mix of spices that make up this cuisine can often sound overwhelming to the unfamiliar palate. But, once experienced, it leaves an unforgettable memory that keeps customers coming back for more. At least, this has been the case for local Indian-Pakistani restaurant Café Roti.
“About 80 percent of the people that have sat in my restaurant have not eaten Indian food,” says Dr. Saqib Khan, owner and founder of Café Roti. “But they love it when they do.”
With over 15 years’ experience behind them now, Café Roti’s beginnings seem made up of opportunities generated by immense human inquisitiveness.
“The first part of any human endeavor is to have inquisitiveness,” says Khan. With few people in the Lakeland community exposed to Indian-Pakistani cuisine, he says it’s no surprise that “people’s inquisitiveness transformed into an adventurous spirit.” With minimal marketing in place, it was the intrigue of a community that began to sustain the adventurous spirit of those who partake in the Café Roti experience.
But what inquisitiveness even sparked Khan to start an Indian-Pakistani restaurant here in Polk County? Well, it wasn’t through an intrigue for culinary pursuits. Originally from Pakistan, Khan first moved to the U.S. to continue pursuing a career in the medical field. He would go on to do research and surgical training throughout the country. After passing the boards in anesthesiology, pain management, and critical care, Khan continued his critical care training. He then started a practice in Plant City.
Khan’s medical pursuits have taken him to many cities and garnered him impressive experience in the field of medicine. Yet, how did Café Roti make it into this mix?
“This is why I am so fond of a restaurant, despite being a doctor.”
While applying for privileges in Lakeland, Khan noticed a piece of land for sale next to Lakeland Regional Health. With a love for medicine and a love for food, he thought the location was the ideal spot for him to start a small restaurant for his staff and other doctors to experience the same fondness he had for the food he grew up on.
However, the place did not stay small for long.
“We have never marketed the restaurant,” says Kahn. “But, slowly and steadily, we started getting more and more people interested in Café Roti.”
Café Roti would eventually need to expand their back room and make space for even more people to experience the traditional ethnic and gourmet Indian-Pakistani cuisine. This past year, they made a big move to a new location in the heart of downtown Lakeland.
As Café Roti continues to grow and customers continue to return, Khan assumes that it must be greatly due to the transformative powers of our senses and our close bond with food.
“We are closely tied to food because of our senses. The sights, the taste; all are tied to food,” says Khan. And like any cuisine, it all starts with the aroma. Indian food is highly regarded for its bounties of spices that leave an impressionable aroma. “As soon as you enter or even pass by Café Roti, you will smell the aroma of basmati rice in the air. You will smell the coriander, a little bit of cumin.”
Obviously, the aroma alone is just a part of the impressionable experience. Those familiar with the cuisine served at Café Roti know that it is the taste that brings them back. Like many traditional Indian-Pakistani dishes, it is a mélange of not only flavors, but also influences. Dishes vary from place to place, and Khan worked to infuse recipes that captured this.
“We just use the traditional recipes, and it is a very modified version,” says Khan. “I would say, all my dishes are made for the taste of the locals.” These intentional yet simplified recipes are done to capture the essence of what makes up Indian-Pakistani food while making it accessible for all.
“As soon as you enter or even pass by Café Roti, you will smell the aroma of basmati rice in the air. You will smell the coriander, a little bit of cumin.”
“It is a version that everybody can essentially enjoy and is not expensive,” says Khan. “My goal is that everybody, whatever their pocket is, should be able to eat here.” In an effort to continue to make Roti accessible for all, Khan is also currently working on a book filled with all of Café Roti’s recipes. “I’m finishing a book, and anybody can pick the book up at our restaurant and make those dishes,” says Kahn.
Beyond creating a restaurant filled with delicious recipes, Khan inspires to create a gathering place that encourages its guests to venture into new territory while meeting our neighbors.
“Honestly, I don’t know anything about cooking. All I know is about eating,” Khan admits as he recounts where his fondness for the cuisine stemmed from. Since a young age, he has been inspired by how meals have the ability to bridge gaps and draw people together. Largely inspired by past experiences, Khan aspired to create a meeting place that garnered similar soulful gatherings that surrounded a good meal throughout his life. “This is why I am so fond of a restaurant, despite being a doctor,” says Khan.
So whether you are familiar with Indian-Pakistani cuisine or ready to venture into trying something completely out of your element, you are in for an amazing experience at Café Roti. Because, as Khan says, “Once people get in and eat, there is no way they will not like it.”