Star of India, situated in an otherwise unremarkable shopping plaza near the corner of Markham Street and Shackleford Road, has been dishing up authentic Indian food for the Little Rock community for 27 years. And though the curries and chutneys are consistently on point, fans are just as likely to rave about Star of India’s gregarious proprietor as they are the food.
Sami Lal has established himself as one of the most charismatic and charming front-of-the-house personalities in the Little Rock food scene. When locals talk about Lal, the word “legend” is frequently used. And for many Little Rock residents who grew up here, Star of India was their introduction to authentic Indian food. Lal makes the kind of first impression that can’t be taught. He greets his guests genially. He remembers their names and he treats them like family. It’s a skill that comes naturally to him, he said. “It’s a God [given] gift I have. Service comes from my heart, and I love the people.”
The spot’s also known for having one of the best lunch buffets in town. (“The best prices in Little Rock,” Lal said.) When dine-in service was disrupted on March 19 for all Arkansas restaurants due to COVID-19, Lal had to essentially change his business model. But he was already prepared. In the days before Governor Hutchinson announced the shutdown, Star of India was already offering three family meal packages, an idea that Lal credits to himself and his children. Star of India offers five family packs now. There’s something for everybody: Chicken Tikka Masala, Vegetable Korma, Saag Paneer, to name a few. All family packs come with naan and basmati rice, and Star of India offers gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options. The family packages feed 10-12 people, so most families will have ample leftovers for days.
The quarantine was still young when, all over Little Rock, people were posting pictures on social media of their Star of India family packs, along with the complimentary roll of toilet paper that Lal affectionately included, back when toilet paper was scarce.
Star of India didn’t open their dining room when restrictions began to ease, but in a sense, they just brought the dining room to the parking lot. The masked carhops wear long sleeve button ups, vests and ties, despite the heat. Lal greets the customers and helps deliver the orders. Ice cream samples are generously given out to people waiting in cars. One can’t help but feel great about their dinner choice, and a little better about pandemic life in general, so it’s no surprise that Star of India won Best Curbside Restaurant Service in the Arkansas Times’ 2020 Best of Arkansas poll.
“I give credit to the Arkansas, Little Rock people because they support me, they love me and I love them,” Lal said.
Lal’s also been popping up at local hospitals delivering food to frontline healthcare workers.
“Everybody’s struggling,” he said. “I have to take care of the doctors and nurses working very hard 24/7.”
For now, Lal’s going to keep the dining room closed. “I will be opening when I see the cases drop off. Then I’ll be happy to open to the public. I haven’t opened yet because I’m concerned about my Little Rock community. I’m concerned about everybody,” he said.