What comes around goes around.
It’s the perfect tagline for a little eatery on wheels, especially one called Karma—a mobile Indian restaurant started by Cotati resident David Musgrave.
“Karma is a strong force,” says Musgrave, who can be found dishing up Indian fare from his food truck in the parking lot neat the corner of East Washington and Liberty streets on most nights starting 6pm. “If I don’t put out good food, I won’t get a good response back. So I try to take it to heart.”
Musgrave, 35, grew up in the Petaluma and did graphic design for a printing manufacturer after graduating from Casa Grande High School. In 2000 he and his Tibetan wife, Tshering, opened their first restaurant, Karma Bistro, in Cotati.
Tshering grew up in India with a family that now runs an award-winning restaurant in Bangalore, so it made sense to continue the family’s culinary tradition in Sonoma County.
“People joked with their friends back in India that the most authentic chef they knew in California was a white guy,” Musgrave says of customers who would look stunned upon poking their heads into the kitchen.
But when the economy started to spiral down several years ago, working 80 hours a week at the restaurant while raising a newborn wasn’t viable. After closing Karma Bistro, Musgrave bought a trailer from a Vallejo fish-n-chips vendor through Craigslist and started his own operation.
Tshering now works as a nurse, but she joins her husband at big events where they sometimes feed 200-300 people within a few hours.
“She’s quick,” he says. “She makes the inside of the kitchen work a lot smoother.”
Musgrave calls his cooking home-style, but adapts it depending on the location and clientele—whether a low-key, casual, street-influenced cuisine or a more sophisticated menu, like the one he offered at a winery event over the summer.
Winters are a tougher for food trucks. Without many festivals, where cities sanction their presence, they aim for lunches at business parks.
Musgrave currently leases a lot on a month-to-month basis with Autowerks where he thinks he can generate a decent clientele if he’s consistent. Nightlife from the and nearby bars generates some traffic, since there aren’t as many restaurant options after 10 p.m.
Karma’s menu changes according to what’s in season, but you can count on several curry plates—including vegetarian and vegan options. I got a to-go order of chicken tikka masala (tomato cream sauce) on a plate with basmati rice and side salad, and Malabar vegetables (spiced coconut sauce) in a wrap with rice and chana (garbanzo beans).
“I’m going to try to hang on and stick it out,” Musgrave said, adding that there is a lot of prep work involved, including shopping for ingredients, cooking, driving to a location and setting up. Factor in a catering license, city permits and insurance and the whole venture starts to get pricey.
Musgrave has faced other stumbling blocks, such as Cotati’s “anti-food truck” policy, the only Sonoma County city that has a no-vending ordinance. He cites Petaluma as one of the cities that allows a use-permit, although there are still some gray areas.
Though there’s been a resurgence of street food culture in cities like San Francisco and Portland, Musgrave says that Sonoma County hasn’t quite caught on.
“I’m not sure if it’s really part of the dining scene yet. We have a really good response at events, but parked out alone or even grouping several trucks together is still in development.”
Find Karma in the Autowerks parking lot, at East Washington Street and Liberty Tuesdays through Saturdays from 6pm to 9:30pm. Friday and Saturday the truck is on location until 2am.