It may look like business as usual from the outside, but those walking into the old Stockman’s Steakhouse building on North First Street will be in for a surprise — it’s now home to an Indian restaurant and buffet.

“We will change [the signs] within a week or so,” said co-owner Gaurav Bhatia, who stood in the middle of a bustling lunch crowd on Friday, the restaurant’s third day of operations. Soon, he said, the outside of the building will bear the new restaurant’s name, Indian Kitchen and Steakhouse. The inside of the building, too, looks familiar, with the booths and decor still the same. Even the menus still bear Stockman’s name, and offer the same fare. The biggest difference is a buffet filled with eight to 10 steaming Indian dishes, from Tandoori chicken and saag paneer to chana masala and vegetable korma.

Bhatia, who opened the restaurant with his wife, Rosy Sidhu and his cousin, Ramandeep Singh Malhi, said the idea for opening an Indian restaurant in Hermiston came together quickly.

“A lot of our customers have been asking. People wanted healthy food in town,” he said. Bhatia and his wife also own the Eastside Market in Hermiston and the Irrigon Mini-Mart.

Bhatia said he and his family first discussed the idea about three months ago, and moved quickly when an opportunity arose to buy Stockman’s.

He admitted that Indian food and a steakhouse are an uncommon mix, but said it came down to an opportunity.

“It was a space in town we could get into, and it was a good location,” he said. “I know it’s a different type of combination, but hopefully it will work out.”

Though there will still be steaks and traditional American fare available, Bhatia said there will be a heavy focus on introducing customers to different types of Indian food — both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

He said so far, the reception has been positive on social media and in person.

“People wanted to try new stuff,” he said, referring to the recent growth of food options in Hermiston. “They wanted to try Chinese, Thai, Japanese — and Indian, too.”

He said so far, the most popular dishes have been chicken tikka masala, Tandoori chicken, lamb curry, and spinach pakora — spinach dipped in batter and deep-fried.

Customers at lunch on Friday were eager to try the food — some for the first time.

“Growing up here, all we had was Chinese, pizza and Mexican food,” said Dan Schulz, who visited the lunch buffet with his friends. “This is a great addition.”

Schulz had never tried Indian food prior to Friday, but loaded up his plate anyway with things he thought looked good. Later, he was spotted going back for seconds.

Hermiston residents Mo Aguilar and Otey Muniz said it had been more than a decade since they’d eaten Indian food, but they were excited to have the option in Hermiston.

“As of lately, I’ve seen more variety,” Muniz said. “Especially with this place and the Hibachi place — I think people want more.”

The restaurant’s chef is from Oklahoma, but many of the servers and chefs cooking American food are staff from the original Stockman’s restaurant. The owners of the former restaurant, Chuck and Karen Fontaine, were also there, helping out and spending time at the restaurant.

Bhatia and his family live in the Tri-Cities, and moved to the area about two years ago from Bellingham, Washington.

He said they get supplies from a restaurant depot in Portland, an Indian store in Auburn, Washington, and from Cash and Carry.

Bhatia said they will do some painting and minor changes, but their focus will be on the food. Sidhu was busy restocking clean glasses and plates, and taking fresh naan to people as they ate.

She said the buffet, which is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., will feature different dishes every day.

The buffet will include dishes from north and south India, she said. They will also add Indian dishes to the menu.

“Business has been pretty steady,” she said. “We’re glad people are liking it.”

The restaurant is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and until 10 p.m. on weekends. The buffet starts at 11 a.m.

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Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at jramakrishnan@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4534

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