Food
The 36-year-old eatery has a loyal fanbase that comes from all over Chennai to savour its inimitable mutton and fish dishes.

A little over a kilometre from the Mandaveli Railway station on the busy RK Mutt Road stands a small shop that’s hard to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for. But just say the name Trouser Kadai, and just about every passerby can tell you just where to go.

 The name might instantly make one think of a garment store. But this popular landmark, started in 1977 by Virudhunagar native R Rajendran is a mecca of food – serving up biriyanis, payas, and chukkas that people come from all over to Chennai to partake in.

The unusual name came, as these things often do, from customers’ associations with the eatery. Originally called Arunagiri Hotel, it became Appa Kadai, as customers grew accustomed to Rajendran appa (father). But over time, it was Rajendran’s trademark shorts that people began to most associate with the eatery, and it was eventually rechristened Trouser Kadai.

Image: Fish fry

Rajendran, now 73-years-old but still keeping an eagle eye on the restaurant, says that he came into the food business by accident. He and his family arrived in Chennai in 1977, seeking treatment for his daughter’s mental illness at the Institute of Child Health and Hospital for Children at Egmore. Looking for a way to support his family, Rajendran rented a small shop and began the eatery.

Tragically, however, his daughter passed away two years later. But Rajendran and his family stayed on in the city, and he continued running the restaurant with his two sons.

Rajendran says that when he first started the eatery, he didn’t know how to cook any of the dishes on its menu. However, he wasn’t afraid to plunge in and build his skills from scratch, guided by the two cooks he had first hired. “They taught me how to prepare each masala and how to cook each dish. After they left, I have been handling the cooking in the restaurant all these years.”

Trouser Kadai is all about substance over style. There is no fancy board to announce itself, and inside the paint peels off the walls and the floor shows years-old cracks. But faithful customers swear by the restaurant’s delicious mutton and fish dishes.

“On Tuesdays and Fridays, we serve mutton paya, and on Wednesdays we serve mutton biriyani. Customers love dishes like mutton chukka, fish fry and paya,” says Rajendran. The mutton kola urundai and the fish kuzhambu also have their loyal votaries.

What also has customers coming back often to the eatery is the very modest price of dishes, with most mutton fries and curries still priced between Rs 80 and Rs 120.

However, business at Trouser Kadai is not as brisk as it used to be, says Rajendran.  “Earlier about 200 people would come and eat here daily, but now the number has fallen to about 100 or 150 people.”

Image: Mutton Chukka

With restaurants and fast food chains popping up everywhere, he explains, the number of new customers walking into Trouser Kadai has fallen. While he has long wanted to upgrade his modest eatery, he adds, the modest prices he has always charged have left little funds to do so.

“There is nothing to save after all the expenses of buying ingredients and paying the workers. In all the 39 years, I have probably been able to make about Rs 2-3 lakh as revenue,” says Rajendran.

Despite such troubles, however, Trouser Kadai has a USP that newer restaurants don’t offer – the inimitable taste of traditional, slow-cooked food prepared with care. “We still grind all our own masalas and don’t use any packaged masalas. And all our food is still cooked on firewood,” explains Rajendran.

No wonder the restaurant still boasts of a loyal fanbase that even includes celebrities like actors Ajith and Kamal Haasan.

Image: Rajendran

(Article edited by Rakesh Mehar)