By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Aug 08, 2011 at 9:01 AM

The Walker's Point neighborhood around 1st and Bruce has always been gritty, sweaty and plain spoken. Throughout the city's history, it has been the turf of the working man and woman, the folks who get paid by the hour.

While the foundries and factories have almost entirely disappeared, there is still a distinctly blue collar character to the territory. Gentrification may be trying to creep southward from the Third Ward, but this neighborhood is standing firm in staying true to its roots.

Some of the most convincing evidence is presented by the emergence of a strip of small and modest restaurants flanking a large Mobil gas station and convenience store that stretches between 1st and 2nd Streets. Called Walker's Point Plaza, the mini-mall faces south, with its back to Bruce Street.

Gyros Palace, a Greek eatery with a $10.99 lamb chop dinner as the most expensive item on its menu, is on the 2nd Street end of the strip. Times Square Bistro and Pizzeria sells pizza by the slice, inexpensive pasta dishes and imaginative sandwiches. Owner Sean Henninger is also a master chocolatier, and he operates his Atomic Chocolate Co. out of his notably unpretentious restaurant.

Sarina's deli and cafe inside the Mobil convenience store offers an assortment of hot and cold items.

The cheerfully colored Cafe India joined the feast a month ago. Described by owner Rakesh Rehan as Milwaukee's first fast food Indian restaurant, it offers a full line of basic entrees and snacks, with full dinners including rice or two roti (unleavened flatbread) for under $9.

Rehan, who uses the nickname Ryan, said he was surprised to discover when he first moved to Milwaukee from India in 2000 that the city had no Indian fast food outlets. As an employe of United Airlines he had traveled the globe, and he said he found at least one small place to get quick Indian food in every major city he visited. His entrepreneurial appetite was whetted.

"Milwaukee needed a joint where you come in, get your food and go," Rehan recently said. "There are many Indian fine dining and buffet places, but no fast food."

After buying a liquor store, Fine Vineyard, on the eastern end of the Walker's Point Plaza strip mall three years ago, Rehan began planning. The American United cab company, which employs a lot of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Arab drivers, is headquarted a block away. Indian fast food would have a built-in customer base in the area.

When a space opened in the mall two doors away from his liquor business, Rehan began acting on his idea. A hobby cook, he and his wife, Naveen, developed the recipes that would be used in the new restaurant.

"I wanted our food to be simple, fresh and Indian. It's the kind of food we cook and eat at home," he said.

"We make our food in small batches. There is no freezer in the restaurant. You know it will be fresh."

Cafe India even makes its own yogurt for curries and mango lassi ($1.99), the drink that blends milk and mango pulp with yogurt.

The food is not heavily spiced. "You don't need to mellow down after eating it. This is everyday Indian food," the owner says.

Rehan met his head chef, Harry Mehda, at the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin in Pewaukee. Both men are active there. "Harry has 22 years of experience as a chef, and I liked his cooking," Rehan explained.

Traditional Indian dishes chicken tikka masala, butter chicken, lamb curry masala, fish curry and chicken biryani are $6.99. Add rice or two roti for $1.99.

Cafe India has a genuine tandoori clay oven, and the items prepared in it include chicken tikka ($7.99 with rice and salad), chicken tandoori ($6.99 for five pieces, $11.99 for 10) and fish pakora ($7.99 with sauce and salad). "Pakora is an Indian fish fry," Rehan says.

"Hardly any oil goes in the fish. It's marinated in lime juice, ginger, garlic and spices, and coated in chickpea flour."

Samosas are $1, and the cafe offers other Indian snacks, appetizers and desserts. A special $7.57 lunch deal includes all of the food that can be piled onto a plate or into a styrofoam container, a roti and soda or a bottle of water. It is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Cafe India has seating for about 15 at high tables in its small dining area, but it is mostly a "quick in, quick out" restaurant, as Rehan puts it. That means carry out.

It is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday, and 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.