FOR NEW MEXICO FOOD HISTORIANS, the moment was unprecedented. Last fall, Tikka Spice did what no other restaurant had done: The four-year-old Albuquerque food truck took home the triple crown of culinary honors from the annual Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown, beating out 15 other contenders to nab the distinctions of Reigning Chomp, Secret Judges’ Award, and People’s Choice.
“It was a total shocker, winning that,” Tikka Spice owner Basit Gauba remembers. “We were up against some pretty heavy hitters.” The momentum generated by the Smackdown trifecta has since fueled a new venture: a food truck called Stackers Burger Co., which sells a lineup that includes the award-winning Duke City Smash Burger. Of the recipe that made his green chile cheeseburger a juggernaut, the Pakistan-born Gauba will only say that he combines several heat levels of Bueno chile to achieve consistency.
Stackers, Tikka Spice, and another sister restaurant, KūKri Chicken (located in 505 Central Food Hall), are all properties of Gauba’s growing fusion-food fleet under the Tikka Spice umbrella. Gauba specializes in what he calls “Desi street food,” infusing South Asian flavors into portable eats such as tacos, fried chicken sandwiches, and burgers. Whole spices are imported from India, then roasted and ground at Tikka Spice’s commissary. Earlier this year, Gauba, who has never had any formal culinary training, racked up another honor as the only Albuquerque chef to be nominated for a 2023 James Beard award.
Inspired by the movie Chef, Gauba began Tikka Spice as a pop-up for community events. “Nobody in New Mexico does a halal green chile cheeseburger or a halal chicken sandwich,” he says. “We wanted to offer that to the people.” After becoming the third owner of a former horse trailer, he outfitted it as a food truck using “a lot of YouTube tutorials,” then built Tikka Spice’s reputation on chicken tikka tacos, served with pickled onions and mint raita sauce. Butter chicken and chickpea curries followed, along with a spicy fried chicken sandwich—which ignited the KūKri Chicken spinoff, centered on extra-hot tikka tender sammies.
Although Tikka Spice’s Albuquerque brick-and-mortar location closed when its lease expired, Stackers will open in a space downtown later this year, while KūKri will gain a truck. Gauba posts the trucks’ schedules online, noting that customers’ orders change depending on where each eatery ends up. “When we’re downtown, it’s chicken sandwiches and tacos. In Nob Hill, it’s vegetarian stuff, like the chana masala bowl. In Corrales, we sling burgers all day long.”
People come prepared for the heat. “Our food is very unapologetic,” Gauba says. “It’s going to be spicy.”