Star of India

Star of India, an award-winning restaurant in western Little Rock (Pulaski County), has become a renowned part of Arkansas’s cuisine scene since its establishment in 1993. It is said to have been the state’s first Indian restaurant and has become known not only for its food but also for its service under the charismatic personality of chef/owner Sami Lal.

Born in the Indian state of Punjab in 1956, Lal has said that he took an interest in cooking at an early age by watching his mother prepare the family’s meals. In 1979, he left for Hamburg, Germany, to attend cooking school. While a student, he found work at a local restaurant, starting as a dishwasher and quickly working his way up to a chef position. He eventually became the executive head chef, responsible for training almost twenty junior chefs and staff members in the art of cooking continental cuisine.

Finishing culinary school in 1982, Lal left Germany to pursue his dream of having his own restaurant in the United States. He moved to Dallas, Texas, where he became part owner of an Indian restaurant there. During his decade-long tenure in Dallas, Lal became friendly with visitors from Arkansas who encouraged him to open his own restaurant in Little Rock. Throughout 1992, Lal left Dallas at 4:00 a.m. on his only day off, making the weekly drive to Little Rock to scout locations. On these travels, he noted that not only were there no Indian restaurants in Little Rock, there were also none that he could find elsewhere in Arkansas.

On one of these scouting trips, he located a spot in Westchase Plaza at 301 North Shackleford Road, which remains the restaurant’s location. In developing his restaurant, he built arches and painted the interior in a style reminiscent of Indian culture, adding tapestries and playing soft Indian music in the background. He also planned to cook each order with fresh spices, which not only flavored the food but provided customers with the savory aroma of Indian cooking.

In 1993, Star of India opened to the public, and it soon attracted a faithful clientele. The restaurant offers traditional dishes including basmati rice, biryani, chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, chutney, curries, mango ice cream, naan bread, saag paneer, samosas, and a number of plant-based items such as vegetable korma. Diners have given Star of India rave reviews not only for the food but also for the service and hospitality. Lal has said he treats his customers the same way he would if they were guests at his house. Proclaiming “Welcome home!” to those entering the restaurant, he is often able to greet repeat customers by name.

Through the years, Sami Lal’s family has been a familiar presence at the restaurant. They include his wife Suman Rani, whom he met in Punjab, as well as his three daughters Joyti, Deepali, and Shibani. They did their homework at the restaurant after school, later taking jobs there such as answering the telephone, filling to-go orders, and helping with web design, public relations, and marketing.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down restaurants, Star of India offered to-go family meal packs, which were delivered to customers in their cars and were an immediate hit. In the summer months when COVID restrictions were still in place, Star of India staff handed out free ice cream in the parking lot to customers waiting in their cars. In addition, a portion of the profits from the popular family packs went toward assistance for first responders and healthcare workers. During this time, Sami Lal visited area hospitals, where he donated food for as many as 100 people.

Star of India has won numerous People’s Choice awards over the years in statewide publications such as the Arkansas Times. In 2021, the Division of Arkansas Heritage announced that Star of India would be inducted into that year’s Arkansas Food Hall of Fame, which recognizes the state’s most iconic restaurants. To be considered by the selection panel for the Hall of Fame, restaurants must be owned and operated in Arkansas as well as being in business for at least twenty-five years.

For additional information:
Brinkley, Rhett. ”Arkansas’s Star from India: Sami Lal.” Arkansas Times, February 2021, pp. 34–36. Online at (accessed March 29, 2023).

Cia, Jennifer Christman. “Esteemed Cuisine—Arkansas Food Hall of Fame Inducts Fifth Class.” Arkansas Living, March 28, 2021. (accessed March 29, 2023).

“Food Insider: Sami Lal of Star of India.” Rock City Eats, January 18, 2018. (accessed March 29, 2023).

Koon, David. “Working the Floor with Sami Lal, the Nicest Little Rock Restaurateur.” Arkansas Times, March 17, 2016. (accessed March 29, 2023).

Star of India. (accessed March 29, 2023).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society


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