By Hope S. Philbrick
“This is the best meal I’ve had in years,” says my lunch companion, who routinely shuns solid foods in favor of juice diets. I’m kind of flabbergasted that she’s eating chicken: I have never seen her eat meat.
As readers well know, I eat a wide variety of foods at lots of different places. Yet I can’t disagree with her assessment. It’s not just her grateful taste buds talking. The food is fantastic.
It’s also very pretty, with bright colors mounded on shining silver trays. It looks good, smells good, tastes good and is even good for you. It’s also reasonably priced. Thus, it’s easy to predict that the new Chai Pani in Decatur, Ga., will not only thrive, it will certainly become too popular for its limited parking lot.
Conceived by husband and wife team Meherwan and Molly Irani, Chai Pani first wowed diners in Asheville, N.C. This second location opened on March 1. (It’s inside the space formerly occupied by Watershed.)
The menu is billed as “authentic street food specialties as diverse as India’s own culture.” I’ve never been to India, so I’ll have to take that claim at face value. According to press materials, “Indian cuisine in America is often dominated by northern Indian influences; the Iranis, craving the flavors served throughout the ‘rest of the country,’ have set out to change the preconceived notions that many Americans have about Indian food.”
“I wanted to bring the rest of India to the table—the colorful, vibrant and exquisite flavor profiles, the innovative regional diversity, the fun, the excitement, the bright flavors of street food and the simple refinement and comfort of home cooking,” says Meherwan.
Chai Pani offers a variety of self-described “mindblasting” options ranging from chaat (small plates) and a line-up of “greatest hit” Indian street sandwiches, to uttapam (Indian crepes), thalis (traditional entrees), desserts, beverages and signature cocktails.
On three visits, I’ve been consistently impressed with the quality and flavor of the food. Days after my lunch visit with one friend, I find myself having dinner there with another friend, who is impressed by it even though she generally dislikes spicy fare.
Chai Pani’s signature item is hand-julienned okra that’s flash fried and tossed in a secret spice blend to create okra fries, a dish that gained a cult-like following at the Asheville location. The first time I tried the dish, it had been overcooked to black. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. On a second visit, when the server raved about the okra fries, I said that I didn’t want any and explained why. She brought some as a persuasive sample and, this batch cooked to perfection, proved they are delicious and addictive.
Other signature items include vada pav, a spicy potato dumpling fried in curried chickpea batter topped with green and tamarind chutneys served in a toasted sweet bun. The ‘Sloppy Jai,’ a spicy, aromatic lamb hash served on two slider-sized soft buns, is Chai Pani’s spin on the traditional kheema pav. It’s divine improvement on the American Sloppy Joe.
Thalis are described as “a traditional Indian meal featuring a daily selection of regional dishes that highlight the country’s culinary diversity”—think “sampler plate.” Vegetarian and non-vegetarian varieties are served with fragrant basmati rice, daal, sabji, raita, roti, kachumber, papadum and a dessert of the day (such as rice pudding).
The key is, you need not be familiar with Indian words to know what to order. English descriptions are on the menu, staff members are happy to explain, and everything is tasty so it’s not like you can go wrong.
Beverages, also inspired by Indian street foods, lean sweet. My recommendation: Order the Taj Mahal beer; you’ll get two glassfuls from one bottle.
Buying local, seasonal and fresh ingredients is part of Chai Pani’s mission. Chicken is natural and sustainably raised—appealing to even former vegetarians. In fact, all of Chai Pani’s meat and dairy products are all-natural and antibiotic- and hormone-free. Foods are prepared with pure trans-fat free canola oil or ghee (clarified butter) and there are no artificial flavors or ingredients in any menu item.
For authenticity, select specialty items are imported from India. Spice blends are always freshly roasted and ground, and all chutneys and sauces are prepared in house.
Whether you’re a yoga fan or merely admire cleverness, a T-shirt from Chai Pani is a must: The back is emblazoned with the catch phrase, “Namaste Y’all.”
406 W. Ponce de Leon Avenue
Decatur GA 30030
-Photos Courtesy The Reynolds Group for Chai Pani
Thanks to Chai Pani for hosting media at a grand opening event; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.