Indian Street Food…don’t the very words conjure up the smells, sounds, and sights of exotic locales? Can’t you just see the colorful, jostling streets with vendors barking out invitations to their delicious wares…the heady smell of baking bread? That’s kind of what it’s like when you enter Chai Pani, in downtown Asheville, only much more orderly. The walls are covered with beautiful, technicolor photographs of Indian life and the delicious, spicy-smelling food whizzing by contributes to the mouthwatering sensory delight.
AY ordered the nightly special, which was Saag Paneer. I chose one of the sandwiches, called Vada Pav, because I’ve eaten a lot of Indian food in my day, but never Indian food in a bun. The sandwich was potato dumpling that had been fried in chickpea batter. Since I’d been craving potatoes all day, it seemed like a good choice. I decided to go with the side salad rather than the fries, since, let’s face it, that would have been a lot of potatoes. We also had samosas as an appetizer.
AY - Having lived in India for over 2 years and eaten everything from 5 star hotel food, to street food, to good ole simple home cooking; I was quite familiar with the menu at Chai Pani. It definitely fits in the category of “Indian Street Food” – but in a lot cleaner environment. The menu is simple and the food well prepared.
The samosas were tasty, and definitely spicy. I only ate a few bites, but could definitely appreciate both the samosas themselves and the tamarind and green chutneys. When my salad showed up, I had one single reaction, and you’ll have to pardon my language here: beet! (I try to refrain from using four-letter words in the blog, but this one just kind of slipped out.) Beets might be my least-favorite vegetable on the planet. I read an article once where Michelle Obama said she and the Prez believe there must be a beet gene, and he doesn’t have it. Clearly, neither do I. I am, however, a professional amateur vegetarian food reviewer, so I “manned up,” so to speak, and ate the dang beets. You know what? They weren’t half bad. Kind of earthy, a little sweet, but certainly not offensive. The rest of the salad with the magnificent cilantro-cumin-lime dressing, more than made up for any sense of discomfort they initially caused. And if you like beets, like my husband does (bless his little heart), you’re really going to be impressed!
The sandwich itself was good. It was extremely spicy, and just a little on the dry side, but with the addition of some more of the salad dressing and then the raita when the dressing ran out, it was quite tasty. The raita was also quite handy for bringing down some of the heat in the sandwich.
AY – I don’t handle a lot of spicy food well (how did I survive India??!!), especially at night; so I just ordered a bowl of Saag Paneer and a Paratha. I also had a Samosa for an appetizer. Traditionally, the chutneys for samosas are in separate dishes so you can add the chutney (or not) to your taste. At Chai Pani, the chutney is already draped over the samosas and as a result the samosas are very spicy (however tasty) – at least to my preference. I would have preferred the chutney on the side.
Saag Paneer is a staple on menus in both North and South India; but it’s more of a North Indian dish. Saag (spinach) is combined with Paneer (fresh cheese cubes) and prepared with wonderful spices – sometimes including tomatoes. The dairy in the paneer neutralizes the acidic properties of spinach to make a balanced dish. In India, spinach (high in oxalic acid) is almost always combined with cheese or some other form of dairy. Palak Paneer is another name for this dish. All of that being said, I really enjoyed the dish. It wasn’t overly spicy or oily and it set well in my stomach (digestion wise). The paratha (Indian flatbread) was a little heavier than the traditional version, but satisfying.
We didn’t have dessert here (all of us were too full after dinner), but they do have them. They also have a variety of delicious-sounding drinks, both of the alcoholic and the non-alcoholic variety. All the drinks are Indian-themed, and seem very creative and playful, which made me want to come later to try one of them. Finally, for our vegan and/or gluten-free friends, never fear–they have the gluten-free choices and vegan choices clearly marked with a g or a v, and there are many many gs and vs on the menu. There’s also a mysterious m (for “mind-blowing,” if I remember correctly), but I never found an item with that designation beside it. I give them style points for that one, though.