JUNE 14, 2022
“Brightly-flavoured nibbles and snacks served by street vendors all over India. At $8.49.” The flavour burst that a bite-sized morsel gets you at a modest price is the reason why Chai Pani, which serves affordable Indian street food in North Carolina, has been named the best restaurant in America.
The Asheville eatery was named “America’s most Outstanding Restaurant” at the James Beard Foundation Awards in Chicago on Monday, topping nominees such as Brennan’s in New Orleans. Although Chai Pani opened its first outlet in downtown Asheville in 2009, in just over a decade it has expanded its footprint with eight restaurants, spread over Atlanta and Charlotte. Its sister company, Spicewalla, is not only a hit with home kitchens across the country, but is also being used by restaurant chefs across US.
So what has worked for Chai Pani as a global Indian brand? In a country that is the capital of “food on the go”, it has elevated chaat as a worthy snack and catapulted a massy obsession to a classy statement, beating cult favourites. It has beaten many multicultural cuisines with its diversity, leading Indian domination of that space. Besides, in a world of conscientious eating, dominated by vegetarianism and veganism, Chai Pani has emerged as the perfect reason for conversion, where sustainable eating is not just a bland compromise but a sinful indulgence.
The chaat is just an entry point. As its homepage reads, “Some of the best food of any country is its street food, and Chai Pani features chaat — crunchy, spicy, sweet, tangy, brightly flavoured Indian street snacks. And because there’s nothing more comforting and delicious in any culture than a home-cooked meal, Chai Pani also brings you thalis — traditional family meals highlighting India’s amazing culinary diversity.” That’s why it has also featured in one of New York Times’ 50 favourite restaurants.
Its bestsellers happen to be simple and no-nonsense — Bhelpuri, Sev Dahi Puri, Corn Bhel, Green Mango Chaat, Potato Chaat, Aloo Tikki, Kale Pakoras and, of course, given the acceptability of crepes in the US, the uttapam. They have even made a virtue out of our good old desi salad, topping it up with a cumin-lime vinaigrette. There’s also the Julienned Okra Fries. Tossed with salt and seasoning and served with a lime wedge, this one has been touted as the chef’s signature dish.
There are the non-vegetarian hits too, but they tread the path of familiarity. There are Chicken Pakoras with Kashmiri spices, Keema Pav, Lamb Burgers, the Chicken Tikka Roll and curry bowls.
The New York Times was particularly taken by its “fresh, cilantro-strewn takes on Indian street food,” while GQ Magazine lauded its “Indian street food with a twang”. The honours were awarded after two years, having been cancelled in 2020 and 2021.