Step inside Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina for weekday lunch and it might feel far-fetched that head chef Meherwan Irani was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the "Best Chef: Southeast" category this year. It took me a minute to realize I should seat myself, and then more time before noticing that I had to pick up a menu from the podium and order at the counter/bar. That said, Chai Pani does offer table service during dinner, as well as weekend lunch.
Regardless, the tide turned at the counter, when I sensed that I was in for something special. The staff is warm, very proud of the food, and eager to offer suggestions. Prices, already reasonable, became almost ridiculous when I was given the option to order half-portions for more tasting opportunity. The posted thalis of the day looked interesting, as did the wraps and uttapam (savory Indian crepes) that I saw diners eating at the counter, but I was here for Chai Pani's Chaat—a representation of the savory snacks you'd find street vendors serving throughout India. In fact, though Chai Pani literally means "tea and water," it's also slang for going out to enjoy a tasty snack and perhaps a cup of tea.
My must-have item was the Sloppy Jai ($8.49), their play on kheema pav. The spicy curry hails from the streets of Mumbai, made with minced meat (mutton, goat, chicken, etc.) and served with bread. Chai Pani's version uses lamb, which is simmered with tomatoes, ginger, and aromatic spices. One order contains two slider-style sandwiches, the curried meat served on toasted buns and topped with onions, cilantro, green chutney, and sweet yogurt. I was immediately enamored with the bold and bright flavors, with pickled cabbage an appropriately acidic counterpoint.
I contemplated a wide variety of tempting sides, like the Masala Fries or Matchstick Okra Fries, but I ultimately settled on Kale Pakoras ($3.99 for a half-portion, pictured) to satisfy my craving. These savory kale fritters are made with a thick, curried chickpea batter, for an extremely crunchy, super-addictive salty snack. I found myself alternating between the accompanying dips of green chutney and sweet yogurt, each uniquely satisfying and enjoyable.
To round out my lunch, I got an order of Green Mango Chaat ($3.99 for a half-portion, pictured). The dish is a flurry of flavors and textures, with ingredients that include fresh green mango, peanuts, golden raisins, corn poha (Indian corn flakes), onions, cilantro, green chutney, tamarind chutney, and fried curry leaves. With the sweet and savory combined, I actually saved some bites as my "dessert" to end a delicious lunch at this unique, destination-worthy restaurant.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.