Holy Masala, Batman! It’s Chai Pani!
You’ll excuse me if I gush.
If Asheville’s culinary landscape were a dog show, Mela would be the Springer Spaniel. Regal, beautiful, polished, used to winning.
India Garden might be more like a Basset Hound. Full of sweetness and character, with a charming, pleasant demeanor. However, a little droopy or droll.
And this year, Best in Show goes to Chai Pani. In this scenario, the Golden Retriever. Simple, comforting, loving, friendly, and most of all, affordable.
Don’t get me wrong, I love all of these breeds and/or restaurants very much, and would be devastated if one ever cancelled out another.
Okay. Done with dog metaphors. (Can you tell I’m a new dog-owner?)
Chai Pani has been open for five days, and I’ve already eaten there on three separate ocassions. I can’t get enough. I have never been to India, so I’m no expert on authentic Indian street food, but I’m sufficiently thrilled by the idea of it. At Chai Pani, I have yet to experience the requisite heaviness that comes with Indian cuisine. All that rich sauce and dark meat tends to send me into a food coma before I’ve hit the street. Chai Pani’s fare is refreshing and light, something that doesn’t often come to mind when I consider going out for Indian. The menu is also mostly vegetarian, with some poultry exceptions.
Entering Chai Pani feels a little bit like arriving late to a party. The place looks fun, it’s happening, everyone’s glad to see you, but you feel like you’ve missed something important. It’s clear the staff are all friends, and while the community feeling is nice, I don’t necessarily feel invited to stay. The casual atmosphere could be mistaken for something like a fast food joint. I would prefer to be invited to sit with my friends and sip chai all afternoon long if I so desire, but that doesn’t seem to be the standard operating procedure. (Maybe it’s because the one thing on the menu that does hit the wallet a little too hard is the chai.)
The Thali plate is nearly revelatory in its devotion to colorful, tasty bites of various courses. The word that leaps out here is balanced. Their chapati tasted light and crisp, the chicken masala was hearty without any creamy weight, and the various chutneys complimented with bright and fresh flavors. I loved my order of okra fries, although I thought the portion too sparse. The texture of Chai Pani’s samosas are dreamy: creamy spiced potato filling encased in a thick, perfectly crispy exterior.
They also offer Indian sandwiches. I ordered the Kheema Pav, or “Sloppy Jai,” as it’s referred to on the menu. This spiced, ground turkey on a burger bun was aptly named. My partner-in-dine loved his Indian sloppy joe.
The drink menu certainly seems authentic. Lassis, chai, and lime rickey to name a few. But according to various sources who have lived in India for various lengths of time, the drinks are meant to be sweet. At Chai Pani, the burden of sweetening chai lies with the customer, and the mango lassi wasn’t nearly sweet enough. Perhaps this is a personal preference, but I like my chai and mango lassis sweet enough to stand up to the fresh and savory flavors of the meal.
Overall, I am just overjoyed about Chai Pani’s presence on the dining scene. Their food reminds me of the meals my friend Tuhin’s mom used to make when I went to his house for dinner in high school. I welcome this restaurant to downtown Asheville with arms wide open.
I suggest you get yourself to Chai Pani, and fast. Because the secret’s out, folks. They’ve had to close daily from 2:30-5:30 because the lunch rush has drained them of their stock. Hopefully these fine visionaries will get some rest, get the kinks out, and be ready to serve their hungry public from 11-10 like their website originally advertised. Their not-so-soft opening just proves my oft-repeated point: Asheville is more than ready for cheap, authentic ethnic cuisine. Here’s hoping Chai Pani tolls the bell for Vietnamese Pho, Korean BBQ, Dim Sum, and other gastronomic delights from the other side of the world. See, we’re not scared.