For a solid length of time, it seemed like variety was lacking in Asheville’s food scene.
Sure, there was plenty — if not perhaps too much — sushi. Salsa’s scratched an itch for exotic flavors, to a degree. But other “ethnic” food seemed to be somewhat lacking. Luckily, over the past few years, the gods who watch over those of us who prefer samosas and chutney to meat and potatoes saw fit to bestow upon us at least three beyond-serviceable Thai restaurants, a lovely upscale Indian restaurant and seemingly more on a monthly basis. Though the foodie daredevil within prays not so silently for a true-blue Korean or Vietnamese restaurant, the arrival on the scene of restaurants like Chai Pani is encouraging.
This casual Indian eatery bravely occupies a building that had seen the demise of a few other restaurants on Battery Park in downtown Asheville, a seeming bad luck spot for several years. Chai Pani, a small counter service-only restaurant with a big heart, has effectively thumbed its nose at this black hole of commerce, showing that it can run with the big dogs — or at least utilize a combination of business smarts, cooking chops and available technology to its benefit.
To explain: the local social media network was, pardon the pun, all a-twitter about Chai Pani while the restaurant was still in the planning stages. Tech-savvy folks from within the restaurant utilized Twitter heavily to get the word out, and suddenly wired foodies from all over Asheville were re-tweeting opening dates and menu details. The viral marketing campaign was a huge success, as Chai Pani’s opening day was so crowded that the restaurant, somewhat blushingly thankful, ran out of food and had to close up earlier than expected to prepare for the next wave of hungry, curious customers to come.
And come they did, lured by both the buzz and the incredibly, almost ridiculously, affordable Indian menu — there isn’t a single option on that menu that costs over $10. Beyond affordable, the menu is creative. It stretches the fare beyond samosas and dal. The idea centers on Indian street food, the result full of funky goodness and chaat (little bites, essentially) that tend to occasionally nod to our locale. Take the green tomato pakoras — a riff on a deep-fried southern staple seasoned with cumin and other decidedly far eastern spices and served with raita and sweet tomato jam to make a new kind of fusion. No wonder the staff’s t-shirts are printed with the phrase, “Namaste y’all.”
Other examples of this fusion abound in dishes like the okra “fries” tossed in a savory chipotle-spiked spice blend, or the lime-rubbed and seasoned char-grilled corn on the cob. Other street-style menu offerings are familiar and purely Indian, like samosas (spiced potato pastries) and naan bread, but others are new — at least to those of us with a more limited knowledge of Indian street food.
More and more sandwiches from different cultures are showing up on our shores and Chai Pani tops the bunch, providing your fix of exotic sandwiches with offerings like the awesome paneer bhurji, a warm bun stuffed with in-house made Indian farmer’s cheese scrambled with onions, cilantro tomato. The result is slightly sweet, but savory enough and highly satisfying — like a vegetarian sloppy joe. Speaking of, there is also a “sloppy jai,” a variation on the same American classic, a filling mix of ground turkey slow-cooked with tomatoes, potatoes and cilantro and chock-full of Indian flavor. Both are served with the restaurant’s excellent and crisp shoestring masala fries.
My most ordered dish? The vegetarian Thali, a smorgasbord of goodies that rotates every day or so. Regardless of what it is, it’s always quite good and a ridiculous amount of food for the price: the featured dish — usually some sort of curry, like a pumpkin masala or aloo gobi — comes served on a metal platter with dal, papadum, chapati rice and an assortment of condiments, even a tiny dessert in a ramekin.
The staff is, for the most part, quite friendly, and southern hospitality gives this particular restaurant an unusual amount of warmth that has nothing to do with the food. They also serve an excellent chai tea — given the name of the restaurant, they darn well better.