When I moved to Asheville, the rumors about Chai Pani were intense – they’d just won that James Beard Award, and a seat in their first-come, first-served dining room or patio was the most coveted spot in town for a meal.
I’d known about the restaurant and its adorable storefront on Battery Park Avenue for years, having been visiting town to see family for ages, but it seemed like this humble, tasty shop had become an overnight hit among the best of the best in restaurants.
I didn’t intend to visit the first time I went. Instead, I happened to be walking down the street at the right time on the right day with about an hour to kill and a hunger in my belly. I was able to hop on the list about 10 minutes before they opened, just in time to be part of the first seating of the day.
I dawdled and deleted unneeded emails for 15 minutes or so – not a bad wait at all for downtown Asheville dining, though usually unnecessary for a midweek lunch. Anyway, I was seated as a solo diner at the bar and got to really take in the space.
Chai Pani didn’t strike me as overdone in any way – it looks like a neighborhood-based restaurant, not a place that I’d immediately assume was star-studded in its kitchen cast. But I quickly learned why they are so beloved as I ordered my Kale Pakoras and my Paneer Tikka Roll.
The kale couldn’t have come out more flavorful and crisp, and every sauce was perfect: the raita on the savory cheesy roti burrito, the sweet yogurt sauce and the green chutney for dipping the pakoras. I couldn’t eat everything, so I filled a small to-go box and made my husband eat some of it when I got home.
Chai Pani bills itself as “Indian street food,” focused more on flavors you’d find at carts when you’re on the go rather than something you’d go to eat at a sit-down restaurant. The vibe of many Indian restaurants I’ve visited has always been focused on a saucy dish of some kind, be it a vindaloo or a korma, full of protein and spice, served with flatbread and rice.
This combo does exist on the to-go menu at Chai Pani: for their tasty take on butter chicken, saag paneer (spinach and cheese), cholle garbanzo beans in broth, or lentil soup, you can order sides or take your order to go. The heart of the menu, however, are the chaat (snacks) and the sandwiches, or rolls.
Chaats are referred to as “subtly flavored nibblys and snacks,” and I think that describes them well. Fried balls of chicken and curry are an example, but so are the addictive Matchstick Okra Fries served with a lime wedge, as well as the Green Mango Chaat, which includes peanuts, golden raisins, corn flakes, onion, and cilantro in a bit of a mango salad. The variety is huge, but everything is packed with fresh and spice-laden flavors.
Other parts of the menu include fusion and humor, like the Sloppy Jai, which subs the enigmatic “sloppy joe” mix in a bun for spiced lamb hash covered in tomatoes, ginger, onions, cilantro, and sweet yogurt.
A favorite of mine is the Vada Pav, spicy potato dumplings fried to the shape of small slider burgers and served on buns – they’re easy to eat but full of green and tamarind chutney to add depth and texture distinction. This is flavor-forward food that doesn’t take itself too seriously, focusing instead on making an enjoyable experience.
I haven’t been back in a long time, mostly because life gets busy and I don’t know what the rhythms are now that the furor about getting that big award has died down – it always still seems like a bustling establishment, but maybe not quite as long a waitlist as last year.
Chai Pani has also siphoned off a bit of their crowd by creating a new location/restaurant concept in West Asheville. It’s a turnaround – they’ve been expanding for years, adding a Chai Pani in Decatur, Georgia, and creating a new concept, Botiwalla, in Atlanta and Charlotte. After proving the concept in those new places, they came back home to roost, opening up a shop right on Haywood Street next to the Ingles, in the thick of West Asheville.
Botiwalla’s twist on Indian street food is to focus on the late-night food scene in India, from smoky lamb burgers to Masala Smashed Potatoes, as well as the multi-flavored Desi Salad. I learned that there are Irani cafes in India that serve tea and kababs, run by immigrants to India more than 100 years ago.
Botiwalla’s owner, Meherwan Irani’s own great grandfather owned one, and it was a fusion spot, combining Indian food items with the English colonialists’ high tea and afternoon foods. These cafes have evolved and become their own spaces over the years since, and it is neat to see Irani bring them to life with a modern charm.
I visited the other day and was immediately charmed by the decor of this fast-casual space. The outdoor patio is beautiful, with cheery bright blue chairs and lots of their menu items announced in gold on the windows. When you get inside, the high ceilings and bright environment feel a bit like the vibe of Chai Pani but with its own more casual twist.
However, my favorite aspect is the fake posters all over the store: they’ve taken vintage-looking posters and added Botiwalla in some prominent but clever way. An extremely muscular chicken stands tall on a poster that reads, “Botiwalla makes you strong! Taste and believe!”
My husband tried one of the mango-lassi-like cocktails, which spin in slushy machines at the counter where you place an order. I scanned the menu, seeing a couple of items that had some Chai Pani-like vibes, but seeing a lot of other items too.
This time, I dug into a Chicken Tikka Roll full of that signature chargrilled chicken bursting with flavor due to its marinade (yogurt, lime juice, chili paste, and spices). Their signature slaw, onions, cilantro, and chutney round out the naan bread roll, which simply must be dipped into the raita that comes with it.
I got adventurous and tried the SPDP (puris filled with yogurt, chutney, potatoes, and onions and topped with crunchy noodles). My husband knew to expect for them to be cold, but I did not, so they were a new sensation – I typically expect these flavors in a hot dish, but once you get used to the temperature, the combination of creamy softness and crispy noodles and puri is a festival of texture that’s well worth trying.
Botiwalla felt like such a triumph for the Asheville food scene – while most of us want to eat delicious, top-quality food when we go out, the locals may or may not be able to afford regular nights out at some of the fine dining establishments downtown.
Visiting Chai Pani and Botiwalla gives you a taste of something that isn’t everywhere, something unusual even among other Indian restaurants in the States. Irani could easily have taken his restaurant concepts in a more fine-dining direction. Instead, he brought unusual and tasty flavor combos to the middle market – yes, it’s not bargain-basement dining, but it is absolutely affordable.
I hope to see Botiwalla full of casual lunch diners grabbing a bite during work, since it is that kind of price point. You can make it a big night with a boozy slushie, an appetizer, and a sweet milk dumpling coated in rose and cardamom syrup for dessert (look for Gulab Jamun!), but you can also just eat your Boti Rice Bowl full of fried onions, rice, tomatoes, mint, cilantro, and chargrilled meat and then get back to your busy life.
Getting to know the influence of Meherwan Irani’s restaurant empire is to realize that he’s truly committed to the flavor experience. Take one of his other businesses, Spicewalla, for example. This company started to supply high-quality spices to restaurants – if Irani couldn’t find the right suppliers for top-quality spices, he’d make that supplier himself!
But now, Spicewalla is a cherished institution in Asheville. Our real estate agent congratulated us when we closed on our home by giving us a set of spices from Spicewalla. In many prominent spots around town, from La Bodega by Cúrate to High Five Coffee, I find collaboration spice blends where Spicewalla has put together a wonderful mixture that also fits the flavor profile of a beloved Asheville restaurant.
While not everyone is initially drawn to the bold, spice-forward flavors of India, I think that any adventurous eater in Asheville will find something to love at these two restaurants. Either purely for the impressive community that has arisen around the Chai Pani restaurant group or because of their substantial investment in the local restaurant scene as well as the elevation of this area’s tourism draw on a national scale, you’ll find these spots special.
It’s rare to get to sample flavor combos created by such well-known chefs without paying Michelin-star prices, so I for one will be stopping by much more often in the coming months.