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Chaat me up

Indian fast food debuts in the University area

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Editor's Note: This restaurant has closed.

Who can resist the aroma of roasting chestnuts during crisp autumn days in New York City? Or grabbing a hot dog off a cart along Tryon, or a gagger (honest -- that's what are they are called) in Rhode Island, a hot tamale from a cart in East L.A., or blue crabs from the Crab Pot on Topsail Island? Ambulant, cart and almost-permanent structure food vendors often elevate street cuisine into an area's iconic gastronomic masterpiece. Who wouldn't agree that funnel cakes eaten as a child at a state fair or barbecue made by churches or Boy Scouts here in Charlotte are not hardwired into our taste memories?

India, too, has a billion or so devotees to Indian street food. In many Indian cities, this fast food has moved from the street to trendy interior malls and permanent structure eateries.

Indian snacks, the fast food of the street, are called chaat which come from a Hindi verb to lick -- as in to lick your plate clean. Chaats, unlike many American one-note fast food items, have that Indian sensibility of balance: crisp to soft, tart to sweet, creamy to spicy. Yet all of these taste sensations occur in the same dish. Yum.

For a while now, ex-pats and Indian cuisine aficionados have bemoaned the fact that Charlotte lacks chaat. This thought also occurred to two couples while earning their master's degrees in civil and environment engineering and computer science at UNCC. Santoh and Ranjitha Pasula, and Radha K. and Bhavana Swayampakala are all natives Hyderabad, a city of six million that is the capital of Andhra Pradesh, a state in south India. They missed their chaat.

The remedy to their problem -- after earning their degrees -- was opening Chaat 'n' Chai, a premium Indian fast food restaurant in the university area last March. The small 48-seat shop is devoid of the theatrics of a full-scale Indian restaurant. Customers order at the front counter and dishes are then delivered to bare-topped tables, often by an owner. Ranjitha Pasula says, "This is like fast food, though not exactly self-service since we will deliver to the table. But we wanted to make our food affordable to everybody -- so to cut costs, we do not have table service."

What they have not cut is the taste. Even though the owners are from southern Indian, their menu includes items from the north, such as lamb entrees and vindaloos. Other menu items include "veggi" and chicken puffs, some Indo-Chinese selections, as well as rice, breads, appetizers and, of course, chaat.

The chefs are a practiced team with 15 years experience. Currently the lamb and goat dishes are halal-certified, and soon halal chicken will be added. Chaat specialties vary from city to city throughout India. Although the owners profess their chaats have a "universal" taste, one colleague of mine from northern India confided in a whisper, "It's southern chaat." But whether southern or northern, Chaat's chaats are sensational.

Take the Paani Puri. This is a platter of slightly larger than golf balls fried puri spheres, which are individually punctured with a thumb, packed with a mix of cubed potatoes and onions and then filled with a watery tamarind sauce. The marvel is when crunched, a juicy explosion sprays the taste buds simultaneously.

Another chaat is Bhel Puri, a plate overflowing with layers of crispy puris, puffed rice, sev (a crispy noodle), cubed potatoes, tomatoes and onions and is drizzled with mint and tamarind chutney. Just as tasty is the Chole Batura. Batura is a puffed, thicker-than-roti, refined white wheat bread, fried and served with chick pea masala. The trick here is to take bread and chick peas, two elemental ingredients, and through the magic of garam masala -- a secret spice blend each chef creates to taste -- transforms the blatantly simple by moving it up a notch in sophistication.

Among Chaat's 13 appetizers are the usual suspects: the ubiquitous samosa and pakora, and a perfectly crisp aloo bondo. But another star of the menu is the incendiary Andhra Mirchi Bajji, a popular food of the owners' state. This is battered and deep-fried chile relleno, a banana pepper stuffed with a sesame seed and powdered coconut mixture, which gives a slightly painfully pleasurable kick.

Among the entrees dishes are a navratan korma which zestily marries vegetables, fruits and nuts, and a hearty malai kofta. Tender lamb cubes come in well-crafted spicy tomato-based curry gravy, sauced over long grain rice.

Drinks include the first rate mango lassi, a mango pulp with yogurt drink, an endless cup of chai and imported and domestic beers.

All dishes can be ordered with a heat level preference, but desserts are designed to extinguish any lingering fires. The house-made almond ice cream or the mildly tangy Ras Malai, a cheese pudding, are both soothing.

This brings me to Chaat's charm. In addition to being a superior summer bargain, (chaats are less than $6, entrees less than $9), how nice it is to have more of the Indian culinary spectrum in town. OK, so maybe the chaats don't muster curry with every ex-pat from the north. Perhaps it's like arguing over barbecue in North Carolina: When it comes right down to it, Chaat's all good.

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