Why you should care
Because when this food hits it big in the American South, you know globalization is happening.
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The lunch rush has quelled, but our table at Chai Pani is practically creaking under all the food. Thick, puffy bhatura (bread) with chole (chickpea) — a classic home-style food — right alongside something you’d never see on your auntie’s table: kale pakoras (fritters) and green mango chaat (mishmashed snacks). Just don’t expect to find this kind of unconventional spin in snack shops within India. “Americans come in and are like, ‘Where’s the naan?’ ” says Meherwan Irani, owner and cofounder of Chai Pani, Atlanta’s only known hipster-approved Indian street-food joint. “We had to do a lot of re-education.”
Here in Decatur, near Emory University and the dignified Driving Miss Daisy neighborhoods, the Southerners appear to have passed New Indian Food 101 with flying colors. Irani and his wife, Molly, have pulled off something slightly unthinkable: an offbeat, funky Indian restaurant that refuses to serve standard, creamy curries — in the American South. Chai Pani’s original location in Asheville, North Carolina, has been lauded by the New York Times’ travel section as a must-eat spot, and it’s on just about every Atlanta top-restaurant list. Its head chef here in the ATL landed on Zagat’s 30 under 30 awards for the city, and Meherwan himself was nominated for a Best Chef in the Southeast Award by the James Beard Foundation.
So-called “ethnic” cuisine is on the rise in Georgia’s capital, says local restaurant blogger Sasha Taratov, but he adds the most popular spots are still dominated by people from those cultural communities. Which makes Chai Pani unique and places it less among the ethnic and more among an Atlanta with a revitalized urban center, full of walking paths and farmers’ markets and all things requisite-hipster. And it’s part of a national, even international, trend of cooler Indian cuisine: No more oily curries; Indian restaurateurs from Mumbai to San Francisco are making their fare cool by doing the street-food thing. Consider it part of the assimilation effect.
Meherwan, who was never formally trained as a chef, worked in the auto industry and then real estate. Until 2009 hit.
The Iranis are warm, like they’re having me over for chai. “Eat, eat, we can talk later!” Meherwan — a jolly, thick-bearded man with a big voice — says more than once. The couple’s easiness belies how difficult running a restaurant is — let alone running a restaurant together. Molly knows firsthand; raised in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, she grew up working in her family’s French patisserie-slash-café, Latif’s. She saw her mom and stepfather dealing with the day-to-day madness of a volatile operation up close. And professional challenges for anyone in the food biz, particularly in Atlanta’s crowded restaurant scene, Taratov says, remain.
And yet it seems almost inevitable that this is what the couple wound up doing together. They met when Meherwan, then a graduate student, waited tables at Latif’s to earn extra cash. He was “the worst waiter ever,” Molly says. But wait, they hedge — their love story actually goes back further, to childhood. This South Carolina Jewish girl and the London-born boy raised in a rural Indian town in Maharashtra — where, he tells me, refrigerators were scarce, and the milk guy and egg guy delivered the day’s rations every morning — actually knew each other as children.
They would tell you it’s an unlikelier story. Meherwan, who was never formally trained as a chef, worked in the auto industry and then real estate. Until the 2009 housing crunch. The Iranis — who had moved from the Bay Area to Asheville a few years before — knew opening a small business didn’t seem much smarter, especially an Indian restaurant in “a town with no Indians,” but Meherwan convinced Molly. They maxed out credit cards and called on friends — high school teachers, former actors — to work on the new project. Now, she calls him a “natural entrepreneur.”
Indeed, it’s kind of in his blood; he’s the son of a man who was nearly blind most of his life but fittingly enough made sound his life’s work, becoming an audio engineer, recording ambient sounds of the Far East to be used abroad. His mother, who cared for the father and opened up an export business on the side, was the original Chai Pani chef, the one who trained the Iranis’ gang of American chefs. The result: Head chef Daniel Peach, a gangly Southern boy who in high school “didn’t really know where India was,” now speaks perfect Hindi and has “felt a nostalgia for the food, for the stories — even though I’d never even been to India.”
It’s a curated nostalgia that defines Chai Pani’s vibe: On the walls are vintage Bollywood posters. Out by the cash register, on nights with long lines, guests can play carrom, an Indian board game beloved among grandparents. Original photography, shot in the Maharashtra village from which Meherwan hails, is mounted on the wall alongside the bar that serves Mumbai Mojitos and East India G&Ts. Oh, and there’s the merchandise booth, neatly positioned at the front of the store, where T-shirts boast an appropriate slogan: Namaste, y’all.
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