Indian-born, Asheville, N.C.-based restaurateur Meherwan Irani opened his “mindblasting” Indian street food concept, Chai Pani, in Decatur in March 2013.
Three years later, Botiwalla in Ponce City Market features Irani’s creative takes on charcoal-grilled street food, as well as the Parsi cuisine he experienced in Irani cafes in his hometown of Ahmadnagar.
Like at Chai Pani, Irani and his team are sourcing high-quality ingredients, including grass-fed beef and Joyce Farms chicken, and making their own spice blends and sauces.
The menu ranges from snacky chaat favorites, such as savory puffed and stuffed flour crisps, to even more unusual “desi” items, such as tamarind glazed ribs and Botiwalla lamb burger sliders.
“When we first opened Chai Pani in Asheville, back in 2009, it was this concept of bringing Indian street food to America,” Irani said during a recent interview. “But what I really brought was this specific style called chaat. It’s mostly vegetarian. It’s fried. It’s crispy. It’s crunchy. It’s tangy. It’s sweet. It’s samosas slathered in tamarind chutney.
“But that’s just one genre of Indian street food. The other part is what happens at night when the grills fire up and the kebabs come out. If you were in Bombay for the day, you’d see hawkers selling the kind of chaat that we do at Chai Pani. And if you were to come back at night, those guys would be gone and replaced with guys selling juicy grilled meats.”
As far as the specifics of the menu, Irani said the chicken tikka roll is definitely the big seller. “It’s a no-brainer,” he allowed. “Who doesn’t love chicken? And the idea of chicken tikka is so familiar to Americans. But, again, I wanted to keep it really light and really bright.”
Still, desi-style pork ribs may elicit a double-take, even if they are braised with ginger, garlic, soy and star anise and finished with a tamarind-ginger glaze.
“South India was colonized by Europeans and a fair amount of the people are Christian, so growing up, if you were Christian, or Parsi like my family, you didn’t have a problem eating beef or pork,” Irani said. “And, again, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a certain kind of Indian restaurant. I wanted to push those boundaries. But, of course, ribs are iconic here in the South.”
Like all of the food stalls and restaurants at Ponce City Market, Botiwalla has a retail component. And naturally, it features a selection of Indian goods. But the space also has an atmosphere that’s typical of Irani’s youthful and playful approach.
“With Chai Pani, we’ve always found these cool spaces that we’ve been able to customize to fit our look. The patina at Ponce City Market offered an amazing opportunity to do that,” Irani said. “The open feel of the Food Hall is almost like being on a street corner surrounded by stuff.”
In the future, Botiwalla will offer an Irani cafe-style high tea on weekday afternoons, with chai and a variety of accompaniments, including Portuguese-style soft rolls and Persian-style baklava.
“That’s still a work in progress,” Irani said. “But the style of Botiwalla is the style of an Irani cafe, which is an institution in India where the British used to go and have their high tea in the afternoon, so I’m bringing that back with all the snacks.”