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The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

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Ferguson’s favorite food fare: Chai Pani

Chai Pani, graphic by Cody Ferguson.
Chai Pani, graphic by Cody Ferguson.

This week we visited Chai Pani, located in downtown Asheville just a few minutes walk from the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. This is a lovely street-food style restaurant tucked in amongst a strip of shops in downtown and well worth the walk.

“The owner worked really hard to make this place feel like his home,” said Wisteria Winters, 5-year employee and manager at Chai Pani. 

As fall weather begins to swell, Winters said they’ve been having a slow month. The summer is often their busiest time of the year. They’re all very excited to see how the new West Asheville location will do in the coming months, but there’s never going to be something like the original.

“I’ve had a lot of fun here, and every year the owner takes two of the employees to India with him for a short vacation,” Winters said.

Atmosphere: Being tucked into such a small space, Chai Pani has garnered a lot of personality. To the American eye, it looks distinctly Indian. There’s art you would find on the sides of buildings in the street, the native language is strung up like propaganda for those who can read it. It’s easy to tell the owner wanted to bring a bit of his culture to Asheville and express himself through both art and food with the décor and set-up of Chai Pani. They have seating inside and out, with the outside seating still being very desirable into these cooler months of the year.

Service: This was possibly the fastest lunch service I’ve had without going to a fast food restaurant. We sat down, received our drinks and perused the menu for a few minutes. Once we ordered I expected a 15 or 20 minute wait, pretty standard at most restaurants. The food was at our tables in around five minutes. I was extremely impressed, even with the understanding that the majority of our dishes were probably prepared before-hand to ensure quick service. I was later told they shoot for a time of service below 10 minutes for all customers, though they will fall behind during their busiest hours.

Pictured is the saag paneer, a dish under the thalis section of Chai Pani’s menu. (Cody Ferguson)

Presentation: All food is brought out in very plain, stainless steel trays. There’s something clinical about it, but I would be inclined to believe this is standard dish-ware for the streets of India. In this case, the authenticity is only a slightly uncomfortable experience for someone deeply rooted in the American culture of ceramic plates. All in all, it made for a good presentation of the food, and I don’t think it changed my eating experience outside of being very surprised to see such different plating being used. My dish came out much like a lunch tray. My companion’s dish came on a deep platter to catch anything that fell from his sandwich as he ate.

The sloppy jai, or kheema pav, a dish under the Indian sandwiches and wraps section of Chai Pani’s menu. (Cody Ferguson)

Taste: Chai Pani is a beautiful conglomerate of all the spices and flavors I would expect from good Indian food. Everything is heavily spiced, with a hint of heat behind it that opens up your sinuses and gets you eager to eat more as the aromatics fill your nose and enhance every bite you take. 

My dish was the saag paneer and it was a lovely tray of perfectly cooked basmati rice, Spinach cooked with fenugreek, tomatoes, garam masala and cumin, all topped with toasted cubes of paneer cheese. There’s nothing texturally spectacular, but pairing it with the given chips or the additional naan bread gives it that extra layer of taste and a little crunch. 

My companion got the sloppy jai, a play on American sloppy joes made with ground lamb seasoned with a garam masala then topped with cilantro, onions, yogurt and green chutney. There’s a familiar feeling to eating these slider sandwiches and I find myself taken back to childhood with each bite. The thing that changes is the evolution of flavors as the spices take their time to settle onto your tongue, the aftertaste becoming something completely unique. Every bite makes you just want to get more.

Overall Impression: Chai Pani is exactly as advertised. A place to sit down and get the street food experience while not needing to take a ticket to India. There’s something uniquely satisfying about getting a meal delivered to you in under 10 minutes on the busy streets of downtown Asheville. It’s simple in concept, and all the dishes are pretty simple. Some meat or vegetables with a side of sauce and rice. Every culture has its own variation of this. In this case though, the spices carry you away to a different place and the aromatics will linger in your nose for hours after your visit. Chai Pani is well deserving of a firm Ferguson stamp of approval. 

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