Chai Pani moves and supersizes

IN LIVING COLOR: Chai Pani has fully bloomed in its new location on the South Slope with 70 more seats than its original space and many new menu items. Photo by Tim Robison

The first day in Chai Pani’s second location of its storied life in Asheville was May 21. And it’s safe to say it probably went more smoothly than the restaurant’s first day in its original location in September 2009.

Meherwan Irani, founder and chef of the iconic Indian street food restaurant, remembers that first first day. “The ticket printer wasn’t working so we had to handwrite every order,” he recalls. “We hadn’t thought to buy pads with duplicates, so Molly (Irani) had to also handwrite a second copy for the cooks. We didn’t have the track in the kitchen to hang the orders, so every time someone went rushing by all the orders would fly up in the air.”

After 14 years in the 1,800-square-foot, 49-seat space on Battery Park Avenue, the 2022 winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Restaurant award has supersized to 10,000 square feet and 120 seats in a historic South Slope building that was originally a roller-skating rink serving the Black community. For eight years, the building was the smoky home of Buxton Hall Barbecue, co-owned by Irani and chef/pitmaster Elliott Moss (Buxton Hall closed last November).

Fifteen years ago, Irani could not have dreamed of the success that lay ahead for what has grown into the Chai Pani Restaurant Group. “That building on Battery Park had been a succession of failed restaurants, so much so that when we mentioned it to a few locals, they tried to warn us and told us it was where restaurants went to die,” Irani says.

But, he recalls, “We were so broke, we didn’t have a choice. It had a basic kitchen that was falling apart, and we took it. We were so young and naïve we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We had no foresight whatsoever that one day there would be lines down the street to get in.”

Without question, Chai Pani’s famous okra fries — on the menu since the start — were an indisputable rung on the ladder to success and remain sacrosanct. “But the new kitchen will be so much bigger, so we’ll be adding new items,” Irani says. “Chai Pani barely scratches the surface of Indian street food; I could easily write three more menus.”

Among the dishes he’s excited to introduce is sabudana vada tots — crispy potato and tapioca tots seasoned with green chilies, curry leaves, cumin and ginger and served with Maggi Hot & Sweet ketchup. Another is bihari kabab, which is chargrilled sirloin marinated with green papaya, red chili, yogurt, poppyseed and aromatic masala then served with tamarind-mint chutney, onion laccha and lime. A new dessert offering will be a desi-style pav bread pudding soaked in cardamom-saffron milk with seasonal fruit.

Executing the menu is former Buxton Hall executive chef and pitmaster Nick Barr, who has stepped into the role of chef de cuisine at Chai Pani. Barr also runs the Weaverville farm that supplies Chai Pani with produce. A new menu item that nods to Barr’s past work with Buxton Hall Barbecue — specifically to Buxton Hall’s beloved chicken sandwich — is the KFC sandwich, featuring Kashmiri-fried, buttermilk-brined chicken with mint, chili, Maggi mayonnaise and sweet pickles on a buttery bun.

Irani says that when the Chai Pani team got its first look at the new space designed by former brand director Michael Files, “You could hear jaws drop on the floor. Thanks to the bones of the building, the layout, décor, art and lighting, it will be the most exciting space we have.” While the original skating rink murals and floors remain intact and are highlighted in the design, the huge room explodes with Chai Pani’s effervescently bright signature color palette, new custom murals and cascades of artificial flowers.

Even with the thrill of the new location, Irani says, the final day of service at the OG Chai Pani on May 12 was one of mixed emotions. “Places can have a heart and soul, and though that building will stay in the family [it will open as Asheville’s second Botiwalla location this summer], it was the place that started it all.”

Chai Pani is now at 32 Banks Ave. It’s open daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m.; open until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 22 to include the chef’s name and additional details about the space.


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About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

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