Chaating With Victor

Because Indian food is not all about tandoori and tikka

If you’ve never eaten Indian food in an Indian neighborhood – Jackson Heights in Queens and downtown Edison, New Jersey are two such areas that you should add to your list – chances are you’ve had limited exposure to chaat, a category of savory Indian snacks, generally sold as street food on the Subcontinent. Finding freshly prepared chaat – the word literally means “lick” – in Philadelphia proper was all but impossible until Desi Chaat House moved into the neighborhood of 42nd and Baltimore in West Philly a few months ago. Based on my visit last weekend, I can tell you that it’s too hot inside (though it’s basically takeout); service is slllloooooooowwwwwww (we’re talking grind-to-a-halt slow); but the made-to-order chaat are some of the best I’ve had in the States (and I’m pretty sure the chaat I had in India led to my three-night stay in a hospital in Bangalore, so…).

For an introduction, I suggest starting with my personal favorite, the papri chaat ($4.99), a mixture of crispy bits of fried dough (that’s the papri), chick peas, potatoes, mango, fresh chopped chilis, coriander, yogurt, tamarind sauce, and masala spice that you’ll want to eat with a spoon. “This is one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth,” said one of my dining companions. Also: “It tastes like a slap in the face – the good kind.” Much like Thai food, it’s a pleasing – though on some bites jarring – combo of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy.

Your best bet is to get a few friends together and order one chaat per person and share them. For drinks, go with the fizzy lemon-lime Limca from India or a freshly made salt lassi.

You can preview the menu at Desi’s website. Based on the pace at Desi Chaat, you’re not going to want to waste a lot of time deciding while you’re standing there. Sweating.