Bright parasols, a wall of mirrors and the tinge of spice in the air greet patrons who walk through the doors of alumna Anney Thomas’ new Indian restaurant.
Chaat and Chai opened at 1532 Snyder Ave. Nov. 10. Thomas’ original vision for her business was a natural food store with spices and tea, but when she moved into the neighborhood, she realized it was missing something else.
Thomas and business partner Margie Felton decided to bring casual South Indian cuisine to South Philly after seeing the small space on Snyder Avenue. Their first night was a full house.
“We got bombarded,” Thomas said of the restaurant’s first week. “We would be here until 2 a.m., go home and come back at 7 a.m.”
“We ran out of everything every day,” Felton said.
Chaat, part of the restaurant’s namesake, is a dish made of fried dough with meat or vegetables and chutney. Some of Chaat and Chai’s menu puts a spin on the traditional street food.
Traditional Indian chai is not the kind of chai ordered in most coffee shops; the black tea is brewed with milk or cream, sugar and plenty of spices. Thomas currently sells two varieties—one with ginger and one with black pepper. She plans to have a third variety of chai available as a rotating special to compliment the cuisine.
“We decided that chaats are fun to eat and they are delicious,” Thomas said. “So why not do ours a little bit differently and change the flavors? Street fare is lowbrow in India. It’s like getting a hot dog here. Although it is delicious, you go because it is a necessity. My mom doesn’t get why I’m doing street food.”
The art and decor in the restaurant further Thomas’ image of serving Indian street food. In the dining room, bright parasols hang from the ceiling above tables surrounded by vibrantly painted mismatched chairs. A perfect painted depiction of Rosie from the 1965 film “Guide” stares from the rear wall. The main wall represents a colorfully painted Indian truck with “Horn Okay Please” jutting out from bright stars and other geometrical shapes—in addition to a white cow.
“What’s better than doing street art with street food?” Thomas said.
The menu includes shareable small plates and elements of fusion cooking, including Indian BBQ chicken wings. Thomas went to several Indian restaurants around Philly to see what they serve and how they serve it.
“We don’t have anything on the menu right now that is served in the traditional way,” Thomas said. “I think that a lot of people don’t know much about Indian food. They don’t really know what they’re ordering. They’re ordering it because they recognize shrimp, or whatever. I want to make it more fun.”
Thomas’ family is from the Kerala region of India, which is located on the southern coast. South Indian cuisine differs from North Indian in a few different ways. It substitutes coconut for cream and has more spice. Being on the coast, fish is more commonly served.
The other major difference in the cuisine is beef. In 24 out of the 29 states in India, cow slaughter is heavily restricted or outlawed. But Kerala has a large Christian population, so beef dishes are very popular. Thomas pays homage by serving Kerala beef short ribs, which are served like a plate of tacos.
“It’s a way to introduce Indian food to people who are scared or unsure about how it is,” Thomas said. “Like if you present it to them in a taco form, they’ll be like ‘Oh a taco, I get it. But it’s Indian!’”
Dinner is served at Chaat and Chai from 4-9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 4-10 p.m on Fridays. The restaurant is open on Saturdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Madeline Presland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.