Much like sticky boxes of General Tso’s chicken and rubbery pre-fab California rolls, Indian cuisine more often than not gets lost in translation. The culprits are $8.95 all-you-can-eat steam-table buffets that serve up heavy plates of tomato-pasty chicken tikka masala and palak paneer made from past-its-prime spinach.
Heading west on Baltimore Avenue and leaving the steam tables out of the equation altogether is a good plan for experiencing real deal — i.e. chaat, the blanket term for an Indian and Pakistani street food that’s downright fascinating.
This savory snack traditionally served by roadside vendors is something along the lines of South Asian nachos — sub out chips for a bed of lentil-and-chickpea-flour crackers and potatoes topped with vibrant chutneys, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, seeds, tangy yogurt, fresh cilantro and red onions.
Hasan Bukari is the man who brought this intriguing street food to West Philly. Originally a Brooklyn restaurateur, Bukari opened Desi Village restaurants in King of Prussia and on Baltimore Avenue before venturing into the world of street food. “Nobody knows about chaat,” he thought. “Let me take a chance.”
Opened in 2010, Desi Chaat House, (501 S. 42nd St.) was an immediate success. It serves up a menu of familiar items such as potato-and-pea-filled samosas and biryanis along with all sorts of chaats, including the Kashmiri (layered with fried noodles, potatoes, cashews and melon seeds) and the Shahi (strewn with almonds and pistachios). Desi Chaat House also offers up vada pav, or Indian burgers: patties of spiced potato and chickpea tucked into buns slider-style. There’s also pav bhaaji, slices of buttered, toasted pav (think burger bun) with a slow-burning cauliflower, carrot and tomato curry sauce for dipping. Lassis are available to cool the heat along with faluda, a floral rose-syrup drink. Scoops of ice cream in flavors like kulfi (sweet milk) and paan (betel leaf) are available.
The menu at Desi Chaat House has fun with this versatile snack, taking it in unorthodox directions, like a Mexican chaat once on the menu that brought tortilla chips and sweet corn into the mix.
Last year Bukari expanded his South Asian snack empire with another Baltimore Avenue corner spot, Mood Cafe (4618 Baltimore Ave.). The original plan was to specialize in coffee, but Bukari quickly found out that it was his lassis that were in demand. Going beyond the usual mango and salty flavors, the chalkboard menu at Mood displays 25 varieties ranging from coconut and kiwi to cardamom, pomegranate and rose. In the cafe’s early days, Bukari received a Yelp review complaining about Mood not offering vegan lassis and he decided to take a chance. He experimented with almond milk and had his 10-year-old daughter draw up a sign reading “Mood Cafe now serving vegan lassis.” The orders came flooding in, as did the five-star reviews.
When Bukari’s clientele asked for chaats to be added to the menu of Mood, he obliged, bringing in Mumbai bhel poori, with puffed rice and sweet-tart tamarind sauce, along with chicken and beef chaats as well as salad chaat, a leafy version that incorporates all of the flavor components in a lighter manner. In addition to the laundry list of lassis, Bukari offers Thumbs Up, cane-sugar-sweetened cola that’s India’s answer to Coca-Cola, and Limca, a lemon-lime soda, both served in thick, glass bottles that have seen plenty of wear. Sweets come in the form of syrupy and spongy galub juman, milky rasmalai and bright-orange carrot halwa.
Hearkening back to the steam-table stigma of Indian cuisine, the hot dishes at Mood have nothing to do with the stuff found at the standard all-you-can-eat buffet. Bukari has introduced dishes from his native Lahore that have more to do with the flavors found in Pakistani homes than the butter- and cream-heavy quasi-Indian dishes most commonly found in the U.S. There’s a rich and gamey lamb khunna, a black channa malasa with nutty little chickpeas and yogurt-simmered chicken nihari curry, all served with aromatic spiced rice.
According to Bukari, what distinguishes Pakistani cooking from your run-of-the-mill Indian-restaurant cooking is the fact that there are fewer vegetarians in Pakistan — because though most Indian restaurants in the U.S. offer meat on the menu, oftentimes those manning the kitchen adhere to a meat-free diet. Bukari is quick to point out that there are plenty of places in the city that advertise as serving Indian and Pakistani food, but few that specialize in the latter.
That’s likely the impetus behind his next project. The small menu of hot dishes at Mood Cafe is a preview of a Pakistani restaurant he’s planning on opening on the corner of 48th and Pine. The idea is to highlight the native foods of Lahore, particularly multilayered biryanis and clay-oven-roasted meats.
Taking a chance seems to be the theme is Bukari’s career, from making the move from a bustling New York restaurant to Philadelphia, to debuting a never-before-seen street snack. This chance-taking has resulted in some of the most enticing bites in the city.