Waheeda Rehman's sultry gaze - as mesmerizing in the mural as in the moment the Bollywood starlet whirls in her red sari beside a cobra in The Guide in 1965 - draws me up the front stairs and back into the dining room of Chaat & Chai.
It's a surprising, joyous riot of exotic color, this cozy little room, from the upturned parasols that float across the ceiling to the crayon-box-colored chairs to walls boldly painted with street-art-style pictures of a tuk-tuk taxi and bus slogans. Everything about this room - including the aromatic South Indian flavors and the fact that this unique new BYOB even exists - is an evocative and unexpected delight.
From the array of intricately crunchy chaat salads to little pav sliders stuffed with curried fish patties and the flaky parotta flatbreads wrapped taco-style around coconut-braised short ribs, Chaat & Chai breezily steps beyond the predictable playbook that most local Indian restaurants have followed.
First off is the seemingly random location, on a deep South Philly block tucked behind the Melrose Diner. Co-owner Anney Thomas lives nearby and had always wanted to open a tea cafe and spice shop in her neighborhood to showcase the distinctive flavors of Kerala, the South Indian state where she was born before moving to Northeast Philly as a young girl.
When Thomas persuaded Margie Felton, her onetime roommate and former colleague (long ago at the Commissary) to join the project as her partner and co-chef, the snack-cafe concept grew into something a bit more substantial - suitable for a proper sit-down meal. It's still a very casual space, draped in fabrics and the pulse of Indian cinema music. The handmade decor - largely created by the women but with murals added by artist friends like Hannah Taylor, who painted Rehman - gives the restaurant the charm of an intimate and exotic hideaway.
Tea is still a big part of the experience, with daily changing blends of masala chai (like the milky sweet Malabar tea scented with cardamom and black pepper I sipped on our first visit). The small but appealing menu has a personal and home-cooked touch, inspired largely by the family recipes Thomas grew up with, but also a hint of creativity and the occasional seasonal twist, like the diced apples, sweet potatoes, and toasted pecans that lent the chicken tikka chaat a wintry Western vibe.
The chaat salads, in particular, make for an especially refreshing start. Each one, whether anchored by samosas, cuminy warm chicken, or slow-stewed chickpeas, offers an intricate display of different crunchy snacks layered upon one another - puffed rice, round papdi crackers, tiny shreds of sev gram noodles, itsy beads of fried chickpea flour boondi - tossed in swirls of tart yogurt, minty green chutney, and tangy-sweet brown tamarind deepened with date paste and jaggery brown sugar. A dusting of Kashmiri chili-spiked masala spice and tangy mango powder lift the aromas off the plate.
There are limitations here, due to the fact that Thomas and Felton do not have a fryer or tandoor oven. The breads and samosas, for example, are brought in. But Chaat & Chai is resourceful, focusing most of its menu beyond the room-temperature chaats on slow-cooked pot foods and distinctive Indian pickles, like the gingery carrots piqued with mustard oil and earthy fenugreek that come alongside those short rib tacos.
The coastal state of Kerala has India's largest Christian population, which explains why beef, forbidden in most other parts of the country, is a prominent part of its cuisine. At traditional Kerala-style restaurants like Mallu Cafe in Northeast Philly, the exceptionally delicate parotta is simply served as a side ("use it as a wrap," our server there told us), so the taco-style presentation here isn't that far off base. And the beef itself is wonderfully authentic, braised to tenderness in coconut milk for hours with the clovey kiss of masala spice, mustard seeds, curry leaves, and toasted coconut.
Likewise, the "curry bowls" that layer both vegetarian and meat stews over rice in a single bowl are nontraditional in presentation (usually the rice is separate). But they make for hearty meals and a fair value from $10 to $15 a bowl in the spirit of an all-in-one street snack. Black chickpeas sparked with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and fennel make for a soulful Kerala twist on the familiar chana masala made with white chickpeas. Two variations on chicken - a spicy south Indian Chettinad with coconut milk and star anise, and a North Indian roadside classic called dhaba chicken with more of a gingery tomato gravy - were satisfyingly flavorful and tender. The lamb vindaloo was slightly less tender, but the meat had a rich lamb savor, and the vinegar-tanged gravy had the most fiery spice on the menu.
For the most part, Chaat & Chai's chili heat trends fairly mild, though that isn't necessarily a negative. A dish of lightly poached shrimp in turmeric-tinted coconut sauce over fluffy disks of idli rice-and-lentil cakes was positively delicate.
Two unusual sandwich specials, meanwhile, brought a pair of memorable fillings to the Indian slider buns known as "pav." On one came a slab of tandoori-spiced paneer cheese topped with noticeably fresh, lightly creamed spinach and a tangy dollop of garlic chutney. The second was even more unusual: a well-spiced patty of minced tilapia bound with chickpea flour and eggs lit with coriander, fenugreek, and ginger. Panfried and topped with zesty tomato chutney, it was one of the best fish burgers I've ever eaten. Granted, that's a low bar. But there was something else, too, something familiar that drew me in.
Thomas created her fish pav without knowing that, barely a block away on Snyder Avenue, the venerable Texas Wieners (est. 1923) has been serving fish cakes on buns (often atop a hot dog) forever. So maybe Chaat & Chai and its exotic fish cake are not nearly as randomly situated as I had suspected. In fact, this welcome burst of evocative color and bright Indian street-food flavors already feels like it belongs.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews the Hungry Pigeon in Queen Village.
CHAAT & CHAI (two bells out of four)
1532 Snyder Ave., Philadelphia; 215-271-1253; on Facebook
Indian street food gets a cheery update at this unexpected South Philly storefront BYOB, where a gorgeously colorful little dining room is framed with a parasol ceiling and Bollywood-bright murals, and the creative South Indian-accented menu is built on crunchy chaat salads, Kerala short rib paratha tacos, and hearty all-in-one "curry bowls."
The kitchen's technical limitations (no fryer or tandoor) keep the menu concise. But a home-cooked touch, fair prices, outgoing service, and unique aesthetic make this project from two friends a different and worthwhile entry to the usually predictable local Indian scene.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Chaats (chana, chicken tikka, bhel puri), shrimp idli; Kerala short ribs; dal, saag paneer pav; curried fish-cake pav; pachadi; curry bowls (Chettinad chicken, kala chana black chickpeas, lamb vindaloo), Indian sweets.
BYOB Beer is the obvious choice for Indian spice, with crisp lagers the traditional style. Increasingly, though, new sour beers and saisons are proving a more clever match for the complex seasonings of a good curry. The nonalcoholic mango lassi and daily changing masala chai teas are worthwhile.
WEEKEND NOISE A manageable 84 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Entire menu served 11 a.m.-9 p.m Tuesday through Thursday; until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday brunch (plus regular menu).
All major cards but Amex.
Reservations accepted only for six or more.
Not wheelchair accessible.
Street parking only.