It’s a classic West Philly scene: The cracked, uneven sidewalks sprouting weeds and scraggly blades of grass like an urban Chia Pet, the haunted-looking edifices made of ancient stone anchoring the block, trees grown thick and rough with age. And then, emerging as if from some more colorful planet, is Desi Chaat House, a DayGlo-orange brick building whose spare interior and modest menu belie a greater sense of purpose at its heart: The spreading of the gospel of chaat, India’s addictive snack or appetizer or anytime-you’re-hungry treat.
Chaat’s a typically sweet, salty, tangy and savory platter built on crispy “crackers.” Well, not exactly crackers, but rather some untranslatable snacklike component topped with boiled potatoes, chickpeas, yogurt and chutneys. It’s like the best, most complex nachos grande you’ve ever tucked into, often spicy and almost always fabulous.
Inside Desi Chaat House, Chef Hasan Bukhari (he’s also the man behind Mood Cafe and Desi Village) plies his trade with care and ample charm. Off to the side, you’re likely to see one of his assistants peeling potatoes, chopping cilantro or engaging in any of the other million sous-chef duties required each day.
Here’s the thing about this place: It’s honest and humble, and what its menu lacks in breadth, it more than makes up for in depth and freshness. The selection of chaats is epic, and for anyone who’s ever wished for more than the de rigueur and thoroughly addictive aloo papri chaat that most area Indian restaurants include in their list of apps, this place is paydirt.
Sahi chaat is the nuttiest I tasted here, a kind of spicy Indian trail mix of a meal. It’s anchored by aromatic cashews and dried melon seeds spiced in such a way that they feel as though they’re passing low levels of electricity through your tongue with each forkful. There’s a different kind of heartiness at the heart of the Mumbai chaat: dark tones of the lentils provide the ballast, a richness countered by the spice of chaat masala and the bracing bitterness of roughly chopped radish.
There are no tables inside this modest space, just a counter at the window with room for three or four, and a handful of tables on the sidewalk. Make sure you specify whether you’ll be eating in or taking home for later. Takeout orders are packaged with wet and dry components separate, as so much of the joy of the chaats—the interplay of crunchy and tender, as well as spicy and sweet and salty—is textural.
This isn’t an issue with Dahi Bhalla chaat, a soupy construct whose focal point shifts constantly between chutneys (mint, yogurt, tamarind) and the garam dumplings at the center. The longer you let it sit, the less differentiation there is between the liquid and the dumplings, which are velvety and tender to begin with. Best not take this for the road.
The only chaat that failed to win me over, really, was the Andhra: Its description—black eyed peas, lentils, chickpeas, red chili and more—didn’t hint that the flavors would be dominated instead by the vaguely chemical-tasting chickpea-flour sticks scattered on top of it all.
On the other end of the spectrum is the preposterously named crazy chaat. In name, it runs the risk of giving the impression that it’ll fall as flat as so many of those over-reaching “crazy rolls” at sushi houses, the sheer mass of components overwhelming any sense of structure. But it’s a risk in name alone, and the kitchen-sink chaat that you’re presented with is a joy to eat, the components of each bite a surprise, all of them speaking of a different part of the subcontinent’s local spices. It’s perfumed with a potent whiff of aromatic spices, which may tingle, depending how hot you order it—the scale here ranges “from mild to wild.”
Desi Chaat House is yet another in a long line of local Indian restaurants that rely on fresh ingredients and honest preparations for their successes—Ekta with its well-layered spicing; the more haute-inspired creations of IndeBlue in Collingswood; and Taj-India, in the Northeast, with its revelatory vegetarian cooking. Even dishes you’ve had a million times before are cast into slightly different and utterly intriguing lights here.
Chicken samosa, plated with chickpeas and yogurt, mint and tamarind chutney, is a high-flying success, though certainly not the finger-food it usually is. Biryani is built on a base of tender, well-cooked rice, but the real star is the chicken—hefty, yellow-stained chunks, some of them still on the bone, all marinated overnight in a blend of mayo and yogurt. Even the inner meat has been permeated with its complex garam masala. Aloo papri is sparked to life with red chili flakes and brought to ethereally perfumed heights with the snap of fennel seeds.
There’s no pretense at Desi Chaat House. Just good food, freshly made at wildly fair prices. In other words, wholly justifiable of the garish shell they’re served up in. It’s a bright-orange buoy, calling you over to West Philly. Best not to fight it.
501 S. 42nd St.
Cuisine type: A deep selection of regionally inspired chaats, with occasional—and consistently successful—tangents.
Hours: Noon-10pm, daily.
Atmosphere: Bare-bones and functional, but clean and cheery.
Food: Really good at dizzyingly fair prices.
Service: Friendly and justifiably proud.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014