While coffee shops continue to sell a generally unrecognizable concoction labeled “chai,” the real thing, traditional Indian tea with milk and an aromatic blend of masalas — cardamom, ginger, and sometimes cloves — can be found at Chaiwali in Harlem, which also offers a menu of twists on culinary staples that sing rather than singe. This is not your average fiery, murky curry sopped up with a limp naan. Along with the classics (the samosas are flaky and served with life-giving green chutney), the menu includes such fun and dietary-restriction-friendly fusions as Delhi Smoked Eggplant Mash and Vindaloo Lamb Chops. When Chaiwali — a feminist play on “Chaiwala,” or “tea salesman” — opened in 2015, hospitality guru Anita Trehan sought to respectfully and strategically return Indian cuisine and culture to a block that continues to endure contentious change. (There was actually a South Asian immigrant community in Harlem in the Forties and Fifties.) That ethos is reflected in the healthier and fairly budget-conscious menu options as well as community immersion: During the Hindu New Year, Diwali, the space hosts a celebration with storytelling for children, vegetarian dinner, and Bollywood music. On regular days, the ambience in the two-story converted brownstone is nearly as festive, as warm-hued wood table setups are offset by more fanciful décor: a stuffed peacock, a tiger mural in the dining areas, and an oversize birdcage that seats ten on the outdoor patio.
274 Lenox Avenue, Manhattan
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 19, 2016