Chaat & Thalis 3

Meherwan Irani’s Famed Indian Street Food at Chai Pani

“Chai Pani” translates literally to “tea and water,” but colloquially it’s the trek one makes for a snack or sip, a cup of tea or plate of spicy vittles. That’s what you’ll find at downtown’s favored Indian haunt, Chai Pani.

Decked in ornaments as colorful as the food on its plates, Chai Pani has become a culinary mainstay for locals and tourists alike since it was opened in 2009 by three-time James Beard nominee Meherwan Irani. Its menu features the stuff of chai pani, “chaat,” savory munchies to prep the palate, as well as thalis, family-style meals rife with color and flavor. 

“I’ve been in love with food and cooking and restaurants and the entire culture around food pretty much from when I arrived here,” says the India native, who found his way to the US via an MBA program in San Francisco. When he arrived in the ’90s, it was to a mecca of modern Californian cuisine that awakened his tastebuds. He also likens the emergence of the Food Network to the early days of MTV: “It was so informative for the way Americans think of food,” he says with a laugh.

But still, he found something lacking in the American food scene: authentic Indian cuisine. The north Indian curry buffets dotted around big cities seemed a muted representative of culinary culture to Irani, who sought out instead quiet hole-in-the-wall chaat houses.

Irani moved east with a career in sales, but following the real estate crash in 2008, his wife Molly asked him a simple question: if he weren’t tied by responsibility and sensibility, what would he do? The answer was simple: food. “It was one of those ‘Eureka’ moments, “I sat bolt upright, and the idea for Chai Pani was fully formed in my head.” Within 30 minutes, he was showing the menu to Molly.

Now he’s able to pursue his passion—food—via a series of restaurants (you’ll find others in Decatur and Atlanta), dishes, and spice mixes like this his Garam Masala (his latest venture includes Spicewalla Brand, a fresh, small-batch spice company).