When Meherwan Irani opened Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, at the height of the recession in 2009, he had four people working in the kitchen. Irani pulled all-nighters prepping for the next day’s service and flew his mom over from India to help. He says that’s the Indian way.
“My mom spent the first week showing us how to do stuff, rolling out the perfect rotis,” he recalls. “The food never tasted as good as when she cooked the first two weeks after we opened.”
In the decade since, Irani has grown that original location into an ever-expanding empire of his Indian street food restaurants Chai Pani and Botiwalla, in Atlanta and across the South. He also launched his Spicewalla business, where he blends, produces, and ships the same spices used in his kitchens. And he collaborates on Brown in the South, a roving supper series hosted by chefs of Indian descent that launched a year ago.
As his dynasty grows, so does Irani’s eagerness to explore local Indian restaurants. He frequents the small, mom-and-pop places around Decatur, near Patel Plaza. During a recent tour of his favorites, owners and managers recognize him at each stop, waving him in as he asks about their business and family.
Here are four of Irani’s top spots for that Indian family vibe—and some superb vegetarian grub.
Gulistan DilPasand Fresh Pan House
Inside Gokul Sweets on Church Street in Decatur, Amin Virani’s paan stall occupies one corner. Paan (also called pan), a mix of nuts, fruit, and sugary syrups wrapped in a betel leaf, is a digestif as well as a breath freshener. It’s the perfect way to end a heavy meal of spicy dishes. Irani points to the sweet paan option on the board for $1.50. “You don’t even know what this stuff [inside] is, and it ends up working together perfectly,” he says. “What’s the word? Alchemy.” He grins, stuffing the paan into his mouth. 1707 Church Street, Decatur, 678-974-5656
Cherians International Groceries
Tucked behind Patel Plaza, Cherians is an Indian grocery store with a hot bar from heaven. Irani makes a beeline toward the bar’s dal vada—a fried lentil pastry that’s his favorite snack. “On my way back to Asheville, I’ll buy a dozen,” he says. “My intention is always to bring it home to the family, and I never make it.” His other must-have here is the mirchi pakora, chilis deep-fried in chickpea batter. To wash it down, he insists on chai with sugar. 751 DeKalb Industrial Way, Decatur, 404-299-0842
When Irani started coming to Zyka, he was the new guy in town—and Zyka’s owner was suspicious. But Irani eventually won him over. “I brought my dad here, and that changed everything,” he says. “From that moment on, I was one of them.” At the counter, Irani waves away a menu. “Gobi manchurian and hyderabadi dal,” he says. Naan, too, of course. Irani has been talking up the gobi manchurian, a Indo-Chinese dish of spicy, deep-fried cauliflower, all afternoon. “They still mix all the masalas themselves here, even after all these years,” he says. 1677 Scott Boulevard, Decatur, 404-728-4444
Tava Indian Bistro
Irani’s friend Farhan Momin—a dental student turned MasterChef contestant—opened Tava in Patel Plaza in 2015. Momin gave Irani some insider intel on the off-menu paneer pizzas, which Irani promptly orders. The dough is sprinkled with salty paneer squares, bell peppers, and onions. He also goes for the street food snack chora chaat: deep-fried black-eyed peas mixed with onions and topped with crispy strings of chickpea batter called sev. “This is amazing,” Irani says as he scoops up seconds. 1685 Church Street, Decatur, 404-343-2710
This article appears in our January 2019 issue.