I’m not great at small talk, but I love chaat. Okay, I can hear the chorus of boos from here. I’ll just show myself out.
Seriously, though, the Indian street food delight known as chaat appeals to me, so much so that a search of the word in the Louisville HotBytes archives brought up references to it from dining at a dozen different local Indian eateries. I’ve eaten plenty of chaat, and I’ve spent plenty of words trying to describe it. Recalling just a few of them:
- The word “chaat” rhymes with “hot,” not “hat.”
- “Chaat” is not a server’s introductory spiel. It’s tempting North Indian street food.
- It’s Indian small plates, somewhat akin to tapas or dim sum.
- It’s affordable, and it’s made for walk-around eating.
- The name chaat comes from the Hindi word for “lick.”
- Salty, crunchy, soft, and savory, chaat comes in dozens of forms. These intriguing and varied snack-size goodies may be crunchy, tangy, fruity, hot, or sweet, often all at the same time.
- It’s a crunchy, tangy, sweet-and-spicy vegetarian blend of crunchy carbs, tangy and spicy sauce, fresh veggies — chickpeas, diced onions, potatoes, or tomatoes are typical — topped with more crunchies and a dusting of spice.
- This crunchy, salty snack that makes me think of a savory Indian take on trail mix… if trail mix grew up and turned out to be really cool
- Chaat may contain crispy, spicy bits of fried wheat pastry, tiny fried potato sticks, chickpeas, cucumber, and onion bits. All those crunchies might get mixed into a savory blend of rich yogurt, sweet tamarind sauce, and spicy mint chutney. Sounds messy? Tastes addictive. Think of chaat as India’s answer to nachos.
Tempted yet? I certainly am. In search of chaat and more, we headed over to Shreeji Indian Vegetarian Street Food, a longtime favorite that’s good enough to overcome my natural aversion to fighting the traffic on Hurstbourne Parkway south of I-64.
Shreeji’s extensive menu offers about two dozen chaats, each briefly but helpfully described. They’re just as varied as you might expect, but most of them check off the familiar boxes of crisp, spicy, tart, fruity, and sweet. Most are priced at $7.99, with a few outliers ranging from $6.99 to $11.99.
Other menu items increase the diner’s options to well over 100 dishes, covering categories, in addition to chaat, as varied as South Indian, Punjabi, rice dishes, Indo-Chinese, Shreeji Specials, appetizers, soups, sandwiches, naan and other Indian breads, sweets, and even a couple of pizzas built on naan. I couldn’t find a dish on the menu for more than $14.99, and probably half of the options are under $10. Everything is vegetarian, as the restaurant’s name signals, but vegans should tread more carefully, as some dishes include Indian dairy ingredients like butter, yogurt, and paneer, a fresh, mild cheese.
A six-piece onion pakora plate ($8.99) made a great, if filling, starter. Akin to onion fritters, but with an Indian accent, they are loose balls of thick-sliced onion lightly dusted with chickpea flour and deep-fried into crunchy, lightly spicy nests of onion goodness. They came on a white three-compartment disposable plate with pools of spicy dark-red and fiery green chutneys for dipping.
Then it was on to the chaats. Dabeli chaat ($7.99) offered a characteristic mix of flavors and textures. Served in a shallow cardboard bowl, it starts with balls of dabeli — a sweet and spicy potato mix — combined with garlic and sweet chutneys and tangy-sweet tamarind to make a spicy, fruity, and filling potato snack. The top is garnished with peanuts, chopped cilantro, a few strips of beets, and crisp sev, tiny turmeric-laced dried noodles.
Chole bhature ($11.99) is a close cousin to chana masala. It’s a soupy bowl of long-simmered, tender chickpeas swimming in a zippy pool of red-chile-scented chickpea broth with plenty of chopped cilantro on top. A puffy round of fried bhatura — the white-flour sibling to whole-wheat puri bread — came alongside, with a chunk of spicy, funky lime pickle and a ration of thick-sliced raw white onion as accompaniments.
A main course dish, malai kofta ($14.99), was a delight. Creamy and rich, it starts with firm-textured vegetarian “meatballs” fashioned from a spiced blend of potatoes and paneer cheese, and turns them loose in a thick, savory broth of tomatoes, onions, and aromatic Indian spice. Ordered at heat level four (out of five), it was fiery enough to provoke a sweat, but well on the safe side of painful.
Garlic naan flatbread ($3.99) was excellent: A full round of chewy yet tender naan, spotted with char marks and divided into quarters, was loaded with enough garlic to make me regret that I had a meeting to attend that evening, but never mind! It was delicious.
Shreeji offers a variety of yogurt lassi drinks, many of them fruit-flavored, but we like it plain ($3.99). These were smallish and simple, a blend of yogurt and milk, and, the menu asserts, a bit of sugar. Unexciting, frankly, but it’s a handy antidote for Indian heat.
A large meal came to $59.29 for two, plus a 25-percent tip.
Shreeji Indian Vegetarian Street Food
1987 S. Hurstbourne Pkwy.
Noise level: Conversation was easy during lunch hour, which was busy, but not jammed. Average sound level 69dB.
Accessibility: The strip mall building appears fully accessible to wheelchair users.