Bombay Street Food: Can We Chaat?

Street Food.  It has become so popular that it’s the subject of a series on Netflix.  And a very delectable one at that. In fact, after watching a couple of episodes, I was obsessed. Where could I go to get my hands on some street food that could captivate me as much as the show has?  The answer seems so intuitive that I’m surprised I have to ponder it.  Bombay Street Food in Columbia Heights.

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, street food is “food that is cooked and sold in public places, usually outdoors, to be eaten immediately.” This is no longer the case. Street food is increasingly moving indoors- in food halls, fast casual restaurants, as well as sit down venues with servers and real plates.

Bombay Street Food opened in Columbia Heights last November. It joins an impressive roster of new or new-ish Indian restaurants in the area (Punjab Grill, Pappe, Karma Modern Indian, and Rasa).  Ask me about my favorite cuisine, and I will say without hesitation that it’s Indian.  So naturally, I’ve been pounding the pavement to check out these new restaurants. 

I like Bombay Street Food for its spirited, casual vibe. There are no reservations, which can be a good thing because you can drop in when it strikes your fancy.  You’re likely to find a crowd, but not an off-putting wait.

Look to the walls to set the tone for the restaurant.  They are mostly decorated with murals of Bombay street scenes and Bollywood images accented with pops of bright orange and yellow paint.  A photo collage includes a shot of Anthony Bourdain grinning as he holds in each hand a popular vegetarian street food called vada pav.  Bombay Street Food owner, Asad Sheikh (who previously owned Curry Mantra, London Curry House and 1947 in Northern Virginia) is a big Bourdain fan.  There’s nothing like an image of Anthony Bourdain as inspiration for abandoning one’s comfort zone to explore a cuisine.    

Bombay Street Food mural

Bombay Street Food’s menu is actually a mash-up. There is of course the emphasis on street food.  There are also Indo-Chinese specialties- an Indian adaptation of Chinese cooking techniques. Gobi Manchurian puts the heat on deep fried cauliflower florets with a heavy hit of ginger and garlic paste, and a sweet and tangy sauce. It’s the kind of dish that fuels addiction. 

There are also dishes that anyone with a vague familiarity with Indian cuisine will recognize.  Bring on the butter chicken and Tikka Masala.  Sheikh acknowledges the necessity of appealing to every palate.  He hopes it will bring diners into the restaurant and then steer them down a more adventurous path. I don’t think he needs to worry.  DC diners are increasingly – and zealously- embracing all kinds of cuisines.     

Regardless of whether you’re a novice or an Indian food connoisseur, you’re going to want to chaat it up here.  The Delhi episode of “Street Food” emphasizes chaat – which are the savory street food snacks found throughout the country. There are many kinds of chaat, but common ground usually includes a base of fried dough or crisped rice, a vegetable or legume, a sweet sauce, and chaat masala- a tangy Indian spice mix. 

A perfect example of chaat is the Vada Pav depicted in the Bourdain photo. It’s a lightly crisped patty of spiced mashed potatoes laced with ginger and garlic and topped with chutney, served on a fluffy bun.

Bombay Street Food vada pav

Look to the Monsoon section of the menu for other varieties of chaat. These are items typically consumed during the rainy season.  Paneer pakora is fried dough made from chickpea batter and stuffed with paneer cheese.  It’s warm and crispy and comforting- which explains why it’s a monsoon snack.  But no judgement if you’re compelled to order it on a sunny day.  

If your heart belongs to Rasika’s palak chaat – as mine does- you’ll find the version here lacks the same star quality. Still it’s hard to resist crispy spinach with yogurt and tamarind, even though this one is weighed down by the heft of its toppings.

Bombay Street Food palak chaat
Bombay Street Food palak chaat

Kati rolls are another Indian street food staple.  A thin wrapper of paratha bread envelops roasted kabobs of meat and vegetables. There is also a paneer roll which pairs cheese with egg, tomato, onion and chili sauce. Think of this as the Indian version of a burrito.  

What excites me most about Bombay Street Food, isn’t just street food.  It’s thali.  Thali means “large plate” in Hindi. What it means for diners is a chance to explore a wide variety of proteins, vegetables, bread, and dips.

The menu doesn’t give much away.  Thali is simply described as “Varieties of dishes as sampler enough for 2.  $35.”  I don’t ask questions.  Instead, I order and wait for the food to be handed to us on a silver platter.

I am captivated by a table filled with dishes exhibiting a lush color palate of oranges, golds, greens, and browns. The colors are equally matched with vibrant flavors- tangy, sweet, hot, sour, hotter. And then there is the pungent aroma that wafts up to tantalize before your food ever hits the table.

Bombay Street Food thali

At Bombay Street Food the thali includes tandoori chicken legs nestled on rice; goat, lamb and chickpea curries; saag paneer- which combines creamy spinach and cheese, creamy lentils, mango pickles, raita, naan bread, and a colorful array of chutneys and sauces. A vegetarian version is available as well.

My niece, who is fortunate to live just blocks away from Bombay Street Food, joins me in what amounts to a food frenzy.  We scoop and dip and spoon, mixing and matching the various dishes and adjusting the heat to suit our own tolerance level.  Did I mention the thali is $35 for two people?  It bears repeating.

The trail of silver bowls leads to a finale of another popular Indian treat. Gulab jamun are deep fried donuts dipped in rose-cardamom sugar syrup. Our indulgent food feast is complete.

Asad Sheikh had a long-time dream to bring Bombay-based street food to DC and he has made his vision a reality. His drive is leading to the opening of Bombay Street Food 2 on Capitol Hill at 524 8th Street, SE this summer. It’s time to chaat it up (and thali too)!

Bombay Street Food

1413 Park Road NW, Washington DC, 2001

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