Walk down Baltimore Avenue from 42nd to 46th Street in University City and you'll find several brightly colored food venues - Desi Village, featuring North Indian fare; Mood Cafe, offering an array of fresh juices and light dishes; and Desi Chaat House. They are all the inspiration of Hasan Bukhari, whose mission is to bring North Indian and Pakistani cuisine to Philadelphia.
Chaat, the popular street food of the region, is a snack eaten any time of day. It has all the hallmarks of the cuisine - traditional blends of spices and ingredients that create a sensory explosion on the tongue. You'll taste sour, sweet, spicy and tangy all in one bite. It's an amazingly constructed flavor system.
There's a row of jars on the back wall at Desi filled with the traditional crackers that garnish chaat. Each region boasts its own cracker, made from lentil or chickpea flour, or fried noodles, and each has a signature spice mixture. Think Indian Chex Mix.
The base of the dish is generally a blend of red, black and yellow chickpeas and potatoes; there's also a samosa chaat. Various chutneys and yogurt are added.
As the menu indicates, it's easy to personalize and go from mild to wild by adding hot peppers or other spices. Don't think fast food, though; these are made to order. My main criticism is that the wait can be long, especially if there's a chaat newbie ahead of you. But the staff is very helpful in giving the novice Chaat 101.
As with many Indian and Pakistani menus, there are plenty of options for vegetarians, along with chicken and lamb dishes.
The Lamb Chaat ($6.99) was marinated in spices and cooked in the tandoori oven at Desi Village. One of the qualities of a chaat is that the pieces are cut small enough so each forkful delivers an equal amount of the contrasting flavors on the tongue. The lamb is almost minced, delivering both texture and spice.
The Papri Chaat ($4.99) seemed to be a good "starter" chaat - especially since we ordered it mild. It also seemed to have slightly sweeter chutneys.
I particularly liked the Shahi Chaat ($5.99), a mix of cashews, pistachios and almonds with melon and bean seeds. Every bite lingered a bit and created an addictive quality that demanded I go back for one more spoonful.
Shahi really showed off the sensory experience as the flavors of sour, sweet, spicy and tangy filled my mouth. While every chaat has tiny pieces of unripe mango that contribute a pleasantly sour taste, I found it worked particularly well here.
If you like spice, go for the Punjabi Chaat ($5.99) with its blend of crispy rice noodles and crunchy crackers and a river of something that seemed to be tamarind.
The Fruit Chaat ($4.99) is basically a fruit salad and is probably the most kid-friendly of the dishes. Bananas, pears, apples, cherries, grapes, blueberries and strawberries were tossed with potatoes and chickpeas and dressed with chutneys and a mango sauce.
And just when we thought we had this whole chaat concept down, we discovered puri ($4.99), an interactive dish. Take a crisp semolina puff and carefully make a hole in it, then pour a spicy mixture similar to salsa inside and top with tiny fried noodles. Thecrunchy result is like a mini taco.
Although there are many interesting imported bottled beverages, we opted for a yogurt-based Mango Lassi ($2.99). The nearly neon color of the mango had kid appeal, and we all liked the fruitiness of the beverage.
We also enjoyed the Faluda ($2.99), a milk-based drink enhanced with almond tree gum and seasoned with basil seed and flecks of fresh noodle. There's a hint of rose water as well as an inviting rose hue to the beverage.
Classic desserts include Lahori Kheer ($3.99), a creamy rice pudding made with basmati rice and garnished with pistachios, or Gulab Jamun ($3.99), deep-fried cheese dumplings swimming in lightly sweetened syrup.
But the showstopper is the ice-cream case ($2 a scoop), with mainstream and traditional Indian flavors such as mango and saffron. The texture is a little grainer than you might expect. One ice cream made in-house is paan, a unique take on the custom of chewing paan leaves stuffed with a sweet filling. Here Bukhari developed what looks like a colorful sundae, but the topping includes fennel and green cardamom seeds and other spices.
It's not for everyone (the uninitiated might say it tastes like soap). But for anyone who grew up in India, this is a sweet taste of home.