A good chaat house can be hard to find. A great one—that gets you excited about every saucy, fried carb-y bite—is worth the drive out to the edge of Queens.
Chaat is one of India's many takes on snack food: a variety of dishes centered around carbs like samosas, fried crackers, or puffed rice sauced with everything from yogurt to tamarind to mint chutney. At its best it's a mix of hot, freshly fried crunchy bites with cool, crunchy vegetables and tangy, spicy, and refreshing sauces for something approaching the perfect bar snack. Many chaat houses take shortcuts, using stale ingredients or chutneys straight from the jar. Which is why you should take a trip out to Mumbai Xpress in Glen Oaks, Queens, home to the freshest, most delicious chaat I've tasted in New York.
We've written about Mumbai Xpress before for their take on a grilled cheese ($5.99), a triple decker white bread stack of potatoes, raw onions, green peppers, bright-green cilantro chutney, and yes, some melty cheese, all working together in bizarrely fresh-tasting harmony. The sandwich maintains its addictive appeal, but the real treasures on Mumbai Xpress's menu are the dozens of chaats.
Take the Tokri Chaat ($7.99), rarely seen in other restaurants. Its defining feature is an edible bowl made of grated and fried potatoes, something like a taco salad shell but crispier, sweeter, and more intensely browned. It's filled with creamy chickpeas, fried chickpea crackers, and onion, topped with cool yogurt, deeply tangy tamarind chutney, and tiny fried chickpea flour noodles called sev. Pick at it with a fork, then start breaking off chunks the potato bowl as you dig in for more.
There's also standout Dahi Batata Puri ($4.99), small crepes that are fried until they puff up, crisp and hollow. They're filled with chickpeas, onions, and a variety of sauces; here they're taken to great heights by a powerful tamarind chutney balanced well with cooling yogurt, and the puri remain crisp under their saucy payload. Take note: eat these in one bite, with a slight slurp as you might an oyster—otherwise they'll fall apart on you.
On the weekends Mumbai Xpress offers Misal Pav ($7.99), popular with some of the Indian families at neighboring tables. The dish comes in two parts: toasted pav, which look and function much like hamburger buns, and the thin curry full of nutty, crunchy matki (moth beans) softened in a warming, coriander- and asafoetida-tinged sauce. Chickpeas and more sev soak up much of the broth for a hearty soup which can be spooned on to the pav and eaten like a sandwich. Chaat is nothing if not exciting to eat, and this dish captures that spirit well.
The kitchen also prepares Dosas ($3.49 to $8.99), but as is the case with many chaat houses, they don't deliver. Here the crepes are thick and spongy, the potato fillings wan. Skip them and stick to the chaat. That also goes for the Frankies ($5.99), Mumbai-style burritos with flaky wraps and spicy potato fillings. The versions at Mumbai Xpress are uninspired and bland.
These are acceptable misses when the chaat is so good—when everything fried is crisp, fresh, and greaseless, and the sauces are clean and abundantly flavorful, not just dumped out from a jar. You can find some very good chaat in Jackson Heights and some great Mumbai-style snacks in the West Village, but for some truly exceptional chaat, this is the place to visit.