Please welcome Sara Markel-Gonzalez, of the blog Under the 7 Train, who will be joining us with a weekly look at the best eats in Queens. —The Mgmt.
Chaat is the perfect snack food. There is an art to making this popular Indian treat—essentially crunchy fried dough with various toppings—and there are as many variations of each dish as there are people who prepare it.
Regardless of the exact ratio of ingredients, the basic combination of flavors and textures remain the same—an explosion of sour, sweet, salty, spicy, and sharp on the tongue, playing off the crunchy, chewy, creamy, and soft bits in each bite. In a samosa chaat there are temperature contrasts as well; hot, crisp samosas smothered in cold and creamy yogurt. Pani puri, another chaat variety, are puffed rounds of crunchiness, meant to be poked open and stuffed with potatoes, chickpeas, chutneys, and mint or masala water. After biting into the puri's hard shell, the mouth is immediately filled with a sensation that is simultaneously spicy and soothing. Genius.
I have a special place in my heart for chaat, ever since a co-worker introduced me to its wonders over ten years ago. Luckily, I live just a few blocks away from a large concentration of shops that sell this special snack, in the lovely neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. But with so many different shops it is often difficult to decide where to go for a chaat fix.
A tour of Jackson Heights chaat, after the jump.
This long winter seemed the perfect time to embark on a chaat challenge, with the goal of finding a favorite place to frequent. The rules:
- 1. Order the same chaat dish at as many shops, restaurants, and counters as I can find in the Jackson Heights area. Papri chaat is the chaat I chose for my challenge.
- 2. Make no special requests or specifications on how the chaat should be mixed, let the preparer work their own chaat magic.
Papri (or papdi, as sometimes spelled) are fried flakes of dough, formed from flour and oil. At its most basic, papri chaat consists of the crunchy bits as a base, mixed with raw onions, pieces of boiled potato, chickpeas, and chopped cilantro. It's then topped with yogurt, tamarind chutney, cilantro chutney, sev (another fried item, in which batter is pushed through a press and resemble very thin, very short vermicelli), and sprinkled with chaat masala.
Within a three-block radius, I found seven different places.
A very large portion ($4.99) served up on a styrofoam plate. It had all the right elements in perfect balance. The papri was crisp and fresh-tasting. Instead of chickpeas, the legume of choice here are mung beans, green and brown. The yogurt was thin and smooth, there was an equal amount of tamarind and cilantro chutneys, the boiled potatoes were uniformly chopped into small pieces, and the white onions were sharp, just enough tossed throughout to add flavor but not overpower. Sweet, sour and tang were harmonious on the plate, and the crunch of the papdi and sev were set off by the soft potato and the mung beans.
The woman behind the counter mixed it up in a large metal bowl as I watched. I took my tray and sat at a table by the window—snacking on chaat, sipping some masala chai, and watching the snow fall as Bollywood movies flickered on the flat screen.
Highlights: Well-balanced combination of flavors, fresh ingredients
7227 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens 11372 (map) 718-458-8512
Known for their dosas and other South Indian specialties, Dosa Place also has a chaat section on the menu. Unlike Rajbhog, which is a sweet shop with a counter, this a sit-down restaurant. (The waiter was a little shocked that I only ordered chaat and tea during prime lunch hour, but I was on a mission.)
As I sat and waited for my food to come, I was treated to a lively discussion on Indian pride and culture between two customers sitting on opposite ends of the small restaurant. It was loud and lively. I loved it.
The chaat ($5.95) came out on a real porcelain plate, and was quite different from the previous one. The papdi were crisper and darker, the onions were red instead of white, and there were no potatoes in the mix. The chutneys were slightly more sophisticated and flavorful. The tamarind was sweeter, the cilantro flavor was more pronounced, and the dish was spicier from a hearty sprinkling of chaat masala.
The biggest difference, however, was that the chickpeas were served warm. The taste was earthy and strong, with much more liquid at the bottom of the plate to dip into. The warm chickpeas against the cool yogurt was refreshing. Although the plate was smaller, and slightly more expensive, the ambiance, along with some relaxing instrumental music, plus the impromptu history lesson, more than made up for that fact.
Highlights: Warm and tasty chickpeas, unique chutneys, musical accompaniment
3566 73rd Street, Jackson Heights, Queens 11372 (map) 718-397-1000
This tiny chaat house also serves momos and other Himalayan treats. The walls are postered with fliers about Tibet. On the counter sat a thermos of self-serve masala chai next to another, filled with butter tea. It's a real hangout—the tables were all filled, and I wished, not for the first time in my life, that I had been born a Tibetan man. I would sit and chat with these guys all day, drinking butter tea.
The chaat ($5.00) was different from the previous two. It was also the largest portion, served in an aluminum tin. The papri were round disks, made from a slightly sweeter dough. The potato chunks were quite large. Aside from the typical chickpeas, chopped cilantro, red onion, and sev, this chaat had lots more yogurt, and instead of cilantro chutney, a red chili sauce. I could detect an element of sweetness in the liquid that pooled at the bottom of the container, but the delicate balance of flavors in a more "traditional" papri chaat were overpowered by spice and tang.
Highlights: Unique flavor, high spice level, fantasy hangout for anyone who longs to be a Tibetan man
37-19A 37th Road, Jackson Heights, Queens 11372 (map)
Delhi Heights is another sit-down restaurant. The menu is quite extensive, and it's a white tablecloth kind of place, with prices to match. They do have a snack section on their menu, so I gave the Dahi Aloo Papri Chat ($4.95) a go.
This is the first place where I chose takeout, and they packaged the chaat to go in a very smart way, so as not to get soggy. Papri, red onions, chunks of tomatoes, chopped cilantro, and potatoes, all mixed in a black plastic container. Layers of yogurt, tamarind, and cilantro chutneys sat in a separate pint. I was meant to mix my own, at home.
The papri was the crispiest I've come across, even after combining the wet elements with the dry. It also has the honor of being the smallest serving of chaat on my challenge, but it was an appetizer on the menu. Speaking of the menu, despite the description—"A mouth watering mixture of crisps, potatoes and chickpeas in a tamarind sauce"—there were no chickpeas to be found. Nor was there any sev, which I missed sorely.
Highlights: Clever packaging, addition of tomatoes, extra-crispy papri
3766 74th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens 11372 (map) 718-507-1111
Maharaja Quality Sweets & Snacks
A good chaat ($4.99), served on a small china plate. Maharaja is a sweet shop with a vegetarian buffet and table service. Our waiter was incredibly unfriendly and would barely look at us as we ordered. (This, according to my chaat companion that day, just home from a month in India, made the experience that much more authentic. I liked him, despite himself.)
The papri were nice and crisp. This was the most textbook chaat of the bunch. Chopped cilantro, small potatoes, cold chickpeas, tomatoes, white onion, yogurt, tamarind and cilantro chutney. Nothing stood out; it was tasty and crunchy, as it should be.
Highlights: Strange service, simple but classic flavors.
Maharaja Quality Sweets & Snacks
73-10 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens 11372 (map) 718-505-2680
Raja Sweets & Fast Food
This was a chaat ($4.99) with yet a different flavor. This one was made up of round disks, similar to Bombay Chat, but crisper pieces with smaller bubbles and slightly sweet. Like Bombay, it was also served in an aluminum tin. There was no sev garnish. The onions were white, and the potato chunks were again, very large.
The dominating flavor was sour, and although the tamarind chutney was quite sweet, there was not much of it. The biggest difference between this chaat and the one at Bombay was that there was no heat at all. The chickpeas were of a different variety—smaller, darker, and not as creamy as their larger cousins, but a nice change. I enjoyed the crunch of this papri, but I much prefer the flour-y, denser version than this lighter, crisp kind (which has more in common with a wonton wrapper).
Highlights: Unique chickpeas, large portions
Raja Sweets & Fast Food
7231 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens 11372 (map)
Al Naimat Restaurant & Sweets
I peeked in the window of this Pakistani sweet shop and buffet not expecting to find any chaat, but it was right there on the menu hanging over the counter, so I had to try it. This papri chaat ($5.00) was a new experience. It had lots of yogurt, and large chunks of potatoes, plus chickpeas, but the base of this chaat was made from lentil fritters soaked in yogurt, with bits of chopped green pepper. The only chutney used was a bright red one, which was fairly sweet, but I could not discern the flavor once it mixed with the yogurt.
The papri were tasty and fresh, with some spice in the dough itself. What I really missed in this chaat was onion, and some sort of heat. It was the least colorful chaat of the bunch, but the most unique.
Highlights: Lentil fritters, extra fresh and flavorful papri
Al Naimat Restaurant & Sweets
3703 74th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens 11372 (map) 718-476-1100
Or Just Make Your Own...
After all of my chaat tasting, I stopped at Patel Brothers supermarket to pick up all of the ingredients to make my own version at home. Papri, Sev, and Chaat Masala set me back $7.00, I already had the rest of the ingredients at home. I boiled potatoes, chopped onions, and then mixed them and the papri with yogurt, tamarind and cilantro chutneys, threw on the sev, and a very hearty sprinkling of the chat masala. Voila, my very own papri chaat.
Costs more than $5.00, but I have enough raw ingredients to make it everyday for a week, if I so desire.
3727 74th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens 11372 (map)
So What Have We Learned?
The price across the chaat scene in Jackson Heights is consistent, staying around $5.00, though portion sizes are unsurprisingly larger at less expensive restaurants. The question still remains, after all of this eating—did a chaat champion emerge?
There is no clear answer, and no clear winner. Each plate tasted had some great elements, and each place visited was special in its own way. Chaat is a dish that inspires variety, originality, and is based on personal preference and taste, so it is near impossible to judge any one best. I failed my challenge—deliciously. Now the challenge is yours, Serious Eaters. Where do you get your favorite chaat and why?