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First Look: Chai Pani, Decatur

Chai Pani is one of the hottest restaurants around right now. The Asheville-by-way-of-Mumbai Indian street food shop’s new Decatur outpost has been busy since opening earlier this month in the former Watershed space, boasting a vibrant atmosphere and a menu of snacks, sandwiches, and traditional thalis.

The look: Meherwan Irani, who grew up near Mumbai, is the executive chef behind the concept and the menu. Meherwan’s wife, Molly, is in charge of the front of the house and the creative design. Together, they’ve put together an atmosphere that’s both colorful and comfortable — sort of Bollywood-meets-contemporary cool.

The scene: On a recent Sunday evening, there was a line outside long before the doors opened for dinner service. An hour later, the place was packed, and there was a wait for a table. The mix of families, couples and young singles was similar to what you might see at nearby Ponce de Leon fast casual spots, Taqueria del Sol or Farm Burger, except Chai Pani goes full service at dinner.

The menu: Brightly-flavored Indian street snacks (chaat) lead-off Irani’s “mindblasting” offerings, with familiar items like a samosa dressed in chutney ($3.49), and lesser known plates like okra fries tossed in lime and spices ($6.99). Among the Indian sandwiches and wraps, served with a side, look for the Sloppy Jai ($9.99), a Sloppy Joe take with spiced lamb hash. Recent traditional thali meal specials include saag paneer ($16.99) and pork vindaloo ($17.99).

The drinks: The full bar features an imaginative selection of cocktails, craft beer in bottles and on draft, and wines by the glass or bottle. A whiskey sour ($9) is mixed with fresh lime, Kashmiri chili powder, simple syrup and egg white. A recent beer list included several selections from Asheville’s Highland Brewing Co., including Gaelic Ale and Oatmeal Porter ($5).

The extras: The “Little People” menu ($1.99-$4.99) offers kid-friendly takes on Indian food with the likes of rice and daal, cheese and tomato uttapam, and, of course, chicken fingers.

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