Ah, the romance of Botiwalla!
I’m not talking about candlelit tables for two. Quite the opposite. This boisterous stall in Ponce City Market is all vintage-style camp, sunny mercantile and cheeky Rules of the Cafe stenciled to one of those PCM pillars. There are 15 of these commandments, including “No mischief making,” “No stealing newspaper” and let’s not leave out “No petting (heavy).” Light petting, it seems, is allowed. Even so, I’m not talking about that kind of romance, either.
Botiwalla’s romance is the dreaminess in our server’s eyes as he described nightfall on north Indian city streets, when outdoor grills called sigris come aglow to char up meat for commuters headed home.
It’s also the life story of chef-owner Meherwan Irani, whose Persian great grandfather immigrated to India, where Persian, Indian and Anglo flavors mixed to create a new cuisine called Parsi. The places where such goodies were sold were called Irani cafes.
Since fate had given the family the surname of Irani, it was only natural that this immigrant’s son would open an Irani cafe in his hometown of Ahmednagar, India. And, now, his great grandson has created a version of his own, after triumphing with Chai Pani, his funky Indian street food cafes in Decatur and Asheville.
After one bite into any of Irani’s smoke-kissed, delectably charred meats, wrapped in buttered naan or heaped with crispy sweet “desi slaw,” you’ll buy into the Botiwalla romance, too.
I could start with the starters, a winning trio of chaat, but it’s likely your dishes will come in no particular order. Whatever’s flipped off the grill first is ferried to you then and there, wafting such intoxicating aromas that you’ll want to pounce on each dish the moment it hits the table.
So, I’ll start with the tamarind-glazed spare ribs. They were haystacked in the middle of a humble cardboard tray, accompanied by a little cup of raita, an origami’d pancake of the griddled bread called paratha and a couple of lime wedges.
Each sesame seed-dusted rib was beautifully burnished; every edge and corner blackened and crisped. Yet, the pork was not a bit overcooked. It was silky and juicy and intensely flavored with soy sauce, garlic, ginger and that fruity ping of tamarind. The spice level was far from extreme, providing a pleasant low burn, maybe a little tingle on the lips. Those who want more heat can order a dollop of Mother’s mango pickle.
Like the ribs, the twin lamb burgers were beautifully charred and surprisingly moist within. Even if they weren’t, they’d get ample lubrication from their irresistibly squishy, buttered buns and heaped slaw (not too creamy, not too sweet) as well as green chutney and a hint of ketchup.
These slider-sized patties are one of the menu’s best sources of those Persian-Indian flavors, with cumin and mint dancing with ginger and cilantro. They play especially well with Botiwalla’s version of fries, called Masala Smashed Potatoes. These are fingerlings — fried up, warmly spiced, salted and lime-spritzed, then walloped with something heavy. They’re wonderfully ugly, with both crunchy edges and little explosions of potato fluff.
About the chicken tikka roll, I can only repeat my carni-praise: It offered more uncommonly moist meat, more big, fire-sealed flavors. This time, the charred goodness was bathed in a thick drizzle of green chutney and a heap of red onion slivers and cilantro. It was a lovely, fresh handful, all tucked into some uncommonly great naan (the delicate rounds thin and butter-brushed, a little sweet and crisped to perfection).
The chaat, called SPDP, were spherical hollow crisps (puris) stuffed with chilled delights that included potato, onion, a dash of tart tamarind and, most compelling, thick yogurt and a crunchy cap of chickpea noodles. The texture here was as alluring as the flavors, and the cool, creamy yogurt was just the thing to calm a spice-addled kisser at meal’s end.
Or, you could go with a traditional dessert, like a rustic Shrewsbury biscuit, stamped with a B and studded with chunklets of candied ginger. The biscuit was just a simple bit of buttery shortbread, but it also felt like an encapsulation of Botiwalla itself — cozy and clever and a touch old-fashioned, with bursts of huge, spicy flavor.