Review: Man could live on bread alone at Chai & Chai
Chai & Chai
Danielle Lirette Uttapam dish at Chai & Chai. Browse through more of Chai & Chai's menu slideshow.
12501 East 17th Avenue, Aurora
Last fall an unassuming little place named Chai & Chai opened in an unlikely stretch of fast-food restaurants at the heart of the Anschutz Medical Campus. I'd heard it had good dosa -- good enough to nab the Best Dosa award in the Best of Denver 2014 -- so one night I headed east, past City Park, past Stapleton, past the Latino businesses that spring up along Montview Boulevard, until I turned onto the campus, where brick behemoths that are beehives of activity during the day grow eerily deserted at night. I thought it would be easy to find parking at that hour, but the adjacent garage was for staff only, and the gravel lot down the street required a permit. Finally, I decided to risk a ticket and headed for the lot, assuming that parking would be my greatest adventure of the night. I was wrong.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Chai & Chai
Inside the restaurant, a voice that could have belonged to Siri's sister was chirping from a computer at the empty hostess stand, waiting for someone to confirm a takeout order. After a few attempts, the voice grew impatient -- or maybe that was us, since we were still waiting to be seated. "You seem to be having lots of trouble with this question," it said loudly, and suddenly the situation seemed so much like a scene out of a hidden-camera show that we started laughing, as did the two other guests in the dining room. Still, no one appeared: no camera crew, no servers, no hostess, no cooks behind the plastic divider that reveals Chai & Chai's setup as a grab-and-go at lunch.
Danielle Lirette Inside Chai & Chai.
Finally a server/hostess arrived full of apologies, but when we tried to place our order of dosa, chicken tikka masala and lamb vindaloo, we learned that the Indian chef had gotten tired and gone home: There would be no Indian food.
Now, I've been in blizzards and gotten food. I've been in tiny villages late at night where no one speaks English and gotten food. I've landed late on Christmas Eve and still found a place with the lights on. "No food at all?" my husband asked. "No Indian food," the server clarified. "Our Arabian menu is still available, though."
That was my first inkling of the challenges facing owner Venu Alla, an Indian architect and tech consultant who got into the restaurant business with Chai & Chai, a dual-concept restaurant serving both Indian and Arabian food. Rather than offering fusion, the two kitchens operate separately under one roof. On the Indian side is Rajesh Kannan, a dosa chef who honed his skills at Masalaa and turned out that terrific dosa. On the Arabian side is Enas Khalili, a Jordanian who is said to have cooked for the Royal Jordanian Army. (Until last month, the owners of a Thai restaurant, Sue of Siam, were also using the space to put out Thai food for lunch on Mondays.) And if that sounds like a complicated endeavor, it is. "There's no synergy," laments Alla. "Except salt, there's nothing they share." Not spices, not ingredients, and apparently not recipes, since Khalili was unable to cross borders and pitch in.
If we hadn't worked so hard to find parking, we might have left at that point, so eagerly had we anticipated the dosa. Instead, we ordered from the Arabian menu, which includes a mix of standard Middle Eastern fare and Jordanian specialties. Some were tasty: The baba ghanoush had a deep smokiness unmuddied by too much tahini; crisp falafel broke apart to reveal a green, pleasantly grainy interior; and chicken shawarma featured morsels of tender, marinated white meat, crispy minced cabbage, and tahini over a mound of rice. But other dishes, sampled on this and subsequent visits, weren't worth the hassle, such as hummus that tasted not of garlic or tahini, but fizzy lemon; soggy baklava; and deep-fried kibbe stuffed with cold lamb.
Danielle Lirette Falafel and hummus at Chai & Chai. Check out more pictures from Chai & Chai.
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