Cheap Eats: NaanStop
Home-style Indian food meets the massesMonday November 5, 2012 12:45 pm EST
Before I tell you about the food at NaanStop, let's beat its pun to death with a somewhat NaanSensical Naan Sequitur: Some say the idea of NaanStop as the harbinger of a national chain of Indian quick-service restaurants is a NaanStarter. They say it's a NaanStory. However, in a NaanScientific poll undertaken by Creative Loafing just last week, seven out of 10 NaanSmokers expressed a preference for naanwiches over burritos (smokers actually prefer burritos, but I have no clue why). The notion that NaanStop can't become the next Chipotle is pure NaanSense. NaanSense, I say! Apologies, I had to get that out of my system.
The basic premise of NaanStop is actually quite appealing: serving home-style Indian food in a format that's more accessible to a broader audience than the typical Indian restaurant. For founders Neal and Samir Idnani, that means the recipes come from their mother and grandmother, and the Willy's and Chipotles of the world provide diners with a frame of reference for the basic menu approach. Diners order at the counter, choosing a format (rice bowl, salad, or "naanwich," in this case), a primary ingredient (such as chicken tikka masala or lamb curry), and then top it off with various veggies and sauces (aka chutney). While some of the ingredients (paneer) or words (chola) may be foreign, the basic concept is clear and easy. And the brevity of the menu allows diners to quickly grasp the options, a stark contrast to many Indian restaurant menus that tend toward the encyclopedic.
Let's start with those three formats — a rice bowl, a salad, or a naanwich, all $6-$8 depending on the main ingredient. The naanwich is essentially NaanStop's signature item — a burrito by way of India that uses naan bread as the wrapper. NaanStop's clay tandoor oven fires fresh, hot naan out as fast as the resident baker can press out the dough, throw it into the oven, and dexterously remove it shortly thereafter before brushing it with clarified butter.
NaanStop's naan is appropriately charred and slightly doughy, and can certainly serve as a suitable wrapper for all things delicious, but there is one drawback — with the types of fillings NaanStop offers, a naanwich tends to be messy. On my first visit, I ordered a lamb curry naanwich. The lamb rises far above what you might expect of the fast-food format of NaanStop — the long-cooked meat is of high quality, meltingly tender, nicely spiced — but it sits in a thin sauce that doesn't so much absorb into naan as it does squish outward. A lamb curry naanwich simply makes for a sloppy mess — a robustly flavored mess, but a sloppy one nonetheless.
Both the chicken and the paneer tikka masala (paneer is a fresh, firm, cubed Indian cheese) exhibit a similar thin sauciness that also poses problems for eating in tube form. And those tikka masalas, for both good and bad, eschew the typical creamy, sweet overload that many restaurant tikka masalas exhibit in favor of a healthier recipe that Samir and Neal say is much more in line with how things are done in Indian homes, especially in their home growing up.
So, back to the naan. Personally, the great joy of a good piece of naan comes from being able to wipe up the remaining bits of whatever still sits on your plate after devouring a portion of curry — that last piece of lamb or that little puddle of tikka masala sauce. The naanwich turns that notion on its side. A rolled-up meal may be a familiar format to burrito-lovers and wrap-lovers, but it takes away some of the indulgent experience of more traditional Indian cuisine where the naan is used more freely.
Which leads us to the rice bowl option. Rice serves as the foundation for just about any Indian meal, and, to me at least, NaanStop's rice bowl is a better vehicle for its main ingredients than the naanwich (or the salad option, but you knew that already, right?). You have a choice of brown or white basmati rice, and both come out just right — not mushy, not dry. For the tikka masalas, the lamb curry, and the chola (spiced chickpeas in a light gravy), the rice happily soaks in the intricate sauces and works wonders for the stain-prone like myself who want to avoid dripping sauces onto their shirts. Still eager for naan? You can order a side of it and use it as to finish off that tikka masala.
The one main ingredient that I found to work best in the salad and naanwhich formats is the "kabob," actually chunks of sausage-like ground turkey spiced fairly heavily with a garam masala spice blend. Why? It doesn't rely on its sauce to work its magic. That said, the kabob works best when you play mad scientist with the side sauces and come up with your own personal combination that best balances the cool, sweet, and spicy options of yogurt and cilantro, apple and tamarind, coconut and mint, or chili and cilantro. The chili and cilantro sauce, which NaanStop pegs as "native Indian hot," kicks some serious heat and flavor. It's like crack sauce for those eager to climb the heights of the Scoville scale, though still far from the ghost pepper summit. And NaanStop definitely earns kudos as a Sherpa of Indian sauces for making all of these options fresh in-house rather than opting to serve standard, pre-made chutneys.
No discussion of NaanStop should skip the two sides and two Indian drinks on the menu. Of the two sides, I found one to be like a happy foray into an Indian home and the other to be a misguided detour to Americana. The samosa best captures the idea that these recipes come from the owners' mother and grandmother. Each samosa is a big, flaky, hot, crunchy shell packed with a nicely spiced mash of potato, onion and peas. Cumin pushes its way to the front, more delicate spices lurk in the background. This samosa sings of homemade goodness and happy times. The misguided detour, though, comes in the form of "masala fries" — sad, soggy, limpid fries doused in the same sauces that are much better leveraged as an accent for the samosa. If you dig fries loaded down with cheese sauce or gravy, you just might like these. I don't.
As for the drinks, NaanStop's mango lassi and masala chai, both common Indian mainstays, are both exemplary. The mango lassi, a sweet and smooth mango-and-yogurt drink, gets a hint of cardamom and a sprinkling of cinnamon for a burst of intrigue. It's a perfect foil to anything spicy. Speaking of which, the masala chai tea, served either hot or cold, is layered with spices — cinnamon, clove, black pepper — in fine harmony with the black tea and milk. There's no box of super-sweetened chai "syrup" here (cough, Starbucks), NaanStop's chai is all made from scratch.
NaanStop is clearly on to something with the simple format of its menu paired with high-quality, home-style Indian food. The crowds lining up at lunchtime appear to confirm the appeal — GSU students, downtown suits, and tables of Indian families all seem to be digging in happily to the naanwiches and rice bowls. As for the idea of this being the next big thing, the Indian Chipotle, Neal and Samir insist that they are focused on doing things right at their one little shop in downtown Atlanta, listening to customers and keeping an eye on quality. But to those who think that there's no ambition here to build something bigger, I have one word for you: NaanSense!