First Look: Botiwalla

More Indian street food from the creators of Chai Pani

Wednesday May 11, 2016 04:00 am EDT

A trip inside Botiwalla in Ponce City Market transports me to a canteen circa 1955, in the city of Ahmednagar, India. The British had just left India, granting its independence, leaving behind Victorian-style buildings and a bustling Parsi café scene. The fifth concept restaurant by James Beard Award nominee Meherwan Irani (Chai Pani), Botiwalla has high ceilings, glass chandeliers, and large pink pillars with strict "Rules of The Café" written on it. Another sign says, "No flirting with the cashier." Both are comical riffs on Indian cafe culture. Faint Indian music plays in the background. Posters of Bollywood stars advertising everyday products such as milk and biscuits, cleverly replaced by Botiwalla commercials, bring out the more lighthearted absurdity of this era.

At Botiwalla, Irani has rebirthed his grandfather's Persian Café (called Sarosh Canteen in India) in the bustling urban market in an attempt to recreate the nostalgic flavors from his home. As the name suggests, Botiwalla (meaning "the meat guy" in Hindi), is an Indian-inspired barbecue, where meats are tenderized with lots of herbs and spices and grilled over open flames (called Sigri).

Botiwalla follows many of the same conventions as sister restaurant Chai Pani, but with a stronger emphasis on marinating, grilling, and barbecuing. Street foods such as SPDP ($4.99), crispy puffs stuffed with potatoes and sweet and savory chutneys, and Corn Bhel ($5.99), a savory corn flake salad, are available at both restaurants. The one appetizer specific to Botiwalla comes in the form of crisp and spicy masala smashed potatoes ($3.99) sprinkled with homemade garam masala.

The sigri menu section offers grilled chicken, lamb, beef, and pork, as well as paneer (Indian cheese). Everything is served on disposable plates and is meant to be eaten with hands. The rolls ($9.99-$10.99) are a house specialty, available with tikka chicken, black pepper lamb, grass-fed spicy beef, or tikka paneer. The meats are tender and flavorful as Irani and his executive chef, Davy Choquette (formerly Chai Pani), take great pride in perfecting their marinades and rubs. Wrapped in homemade crisp and warm naan, and topped with red cabbage slaw and mint chutney, the rolls are not huge, but they are satisfying.

The tamarind glazed spare ribs ($14.99) meld sweetness and spice with tender, juicy pork. The ginger-soy glaze is reminiscent of sauces from the Far East. The tandoori fried chicken plate ($13.99) comes with half of a Joyce Farms chicken that has been marinated for two to three days. Ultimately, the chicken is deep fried with the skin on and served with yogurt, red cabbage desi slaw, and parathas, or flatbread, made by Indian ladies (lovingly known as aunties) in the open kitchen. Botiwalla's lamb burgers ($10.99) — one order is made up of two slider-size burgers — are topped with red cabbage slaw and should not be missed. The grilled ground lamb is flavored with warm spices such as cumin and ginger.

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Botiwalla also serves homemade sodas that pair remarkably well with the spicy food. Tamarind cola ($3.75), soda infused with tamarind, fresh lime juice, ginger, vanilla and lavender; and Nimbu Pani ($3.25), an Indian lemonade with a dash of salt, are good bets for the summer months to come. The restaurant does not have its liquor license at the moment, but will eventually serve beer, wine, and few cocktails similar to those available at Chai Pani.

Irani High Tea is another one of Botiwalla's quirky features. High Tea is held from 3 to 5 p.m. on weekdays. The experience includes milky Indian chai brewed with ginger and cardamom and snacks such as milk toasts, buttered Portuguese rolls, baklava, and ginger-cardamom shortbread cookies.

In case diners don't get enough of the Indian culture, they can shop for sundries at Botiwalla's marketplace. Spices, ghee, gur (molasses), pickles, Maggi ketchup, biscuits, and stainless steel tiffin can be found there.

From its vibrant ambiance to flavorful aromas and palatable presentation, this street food-style café is keeping Indian canteen culture alive at Ponce City Market.

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