Fervent fans and devotees of Chai Pani’s matchstick okra fries — the irresistible starter siren call of the James Beard 2022 Restaurant of the Year — can rejoice with the opening of Meherwan Irani’s third Botiwalla (697 Haywood Road) but the first in Asheville. (The other two respectively opened in Atlanta and Charlotte). Thanks to its location in less tourist-trodden West Asheville, locals and out-of-towners can easily snag those fries without the headache of navigating downtown streets and parking and at the same time discover another iteration of Indian street food, particularly kababs.
Botiwalla Asheville, which opened August 28, anchors the corner of a small strip center in the heart of Haywood Road’s retail corridor and fills the space that was BimBeriBon, Eve and Reza Setayesh’s beloved vegan-friendly casual cafe. Even before it permanently closed in early 2022 due to a family health crisis, Irani had been in discussion with them about taking over the lease. “West Asheville has been on our radar a long time, but Covid put everything on hold,” Irani says. “This spring we looked in that area again. A second Chai Pani would be confusing for tourists specifically looking for that experience. The Botiwalla model fits West Asheville perfectly — family-friendly, kid-friendly, easy to get in and out, the food comes out quickly and the design fits the West Asheville aesthetic.”
Where BimBeriBon was soothing neutrals with pops of green and loads of plants, Botiwalla explodes with color, quirky decor elements, amusing signage, and one big insider joke shared by Irani and the Chai Pani Restaurant Group creative director Mikey Files. “Mikey and I are fans of classic Indian movies and have always laughed about the random jump in all of them from the storyline to a musical scene which transports the main characters to the Swiss Alps or a big pasture to perform a song and dance routine. There’s absolutely no sense to it.”
Though painted walls and murals are consistent with Chai Pani and Botiwalla interiors and exteriors, the large back wall in the West Asheville Botiwalla demanded more. “Mikey came to me and said, ‘How about a diorama?” It’s brilliant, way more epic than a mural.” The 3D depiction of a couple in a meadow framed by mountains and another couple beside a snazzy red convertible inexplicably parked in the scene was done on-site by Luna Nuñez. The Argentinian artist also hand-painted the Rules of the Cafe (No line cutting, no bargaining, and no flirting with cashier among them), the Botiwalla High-Class Restaurant sign, and the Chicken Man mural, which Irani explains is an iconic advertising image in India that he and Files fell in love with.
There are more throwbacks to the Irani cafes opened by the Parsis in India in the late 19th century. The merchandise stacked on shelves beside and behind the order counter reflects the provisions the original cafes stocked to accommodate the British; the shiny stacked steel tiffins used as lunch boxes by Indians to transport home-cooked food to work; the crystal chandelier lighting fixtures, dark wood booths, and marble tabletops. Personally, photographs of generations of Meherwan Irani’s family — all the way back to his great-grandfather, the first family member to immigrate to India in 1800 — are framed and mounted on another wall.
The entire space was opened up to provide booth and table seating and create an open kitchen so diners can see the sights, smell the smells, and even hear the sizzle. The okra fries are unique to Asheville’s Botiwalla, but not the only popular Chai Pani menu item to emigrate to this concept.
Don’t forsake the bhel puri, a crunchy, spicy, savory with a touch of sweet pile up of puffed rice, flour crisps, chickpea fried noodles, tamarind, and green chutneys and a generous sprinkle of fresh cilantro.
Gobi – fried cauliflower seasoned with ginger, red chili, and coriander – is another light snack to precede one of four rolls of fat, puffy, grilled hot buttered naan wrapped around chicken tikka, malai chicken tikka, boti lamb kofta balls, or paneer tikka. The lamb sliders on toasted buns are also among Chai Pani’s greatest hits.
Desi salads are entree-sized elevations of the red and white shredded cabbage desi slaw tucked into all the rolls; have it plain or punch it up with the same proteins. Boti rice bowls replace the naan with basmati rice, fried onions, whole-roasted plum tomatoes, and are topped with a protein or vegetarian skewer of your choice, and a side of raita for dipping.
Beverages include mango lassi, lime Ricky, chai tea; and boozy slushies for grown-ups. Just one dessert for now — gulab jamun, milk dumplings fried in ghee and soaked in rose-cardamom syrup.
Irani says that the Atlanta Botiwalla in the Ponce City Market is in its compact size and rusticity most similar to what one finds in India; the Charlotte location in Optimist Hall is the biggest and most polished. The West Asheville space with that epic diorama and all those ancestors on the wall speaks most clearly from his heart, “This is the model moving forward. It’s our Goldilocks.”