Chaat in Little India: Superb Street Snacks
James Gordon | Sept. 30, 2011, 10:08 p.m.
When it comes to street snack food, one can make a good argument that India’s chaat reigns supreme. When it came time to write about chaat, the LA food community’s consensus was that the chaat at Jay Bharat and Surati Farsan Mart, half a block away from each other, are the two to try.
Chaat varies by region. These two chaat places both concentrate on the Gujarati version. There is a wide variety of chaat, but the general idea is that dishes come with an array of chutney spices, like mint, curry, and coconut. The best thing about chaat? All these flavors can be mixed together.
Stepping in Jay Bharat feels like entering a '50s diner, except everyone else there will inevitably be Indian. A lit up sign spelling “Sweets and Snacks” lies over the counter where you place your order. My first order was Pani Puri ($3.99), a common chaat dish that provides an explosion of flavor that will make your taste buds feel like they just survived Humans vs Zombies. Pani Puri, not to be confused with the other numerous puri-based chaat dishes, involves small crispy puffs of bread. You punch a hole in the bread with your finger, so it becomes a cup, and then load as much spice as physically possible in the sphere of goodness. You pop the entire cup in your mouth, and suddenly it’s Christmas. This venerable dish is spicy though, and at some places it can be really spicy. If you can’t manage to get all the spices in the five pieces of puri that are given to you, order another set of five for $1.50. (After debating briefly, I decided on a new set, and it ended up being a good life decision.)
Bhel Puri ($3.99) is a delicious cereal-like combination of crispy puri, puffed rice, beans, and potatoes. The ingredients are mixed with chutney spices and topped with onions and cilantro. I could spoon this stuff in my mouth for hours. Ragda Pettis ($3.99), a dish from the Bombay region, is similar, but does not involve puri and has potato in it. Perhaps the best dish of the day was the Kathi Roll ($5.49), a roti burrito filled with potatoes, peppers, and onions. Roti is an excellent type of bread made throughout much of Asia. The roll comes with a wonderful curry-flavored chutney.
Our last order at Jay Bharat was a dosa. Dosas, popular in southern India, are typically eaten during breakfast and are not considered chaat, but these giant, stuffed, rice crepes are certainly worth it. I got the Myodora Masala Dosa, which was filled with potatoes, peas, and spices. The correct way to eat it is to rip off a piece, twist it so it is in a spoon shape, and load the various chutneys that come with it.
I also decided to try a Mango Lassi ($2.99), which is an interesting cold drink to accompany your meal. I recommend it if you get excited by odd-tasting drink creations. Another Lassi option is Salt Lassi (also $2.99), which is great if you get excited by odd-tasting drink creations that have salt in them.
Jay Bharat was satisfying on all counts, but I still wanted to see if Surati Farsan Mart could compare. It can. In fact, I’ll risk the wrath of chaat experts and say that it’s even better. If Jay Bharat is a '50s diner, Surati Farsan Mart is a New York Deli. When I got there, at least twenty Indians were lined up, waiting to get their chaat ingredients. You get a receipt with a number and when your number is called, you go pick up your food. Simple enough, except at Surati Farsan Mart, you’ll probably have no idea what anything is. I thought ordering at Jay Bharat was hard. There are over 100 options at Surati Farsan Mart, literally. Eating here can get fairly serious. The tables have salt and pepper on them, except the pepper is red pepper.
I ordered Bhel Puri ($3.99) again for comparison purposes, and it was certainly on par with Jay Bharat’s version. I then tried the Paratha Shak ($5.99), a roti bread dish that comes with spiced potatoes and yogurt. The samosas ($2.50), which I felt was an obligatory common Indian food order, were also high quality. Dhel Puri ($3.99) is similar to Pani Puri, but with different yogurt. My final order was Pav Bhaji ($3.99), a vegetable curry that comes with hamburger buns. I was a bit confused by the presence of hamburger buns in my Indian meal, but apparently the real buns that come with Pav Bhaji are very difficult to make and are only sold by vendors in India. Clearly, the solution in America is hamburger buns.
If you like Indian food, particularly cheap Indian food, you’ll love chaat. Vegetarians rejoice, because these two chaat joints use no meat at all.
Jay Bharat Restaurant, 18701 Pioneer Blvd, Artesia, CA (562) 924-3310
Surati Farsan Mart, 11814 186th Street, Artesia, CA (562) 860-2310