New Delhi, India
March 11, 2013
We decided it was high time we visited.
Khan Chacha was originally a tiny takeaway counter in Khan Market; there was no room to sit, though if you weren’t particular, you were welcome to stand on the cobbled street outside and munch away. Now, Khan Chacha is a proper sit-down restaurant: and yet not quite. The eatery lies up one flight of stairs (no lifts or escalators here, so be warned), and we felt an odd sense of having wandered into a place that didn’t quite know what it was. The dining area had a bare concrete roof (with wires here and there), the walls were scuffed along the bottom, and there was an odd something that resembled a futuristic chandelier, but with the lights all removed—we never did figure out what it was. The red upholstery on the chairs was terribly stained (it was just as well we didn’t notice it when we sat down). We got the impression that this had once been a fancy restaurant which had (in classic Khan Market style, where many eateries are here today, gone tomorrow) shut shop—and the Khan Chacha people had taken it over, but not got around to doing anything much about it.
I don’t even think they will do anything about it. The non-existent décor (the walls are covered with newspaper cuttings of the many articles praising Khan Chacha; one panel consists of photos of—presumably—satisfied customers), the style of functioning (self-service), and the general air of rather tatty but brisk business makes this place feel very much as if a street vendor had moved into the shell of a plush restaurant and decided to go on just the way they were used to.
Khan Chacha has a fairly limited range of kababs and tikkas: chicken tikka, mutton seekh, mutton kakori, fish tikka, and around three vegetarian options. There’s also one curry (mutton korma), a few aerated drinks, canned iced tea, canned juices, and kulfi. Each of the kababs and tikkas is also available as a roll, stuffed inside a roomali roti with mint chutney and sliced onions. These rolls seem to be best-sellers—we saw lots of people ordering them, probably because they’re easy to eat, even if you’re standing.
My husband and I decided to, for once, steer clear of the more common mutton or chicken options. We chose a fish tikka, a paneer tikka, a mutton korma, and three roomali rotis. Orders have to placed (and the money paid up right then) at the counter just inside the main entrance. When you’ve paid up, you’re given two copies of the bill, one of which has to be given at the kitchen counter for them to start preparing your food. A digital display above this counter flashes your order number once your food’s ready to be picked up.
While we were waiting, the place filled up around us. Khan Chacha doesn’t have much seating—only about eight tables or so—and there was a crowd hanging around beside our table, waiting for their food to be prepared. After a while, it got downright claustrophobic, and (worse still!) a janitor came by and sprayed some very strong-smelling room freshener, which made me feel nauseous for a few minutes. Thankfully, our food wasn’t ready then; if we’d been eating, we’d probably have had to abandon the rest of our food.
By the time our order number appeared, the smell had dissipated, so we were able to enjoy the food—or enjoy it as much as we could. My husband collected our tray of food (all of it served on foil-lined paper plates; the mutton korma, since it’s a gravy-laden curry, comes in a takeaway plastic bowl with a lid). Along with the food, we’d also been given a small plate of sliced onions, along with some rather thin mint-and-yoghurt chutney, which had spilled all over the onions.
The paneer tikka was what I tried first. The paneer tasted very fresh, but the spice rub on the tikkas lacked flavour. We ended up having to dunk the tikkas in the mint chutney to give them some flavour.
My husband had been rather apprehensive when he first saw the fish tikkas, because they were a very virulent dark red in colour (a result of food colouring—the same stuff that’s added to tandoori chicken). He liked the fish tikka, though, and thought it was better than most of the fish tikkas he’s sampled at other kabab joints. I, on the other hand, found the fish tikkas rather iffy. Some weren’t bad, but a couple of pieces tasted frightfully fishy—a sure sign of none-too-fresh fish.
What we both agreed on was the mutton korma. This came with two pieces of meat (not huge amounts of flesh), covered in a spicy korma gravy. The gravy, though it was extremely oily, tasted excellent. The meat was well-cooked enough to be falling off the bone.
Our meal over, we chose to order dessert as well: kulfi falooda, the only dessert on Khan Chacha’s menu. The same procedure—order, pay, present bill at service counter, pick up food—applied here too, but because fewer people order desserts, there wasn’t a queue here. The man at the freezer sliced our kulfis into thick rounds, scooped lots of slithery falooda over each plate, and handed them over. The kulfi, we agreed, tasted good, but had been frozen badly; we could feel tiny crystals instead of the smooth creaminess of a really good kulfi. The falooda (something I’ve never really cared for) was actually pretty decent—it was very thin, almost like angel hair pasta, which allowed it to complement the kulfi well.
We paid Rs 864 for our meal, including VAT. That’s not expensive for a place located in Khan Market, but we both wondered what it is that makes people rave about Khan Chacha. The kababs were average, the ambience terrible (did I mention the loud, blow-your-eardrums-out music?), the cleanliness suspect. The next time we want good kababs, we won’t come here, at any rate.
From journal Kabab Town: Finding Delhi's Best Kababs