Sitting here in November with freezing toes and fingers, it's hard to believe that it was 100-degrees the day I visited Desi Chaat House in University City, but it takes extreme situations to get me to cross the Schuykill River into the western regions of the city. We were looking for a reason to get out of our un-air-conditioned house, so savory Indian snacks it was!
Desi Chaat House's searingly bright orange corner store is set up for take-out, although there are are a few seats at a window counter and a small table wedged near the door. A few outdoor tables along the sidewalk are available, too.
The affordable menu has odds and ends like wraps, soups, biryani, lassis, ice cream, and shakes, but the main draw at Desi Chaat House is obviously the chaats. Chaats are savory snacks made of various crispy little bits of fried dough combined with all sorts or toppings and mix ins like onions, chickpeas, yogurt, chutneys, and spices. There are twenty or so chaats at Desi Chaat House to choose from. I'm only familiar with about five chaats on the menu, so after choosing my favorite, we just pointed and hoped for the best.
Behind the counter are canisters containing all the different crispies, bottles of sauces, and pans of vegetable add-ins. Once you place your order, they get to assembling your chaat in a to-go container, reaching here and there, going down the line until the masterpiece is assembled.
I'm ashamed to say I do not remember which one of the specialty chaats this is. Bengali, Mumbai, Punjabi? Either way, what you have is a salty, sweet, spicy, tangy potpourri of many different crispy bits, accented with potatoes, onions, radishes, lentils, nuts, cilantro, yogurt, tamarind sauce, and spicy chutney. It's a profoundly delicious textural playground of intense flavors that cover any Indian cravings you might have.
As a special, Desi Chaat House had my favorite Indian chaat, dahi puri — crispy fried semolina puffs filled with potatoes (and sometimes curds or chickpeas), then topped with yogurt, sweet chutney, spices and sev. Unlike any place I've ever eaten dahi puri, Desi Chaat House gives you the makings of dahi puri, and has you assemble your own. This involves breaking out the top of each individual puri puff (not too easy with a plastic fork), then filling and garnishing them. I'd much rather they made them for me. These dahi puri were great, but there was so much more going on ingredient-wise in the filling than I'm used to. I have a feeling that the chaat artists at Desi Chaat House lack restraint when it comes to ingredients. I also missed the finishing sprinkling of spicy chili powder that usually comes with dahi puri when they are made in a kitchen.
The vegetable samosas comes sitting on a vibrant bed of chickpeas, onions, yogurt, cilantro, and sweet and spicy chutneys. Unfortunately, the yogurt makes the already soft, pre-made and cold samosas even soggier. Perhaps one needs to request freshly made samosas. Service is definitely friendly at Desi Chaat House, and if the guys behind the counter have a moment, they will chat with you, and perhaps offer you a free dessert, like they did for us. I wish I could recommend the pistachio and almond-topped Lahori-style rice pudding from Desi Chaat House's grab-and-go fridge, but it is impossibly thick and sweet. Imagine rice mixed in sweetened condensed milk. This Pakistani take on rice pudding is not my favorite style.
While not printed on their paper menu or on their chalkboard menu, there is a 8.5x11-inch piece of paper posted listing which chaats are gluten free or nut free. Also, you can request any chaat be made vegan by simply leaving off the yogurt.
Despite a soggy samosa, having to assemble my own dahi puri (it's not really that hard), and a too sweet dessert, I'm in love with Desi Chaat House, and their vast array of chaats. I happen to love chaats more than curries, but If you love Indian food and Indian flavors, you are also going to love Desi Chaat House.
Desi Chaat House
501 S. 42nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19143