Choolaah Indian BBQ was a smash-hit in Cleveland, and now it's quietly spreading to the East Coast
The night was unseasonably cold, even for Cleveland; I pulled off of the highway exhausted, hungry—dinner couldn’t come soon enough. I knew the territory well, a busy stretch of Chagrin Boulevard with plenty of good and familiar things to eat, in the middle class suburb of Beachwood; I’d been here many times before. Tonight, however, I was flying blind, on the hunt for something relatively new, and (I was told) noteworthy. There's an Indian restaurant, except it's one of those fast-casual places, kind of like Chipotle, but with chicken tikka, and they’re nailing it. Don't have to tell me twice.
The first good thing I saw at Choolaah Indian BBQ, walking across a nearly-full parking lot and peering into the dining room, clad entirely in glass, was the crowd. One needn't have conducted an in-depth survey in order to ascertain that the restaurant was quite popular with customers possessing at least a passing acquaintance with the art of actual Indian cooking; up front, what appeared to be a large extended family group had pushed eight, ten tables together, tables loaded with recycled paper bowls filled with various curries and snacks, along with a healthy selection of what appeared to be fairly legitimate naan. The second good thing I noticed, entering the expensive-looking, high-ceilinged lobby of what used to be a car dealership, was a line of clay tandoor ovens, placed out in front of the kitchen like a row of soldiers, in order that everyone might admire them. Sure, the place felt very concept-y, and was clearly designed ("Is this your first time with us?") to scale up, and quickly. Still, I felt like I was in good hands.
Then I saw the menu, and damned if they didn’t have me right at samosa chaat. Here I am, by the side of the road in the Midwest, on a cold, dark night, and somebody wants to sell me one of my favorite Indian street snacks of all time, that deliciously simple, multi-textured mini-feast. Here, the dish is described as their “signature samosas” served with chana masala, and then “drizzled with non-GMO yogurt, and finished with sweet & tangy sauces.” Marketing speak never fails to make me shiver, just a little, but at this point, I didn’t even need it to be good, I was just happy it existed. I wanted to eat it all. Out came a generous portion of four little potato and pea-stuffed samosas, crispy and spiced just right, nearly floating away in curry and sauce. Offered up for just a few bucks, this was at least two-thirds as good a samosa chaat as the ones they'd serve me at my long-gone favorite Indian restaurant in Queens, where I used to order it all the time, about a thousand years ago, where they used to be slightly entertained by just how much I liked eating something so simple.
Right then, I could have walked out the door happy—seriously, how far have we come, to where you can get over-the-counter Indian street snacks at highway off-ramps in Ohio, great work, everybody, truly—but I stayed, because now I was really interested. Also, it was 19 degrees outside. I wasn’t ready to deal.
Clevelanders Simran Sethi and her husband Randhir Sethi used to be engineers; back in 2014, along with partner Raji Sankar, they opened the first Choolaah, named in tribute to the traditional Indian stove (chulha), here in Beachwood. Fun facts—the group honed their restaurant-owning skills operating a string of Five Guys franchises; the Sethis spent two years in India working on recipe development, before debuting their dream concept. Choolaah was a hit, to say the least—today, there are more partners, there are big, beautiful restaurants in Northern Virginia, suburban Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, a total of five locations, and perhaps more soon. Eschewing anything artificial, sourcing quality meats and poultry, and using their own custom spice blends, there is a strong emphasis on fresh, wholesome, clean eating—I ate an entire order of the samosa chaat, a bowl of chicken tikka, lots of rice, some naan too, and I still felt nearly virtuous. (I also really liked that my meal didn't cost much more than a burrito bowl and a side of guac and chips at Chipotle.)
There are a number of ways to approach the menu, but like any respectable fast-casual eager to grow, bowls are sort of the backbone of the thing, and you can load them up however you like them; you can get spicy, or you can go mild, you can do naan wraps filled with halal lamb, or with tandoor-cooked paneer, made by Amish cheesemakers just down the road, and you can also get pav bhaji, that hearty, Mumbai-style snack, vegetable curry served with hot buttered rolls, another thing you would not typically expect to find in a place like this. (Order this. You'll like this.) An impressive selection of the food is vegetarian, vegan, and sometimes gluten free; there are charming little naan pizzas for the kids, there is a sweet ice cream tinged with green cardamom, there is imported Alphonso mango kulfi ice cream, there’s a mango lassi, and, because this is America, at least six special house sauces to choose from, which you can have with everything.
Choolaah isn’t the only Indian fast-casual looking to stake a claim—while there are plenty of fascinating one-offs to keep an eye on, there are also plenty of mini-chains, already in waiting. San Francisco’s Curry Up Now is one to watch, even if their menu of chicken tikka burritos and loaded waffle fries tends to sometimes veer away from the sublime toward the food truck-ridiculous; Texas has the more traditional-skewing Tarka Indian Kitchen, with eight locations doing fired-to-order naan; New York has had the serviceable Kati Roll Company for some years, serving up Calcutta-style wraps, while Denver’s Biju Little Curry Shop, with just two locations for now, shows real promise. Choolaah’s pitch, however, is one of the strongest, right now—good, healthy food, strong flavors, few gimmicks, nice prices, and a management team that seems to have things in hand. With any luck, we’ll see Choolaah by many more highway off-ramps in no time.