Have you ever taken the last few broken pieces of tortilla chips from the bag, put them into a bowl, dribbled some salsa on them, and then ate them with a spoon? If you’re wondering what I’m babbling about, that was my attempt to equate the closest thing we Americans eat to the Indian concept of chaat. But I’m grossly oversimplifying. Chaat is much more complex than my lame example. Indian street food isn’t quite a meal, and it’s not quite a snack. At its most fundamental, chaat can be just crispy noodles topped with some diced tomatoes, onions and chutney. It can also be as intricate as fancy French hors d’oeuvres. Such is the case with dahi puri: hollow puffs of fried dough carefully stuffed with chickpeas, dusted with spices, injected with yogurt, then showered with crispy chickpea noodles called sev, cilantro leaves and diced onion. Chaat can also be hot and filling. Tiki chaat—a fried potato patty drowned in a spiced garbanzo-bean stew as sweet as fruit punch—is as substantial as chili fries.
Orange County has its share of Indian restaurants and markets at which you may have encountered a chaat dish. But at the new Wok N Tandoor in Orange, you can revel in an entire galaxy of chaat. And since it’s a food made to be eaten casually, often on the street, it’s appropriate this restaurant is its first true ambassador to OC. The place took up the space of a taquería and didn’t do much to the layout except add a new coat of paint. Ordering chaat at a fancier venue such as, say, white-tablecloth sister restaurant Wok N Tandoor in Artesia would be as incongruous as eating a dirty-water hot dog at Marche Moderne.
And it’s the chaat that you should try here. There are about a dozen in all. Along with dahi puri, there’s the more basic pani puri, which is the DIY version. You’re given half a dozen of the hollow pastry puffs, bits of boiled potatoes mixed with onion, a tangy chutney, and a bowl of spicy mint water called pani. With your finger or a spoon, you punch a hole through the top of your puri, tuck in some of the potato mixture, dribble in some chutney, and then either fill it with the water or submerge it in the bowl to soak slightly before putting the entire thing in your mouth.
If you want something even crunchier, there are two variations on bhel puri, both consisting of fried noodles tossed in tangy sauces. The Chinese bhel—since it’s as spicy as it is sweet and sour—tastes like Thai mee krob adulterated with Tapatío. The masala fries and the Szechuan fries (which actually resides on another part of the menu with the rest of the Indo-Chinese stir-fries) aren’t traditional. But if they only loosely fit the definition of chaat, they’re also what the non-Indians gravitate toward. One order is enough for two, and the Szechuan version of the fries can pass as a meatless main course. It’s wok-tossed to coat each crisp crinkle-cut potato with a sticky, not-inauthentic sweet-and-spicy Chinese glaze.
You’ll also encounter good pokadas, gram flour fritters embedded with bits of vegetable matter, and samosas, which can be had plain or served on top of more of that garbanzo-bean stew. And then there’s the pav bhaji, a plate of what appears to be spiced mashed eggplant cooked to silk that’s served with two lightly toasted dinner rolls. I asked an Indian friend if I was supposed to make little Sloppy Joes out of it like I did. He laughed and said, “I tear the bread and use it to pick up the gravy, but there’s no wrong way to eat it.”
Most of the customers who’ve already discovered Wok N Tandoor ignore the chaat. They instead hone into parts of the menu with which they’re familiar. I saw a Caucasian family eating slices of pizza, which are huge, engulfed in cheese and slathered by a tomato sauce with whispers of garam masala. Meanwhile, an Asian mom and dad ordered the Hakka stir-fried noodles to eat with their two small kids. Both parties, of course, also ordered bowls of chicken tikka masala.
Though I wouldn’t deny anyone the tikka masala, I would argue the murg malai kabab—slightly charred chunks of juicy breast meat draped in a tangy white cream sauce—is just slightly better. And if you’re still hanging on to your tried-and-true, how about a kati roll, a warm wrap filled with either cheese, lamb or chicken that they’ve somehow managed to fuse a fried egg onto the outside. It’s like an inside-out breakfast burrito. And you like breakfast burritos, don’t you?
Wok N Tandoor, 1948 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 782-7770; wokntandoor.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$30. No alcohol.