When Sarbjit Bhullar decided to start a business, he wanted to focus on one particular subset of Indian food: street snacks.
While Madison has many Indian restaurants and some do include fast food, most are more focused on curries and other entree dishes. At Chaat Cafe on Madison’s west side, the focus of the menu is almost entirely fast food.
“There was nothing like this where customers can just walk in, eat real quick and go on their way,” said Bhullar, co-owner of Chaat Cafe with Charnjit Singh.
The chalkboard menu at Chaat Cafe is dominated by three main categories: parantha platters, chaats and street snacks. There are also wraps, burgers and biryani, a fragrant rice dish.
Chaat's street snacks are mostly variations of poori, a puffy and crunchy bite-size bread shell topped with various things.
Dhai poori ($5.99), for example, was eight poori shells broken on their tops and filled with chickpeas and pomegranate seeds, as well as deep-fried chickpea noodles called sev. Each self-contained poori offered a blend of crunchy and soft, sweet and tangy, helped along by yogurt and chutney.
Parantha (also known as paratha) is an Indian flatbread with folded layers of dough, stuffed and usually served at breakfast dish. Bhullar said that in the United States, diners eat parantha at all hours of the day.
“Really there is no timing for it over here,” he said.
Most common is aloo parantha ($5.99), stuffed with mashed potatoes and served as a platter with cilantro, yogurt and onions. At Chaat Cafe, it was warming, comforting fall food.
As for the chaat, the namesake of the month-old cafe, Bhullar said in India it would be sold from food carts, street vendors and small shops. Chaats vary widely from one to another, but they typically include a fried dough, potato pieces, chickpeas, spices and yogurt.
The abundant samosa chaat ($5.99) at Chaat Cafe came with two samosas buried by chickpeas, chutneys, tomato and cilantro. The cafe had seven different chaats on offer in early October, and advertises more to come.
Bhullar said he used to go to one shop in India regularly to eat chaat. When he found out he would be relocating to the United States, he went every day for a month and “just go eat eat eat,” because he was certain he wouldn’t be able to get that here.
“Everyone knows their street carts, their street corners,” Bhullar said. “Now I’m trying to give them that here.”
Bhullar moved to Madison from Dallas, Texas, in 2010. In addition to running Chaat Cafe, he works as a personal real estate agent and in the cafeteria at UW Hospital. Bhullar's sister, Jaspreet Kaur, and chef Vikas Mohammed handle most of the cooking.
Chaat Cafe does have a significantly smaller curry-based menu in addition to fast food options, but Bhullar’s considering getting rid of that menu altogether. Street food has been the main draw.
The restaurant also boasts a colorful dessert case with traditional Indian sweets, which are popular in gift boxes. Some of the sweets are from Chicago, but Bhullar wants to hire someone who can make all of them in house.
In the month that Chaat Cafe has been open, Bhullar said he’s already getting regular customers.
“Now they can come and enjoy real street food and fast food, which we were missing,” he said.