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The Other Fast Food Nation: India

Almost ten years after the Kati Roll Company mainstreamed South Asian street food, it’s getting some spicy competition.

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Old Delhi's bhel puri.  

Masala Times
194 Bleecker St., nr. Macdougal St.;212-477-3333.
The intersection of Macdougal and Bleecker Streets has long been a microhub for Indian fast food, with one storefront metamorphosing from Indian Bread Co. to Aamchi Pao and then, a year and a half ago, to its current incarnation, where Mumbai-bred owner Hemant Phul takes inspiration from his hometown’s Bollywood industry. One wall is accented with slick pink swirls and lighting is kept nightclub-dim, even during the day. North Indian street-food snacks bear movie-biz monikers—a spicy lamb kebab is “Critics Choice,” while a roll-up of eggs, onions, and peppers is dubbed “Super Hit.”


Indian Crêperie
190 Bleecker St., nr. Macdougal St.; 212-777-7188.
The expansion-minded Phul opened the neighborhood’s only South Indian storefront last month, and though it’s just two doors down from his Masala Times, it’s a subcontinent apart in cuisine and décor. Crêpelike dosas (right) star, some encasing regionally specific fillings like Kerala beef and chicken Chettinad and folded into the triangular shape Phul considers his signature spin. With its sun-splashed façade and jars of colorful spices, the sixteen-seat space feels more kitchen than club.


Desi Shack
331 Lexington Ave., at 39th St.; 212-867-3374.
This month-old midtown canteen aims to replicate its Indian-Pakistani riff on the familiar burrito-chain formula all over town, down to the option of rice plate (right), salad, or roll. While choices are limited to grilled chicken, lamb, paneer, or potato, add-ons range from hot green chiles to corn salad. Truly authentic it’s not, but quick, satisfying, and cheap is good enough.

The MasalaWala
179 Essex St., nr. E. Houston St.; 212-358-9300.
This brand-new Desi joint offers a mix of traditional and newfang­led grub, ranging from kati rolls and samosa chaat to more fusiony fare like batter-fried fish and an Indian-spiced omelette. “Lunch Box Specials” offer a choice of curry or grilled proteins with rice, salad, and vegetables for $12 or less, and an iPad ordering system and biodegradable tableware are industry advances you won’t see on 6th Street. “Think of this as the Indian Chipotle,” says owner Roni Mazumdar, a former tech-industry project manager.

Old Delhi
101 Lexington Ave., nr. 27th St.; 212-683-2293.
Tamarind Tribeca’s Peter Beck consults at this quick-service spot, which keeps its grills sizzling with the cooked-to-order fillings for its generously sized roti rolls (think kati rolls, except grilled rather than fried). “Veg” options range from paneer to collard greens, while “non-veg” include various preparations of chicken and lamb, which tend to pack some heat. There’s also a 99-cent menu stocked with morsels like samosas and onion bhaji. Note: The windowless lower-level dining room’s basement-rec-room vibe makes takeout the better option.


Thelewala
112 Macdougal St., nr. Minetta Ln.; 212-614-9100.
Shiva Natarajan already had a mini-empire of sit-down restaurants around town (Dhaba and Bhojan among them) when he opened Thelewala, specializing in the street food of his native Kolkata, in April. The joint’s proximity to the Kati Roll Company hasn’t stopped the throngs from climbing the stairs to the cramped yet elegant takeout-shop digs outfitted with marble counters and test-tube-shaped Edison bulbs. The brief menu’s main attraction is the array of “famous Nizami rolls” (right)—kati rolls named for Kolkata’s Nizam’s restaurant. These can be stuffed with chicken, lamb, paneer, egg, or some combination thereof and supplemented with snacky “Chaatwala” offerings like the puffed-rice-and-chickpea dish bhel puri.


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