Spice Waala | Seattle Times Critic’s Pick | ★★★½ | Indian | $ | Capitol Hill | 340 15th Ave. E. Suite 202, Seattle; 206-466-5195; spicewaala.com; Wednesday 5-9 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; no reservations
SPICE WAALA’S GREEN CHUTNEY is so good, you’ll want to dip your life into it. It smells intensely of cilantro and mint, the color freshly verdant; its texture is thick, with millions of tiny herb-bits still intact. The limey-bright smell carries through in the taste, and it’s got the right amount of salt, but it’s also definitely garlicky, with more kick that might be red onion and maybe green chili. Husband-and-wife owners Uttam Mukherjee and Aakanksha Sinha aren’t telling what’s in it, and why would they? Mukherjee says any Indian will tell you that chutney is critical, and they put theirs on almost everything they serve. The greatness of this chutney is one of the things that’s propelled Spice Waala from a farmers-market cart to a brick-and-mortar spot on Capitol Hill in a little over a year.
The new place is a modest one: order at the counter, with seating consisting of three wooden tables with benches, four bright-yellow stools and one kids’ high chair. Décor is minimal but cheerful — colorful versions of their turban-and-mustache logo, jars of spices — and the dotty-patterned ceiling is from where they peeled off ceiling tile, then decided it looked nice.
The menu appears modest too, just seven items total plus two housemade beverages, everything under $10 — the better to eat your way through it. Mukherjee and Sinha call it “Indian street food that is unapologetically authentic to us,” and they’re pretty unapologetic about how they’ve found Seattle’s Indian food lacking. To hear them tell it, a lot has been lost in translation — they ate at all kinds of places and found food fattened up with cream, brightened up with food coloring and watered down with, well, water (in the case of chutneys). They’ve found Indian food in general in the United States to be stereotyped versions of the same dishes, some of which aren’t even actually from India. When asked if they’d recommend any Indian restaurants around here besides their own, the only place they can come up with is Kirkland’s Kathakali — which, they hasten to add, is Southern Indian food, completely different from what they do.
Mukherjee and Sinha’s family homes are both in the north of India, his in Kolkata (though he still calls it Calcutta), hers in New Delhi. Food was important in both their families, and — unusually, they say — along with their mothers and aunties, both of their fathers loved to cook, too. (Mukherjee says his dad always did it with a beer in hand and a cigarette in his mouth.) They met in college in New Delhi; Sinha went on to get her Ph.D. in social work, and here in Seattle, she’s a professor at Seattle University, while he’s a brand manager for Procter & Gamble.
Apparently not busy enough, they started Spice Waala. To their immense gratification, other people from India said their food reminded them of home; customers started coming back with their relatives to share the joy. For others, like me, who may not know the multitude of Indian cuisines very well but suspect they haven’t always had the best, Spice Waala can be a revelation.
THE KATHI ROLLS that are the main dishes here sound simple: four different proteins, each garnished with Spice Waala’s beautiful green chutney and red onion, then rolled up in the thin Indian bread called roti and served wrapped in silver foil. The most popular is chicken tikka — not the creamy-orange chicken tikka masala, but tender hunks of rich thigh meat that get a 36-hour marinade including coriander, garam masala, cumin ginger, turmeric, garlic and more. After a spell on the grill, it tastes toastily smoky, with a complex savoriness and a moderate, creeping spicy heat. Just the right amount of orange grease is evident on the pliant, elastic roti, which sports just the beginning of browning-bubbles from its own time on the grill. (Having found a supplier they’re happy with, they do not make their own roti, and they do not care to share where they’re getting it. But if you’re shopping for Indian ingredients for home, their wholesaler also runs Bellevue’s retail Apna Bazar.)
The lamb kebab kathi roll is my current favorite, with the ground lamb also getting a day-and-a-half marinade, coming out soft and yielding and tender as a dream, deeply flavored with another secret mix of spices, just shy of too salty. It’s perfect with the Himalayan Blue lager they serve — but, then, so is the kathi roll filled with crumbly-fresh, housemade paneer. I ate a leftover Spice Waala aloo tikki roll for breakfast recently — filled with crispy-fried-outside, multi-spiced potato patties, it’s best ordered Calcutta-style with an egg fried onto the roti (which also makes it an even more excellent breakfast).
The potato patties find another marvelous format at Spice Waala: aloo tikki chaat, billed on the menu as “iconic Indian snack.” During our interview, Sinha let me watch her assemble one. She topped the tender, golden-fried potato cake with a pool of sweetened yogurt, then added a tangy-sweet tamarind chutney; some of the signature cilantro-and-mint chutney, plus more fresh cilantro and red onion for good measure; little cubes of beet; and a fine shower of sev, which is tiny pieces of crispy noodles made from seasoned chickpea batter. “Sweet, savory, salty, creamy, crunchy …” she said, “you get it all in one plate” — or in one precious cardboard clamshell to-go container, in this case.
Leftovers of aloo tikki chaat also made a stellar breakfast. So would Spice Waala’s mango lassi, which Mukherjee describes to uncertain customers as a yogurt smoothie — not quite justice to its beaming orange-gold beauty, its tang combined with sunshiny tropical sweetness. Part of its wonderfulness is that the mango used is pulp imported from India, where, both Mukherjee and Sinha will tell you with feeling, the mangoes are so much darker and sweeter. Also, there’s nothing low-fat about the dairy in it. Be sure to also try the masala chai — “not the Starbucks kind,” they say — subtle, unsweet, warm with ginger and cardamom.
Spice Waala’s food also seems like a natural for buffering the indulgences of late nights — fast, portable, extremely savory-satisfying — and Mukherjee and Sinha say they not only hope to increase hours soon, but, eventually, expand far beyond that. More outlets, importantly, would also mean enlarging on their company’s two-pronged social-justice mission. First, Spice Waala invests in workers by paying a living wage surpassing the legal minimum, by providing a flexible allowance for benefits and by sharing profits with them. Second, Spice Waala works for the community by partnering with and supporting local nonprofits. To the latter end, they’ve already donated funds to Lifelong’s HEYO program for at-risk youth and 100 pounds of rice to the Asian Counseling and Referral Service food bank. If their provision of high-quality, super-tasty, affordable food represents a public service, they seek to do even more.
But before starting down an ambitious-sounding path — someone may have mentioned “the Chipotle of Indian food” — they want to expand Spice Waala’s menu beyond the current seven items. Their experiments become specials: maybe potato or lamb samosas, or the Indian spiced rice pudding called kheer. Every time I’ve ever been, however, the special is already sold out. Once, instead, they’d put an Anthony Bourdain quote on the chalkboard: “The more street food we have … the better world we have.”
Spice Waala: 340 15th Ave. E. Suite 202, Seattle; 206-466-5195; spicewaala.com; Wednesday 5-9 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.
Highly recommended for husband-and-wife duo Uttam Mukherjee and Aakanksha Sinha’s inexpensive, super-delicious Indian street food “that is unapologetically authentic to us”
Prices: $ (snacks $3-$5, kathi rolls $7-$8)
Noise level: loud when crowded
Service is order-at-the-counter, helpful and friendly
Drinks: $3 mango lassi and masala chai; $6 22-ounce Himalayan Blue or Snowman beers
Access: seven steps in the entrance, no elevator; men’s and women’s bathrooms in the hall; high chair available