Over the last few years, the patios outside F-11’s cafes have become a favourite haunt for students and young professionals smoking and drinking coffee late into the night. And now, breaking into this scene dominated by international coffee chains is Lahore’s Chai Kada promising no nonsense traditional Punjabi dhaba food.
The small cafe with an open storefront has liberally appropriated the loud colours and folk imagery of truck art. Everything from the cafe’s name to the cheeky Punjabi inscriptions on the walls are a celebration of lowbrow culture and Pakistan’s collective love for chai.
Parked at the entrance is a bright yellow rickshaw, perhaps the only one in the capital city, adorned with bright floral patterns which boasts the cafe’s slogan on the windscreen in calligraphic letters chai meri jawani, Chai Kada mera nakhra which roughly translates to ‘chai is my youth and Chai Kada my attitude’.
Visitors are greeted by warm, spicy aromas as tea, milk and crushed cinnamon and cardamom bubble over stoves placed near the entrance. In true dhaba fashion, every few minutes a ladle full of chai is raised and poured back with theatrical flurry.
The menu is printed onto a decorated slate in Urdu and offers seven different types of chai, desserts, samosas, parathas, buns as well as coffee and cakes.
The karak chai is a beautiful dark brew, a true truckers drink which demands to be slurped not just sipped and takes one to bucolic driver hotels along the G.T. Road. The rich and creamy doodh patti made with fresh buffalo milk warms the soul, while the romantic chai and masala chai with hints of cardamom, clove, ginger and cinnamon are a treat to the senses.
In this part of the world, a combination of tea and paratha is almost natural and Chai Kada offers a variety of parathas.
The lachay dar paratha is a Punjabi favourite made using a special technique of layering dough kneaded with clarified butter. The result is a crumbly golden brown paratha, enjoyable on its own but perfect when dunked into a cup of sweetened chai.
For a more filling meal, diners can opt for one of the stuffed parathas. The chicken paratha with a spicy minced meat, onion and cilantro filling perfectly balances spice with the freshness of herbs making a delectable dish which works at any time of the day. The aloo paratha however is lacking in flavour and has too much stuffing which leaves the exterior a bit soggy.
The true star at Chai Kada is the bun pluster, a treat in a city devoid of street food. This old favourite lightly fries super soft buns in melted butter layering it with fried egg, minced meat and in the special version also adds a potato cutlet.
The result is a burger that melts in your mouth combining the homely flavours of bread, butter and egg with the spiciness of meat, reminiscent of a street cart at an old railway station. But unlike its street cart version, the bun pluster at Chai Kada is not drowning in butter and is hence lighter.
Wasif Mehmood, who was eating at Chai Kada with his family on Sunday, said he had entered the cafe looking for traditional flavours and had found it. His wife Parveen Wasif said she is a chai enthusiast and was satisfied with the strong brew she had here.
The upscale dhaba is not a new idea but in a young city scoured clean of street carts, the offerings at Chai Kada are a welcome addition. And at a time when restaurants are increasingly ostentatious in decor but fail to impress with their food, the simplicity of the culinary experience at Chai Kada is refreshing.
Originally published in Dawn, July 10th, 2017