Rajbhog sweets: A visit to India

Indian restaurants tend to follow a familiar formula.

There's a buffet line of curries, rice, raita and chapatti bread. A couple of stainless steel cafeteria pans are hidden within one of those buffet contraptions with the sliding door cover. They're loaded with chicken or lamb roasted in a traditional tandoor clay oven: burnt offerings to appease the American hunger for meat.

Beside the cash register you'll find a gilded statue of the Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, with his companion and personal Segway, Moshika the rat.

Most Indian restaurants in University City follow that model, and I'm not saying they don't have their virtues - I'm partial to Passage to India at the corner of University City Boulevard and Old Concord Road - especially when you have the time and money for a serve-yourself, sit-down feast.

But what if you are in hurry, and not exactly rolling in money, given the recent economy?

India is justly famous for its street food and "chaats" (snacks). They fill the bill for cheap eats perfectly. Unfortunately, we don't yet have anything like Chai Pani, the Indian street food café in downtown Asheville.

But Rajbhog, an inviting restaurant and Indian food store on Mallard Creek Church Road, just across Interstate 85 in the Pinnacle Shopping Center, comes mighty close.

Rajbhog's prices are right; that's for sure. They offer a long list of snacks, all under $3. Lunches and dinners cost a bit more but come with side dishes and, best of all, Indian sweets.

"Mittai" (sweets) are Rajbhog's specialty. There's a long glass case filled with them: glistening globes and rainbow squares with enticing names like ladoo, burfi and jalebi. Loosely translated, the name "Rajhbog" means "a royal offering to the gods," and truly these are heavenly concoctions.

Shortly after it opened here three years ago, my daughter's piano teacher, a Tar Heel born and bred, excitedly recommended Rajhbog:

"I worked for a while in India," he told us, "and I just couldn't get enough of their sweets. Finally, finally, there's a place I can get them in Charlotte!"

But sweets are only part of the story. On Rajbhog's menu are chaats such as samosas, the classic crusty potato-and-peas snack topped with chutney and yogurt, and more adventuresome temptations such as aloo tikki chaat, a crispy potato patty topped with onions, chickpeas and chutney.

The restaurant also offers lunch and dinner, in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions. I tried a vegetarian plate, with a vegetarian chole of chickpeas and a spicy kadhai paneer, served with rice and paratha bread, dahl, yogurt and a sharply salty pickle chutney. It was very good - and for the price, outstanding.

Eating Indian food is like listening to an orchestra. There are gastronomical passages of sweet strings, blasting brass, lilting woodwinds and an occasional crash from an eye-watering chili pepper.

Rajhbog's food, if spicy, never inflicts pain on Western palates. Taken together, it's a symphony of contrasting flavors. Rajbhog's delicious specialty Masala tea is the director, setting the tempo and melding things together.

For dessert, co-owner Parathana Singh made up a small box of mittai. If you like sweets, you'll love Rajbhog. Americans are proud of our cosmopolitan palates; we happily chow down on tacos, spaghetti and chow mien. But these sweets truly could be from a galaxy far, far way; they are like nothing I've ever tasted before.

The story of Rajbhog in University City is a double tale of the American dream. The original Rajhbog started in Jackson Heights, N.Y., two decades ago, when Indian immigrants Ajit and Lata Mody started a small sweets and snacks shop.

The store was a success, and the family began to franchise locations in places with large Indian populations.

In Charlotte, two entrepreneurially minded homemakers and neighbors, Singh and Lakshmi Saranthy, heard of the opportunity and launched a local outlet in October 2008. The two added a unique twist: an Indian grocery right beside the deli counter.

Singh is from Nepal and Saranthy from South India, so they come from contrasting cultural worlds thousands of kilometers apart. The immigrant experience brought them together, and their store warmly welcomes people from everywhere.

"We have people from all over coming here: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh," Singh said. "We also have lots of Arabic people. We respect all religions. And we have many African-Americans, lots of Americans of all kinds, who like our curries.

"And our prices are very reasonable. We are so happy to have students from UNCC come here."

Rajbhog is an informal place. You order at the cash register. When they call your number, you pick up your food and eat at a table in the dining area.

The market shares the same space as the café, with a separate cash register surrounded by neat stacks of 20-pound bags of rice in dozens of varieties. Beside them are stainless steel shelves stocked top to bottom with enticing spices, shaggy coconuts and a subcontinent's worth of other food offerings. You are welcome to shop, Singh said, and then stay for a snack.

After dark, when festival lights decorate the windows and incense scents the air, Rajbhog transforms into an Indian bazaar pulsing with color and culinary adventure. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, has just ended, but the restaurant plans to leave the lights up through Christmas.