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.
Most Indian restaurants in University City follow that model, and I'm not saying they don't have their virtues, 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?
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. 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. 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. For dessert, co-owner Parathana Singh made up a small box of mittai. If you like sweets, you'll love Rajbhog. My only caution is that, like my piano teacher friend, you may find them addictive.
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. "
Rajbhog's food is good and the price is right, but the biggest bargain may be the chance to visit a little piece of the Indian subcontinent just across I-85.