* This year, I’m on a quest. My grail? Good, cheap eats in University City.
After all, University City has a 30,000-student campus, a major research park and a branch of Central Piedmont Community College, one of the largest and most noted such institutions in the nation. We ought to have interesting and inexpensive food, too, like you find on Ninth Street in Durham, Franklin Street in Chapel Hill or just about everywhere you wander in Asheville.
The good news is that there are several worthy fooderies near campus. You just have to look, sometimes in odd places. Without wading into the debate about whether UNC Charlotte – and, by extension University City, as a whole – needs an interesting collegiate neighborhood center and why it doesn’t have one, let’s focus on what we do have.
Let’s start on Mallard Creek Church Road, across Interstate 85 from the UNC Charlotte campus. A Trader Joe’s has set up shop there near the intersection of Claude Freeman Road.
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Like colorful small turtles in the spring crawling up on the big turtle’s log, appealing eateries and shops are starting, little by little, to occupy strip-mall slots nearby. There’s already a Starbucks (that hardly counts anymore, but this one, in my opinion, is the friendliest in the area, sans drive-through but with a long counter).
In that strip between Starbucks and Trader Joe’s is Adisil, a new locally owned place with a novel vision for the future: Indian fast food. We all eat tacos, pizza and egg rolls; why not curry and chapatis, too?
Adisil is easy to miss. It’s just another door by the parking lot, down from a beauty parlor, a temp agency, a number of other fooderies and, appropriately perhaps, a Weight Watchers. Only the savory scent of South Indian cooking gives a tantalizing hint that something unusual is going on.
The restaurant, only a couple of months old, is the brainchild of two young Indian entrepreneurs, Logesh Janarthanan and Dharani Shanmugam. It is a far cry from the usual Indian sit-down restaurant or Indian buffet.
A high-tech version of the old menu board – four flat-panel screens hooked to a computer – flashes on the wall behind the counter. You order as you would in any fast-food restaurant. Some dishes, such as curries, rice, chutneys and vadai (savory fritters, some shaped like little donuts), are on display, ready to serve. Other orders are made fresh, back in the kitchen.
And Adisil qualifies for cheap-eats honors with a curry sandwich for 99 cents.
The food is based on traditional South Indian cooking but reaches out to a wider audience. The staff reflects the restaurant’s “global village” philosophy.
Janneth Flores, originally from Tijuana, Mexico, and Tia Johnson, from Charlotte, were working the counter the day I visited. They confidently explained the dishes, expertly pronouncing long Indian names with the assurance of linguistic anthropologists. Both have become fans of Indian food.
“I like it,” Johnson said. “And I like the idea. People come in and say, ‘This is easy. It’s like ordering at Chipotle.’ ”
Flores agreed, calling the food “the best of both worlds.
“It is really good – the rice, the spices – though we are trying to make it appeal to more Americans by making it a little less spicy. And it lets you know about another culture’s food.”
Johnson prefers chicken chukka, a fried chicken with Indian spices. Flores’ favorite dishes are the vegetarian fried rice and the spicy chicken. Some foods, she said, have an odd familiarity, likening some Indian breads to “big flour tortillas.”
Adisil is already popular with Charlotteans from India. A neatly dressed man in line working his cell phone said it was his third visit. He grew up in South India but now lives in Charlotte and works close by; University Research Park is just across the road.
“The food is just like home,” he said, looking up from his phone with a smile.
The next customer was a return visitor. His one-word review: “Awesome.”
I enjoyed everything I ordered, especially the vadai (fritters) with their tasty dipping sauces (especially the coconut one).
Adisil is fast food – you don’t go to McDonalds or Subway for haute cuisine – and there will always be a place for fancier, sit-down Indian restaurants. But at Adisil, you can get a tasty serving of the East and still make it back to work on time.
I also enjoyed the payasam, a sweet rice-and-milk (or coconut milk)-based desert, with pistachios, almonds and other tasty things. The potato curry was excellent as well.
Adisil also features some intriguing beverages, including nannari, a traditional South Indian herbal drink made from a root important in ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine. The restaurant offers both a drink (nannari sarkath) – which Flores and Johnson said tastes a little like lemonade – and a slushy, similar to the popular nannari sherbets sold in street food stands across South India.
About that 99-cent sandwich: It’s just be a simple sandwich on toast, with tasty Indian curry and vegetables (add an egg for another dollar), but in these costly times it is both surprising and compassionate. If you forgot your wallet and are down to the change in your car, this can hold you.
Rajesh Melkyur, Adisil’s chef, explained that the sandwich is inspired by “tea shop” food in South India, where people want something quick and inexpensive.
Founders Janarthanan and Shanmugam are both 20-somethings with engineering degrees. Janathanan has also already launched a software firm and an energy company. Shamugam suggested the Charlotte location for the restaurant. If all goes well, they hope to expand, beginning in with additional locations in Charlotte, then across the Southeast.
Janarthanan said that a common perception is that Indian food in spicy and expensive.
“We wanted to change that image and try to offer delicious, healthy and fresh food for very reasonable price,” he said.
He also believes Adisil is good for you: “Indian food has a lot of medicinal value, as this involves a traditional way of cooking with spices and herbs, which is a natural ingredient for good health.”
Be sure to ask for an extra copy of the paper placemat Adisil places on trays. It is a primer on Indian spices, with an explanation of health benefits of each spice.
On average, Adisil is very reasonably priced: a meal costs between $5 and $7, and snacks less, with nominal charges for chutneys and the like (less than 50 cents each).
The name Adisil, meaning “art of cooking,” was suggested by Shanmugan’s mother. Unfortunately the word shares other definitions: “Adisil” is also the name of a tetanus vaccine and an unrelated international aid organization, and it bears a resemblance to any number of prescription medications.
Then again, McDonald’s used to refer to an old farmer with sheep that ba-ba-ed here and ba-ba-ed there, or to a particularly rowdy Scottish clan. So, who knows what the future holds?
For the present, Adisil brightens University City with bold new tastes, ready to go when you are ready to eat. And when times are hard, their $1 sandwich will see you through.