Good thing we showed up shortly after the doors opened at Bombay Street Food in Columbia Heights. Within minutes of being led to a booth in back, my companions and I looked up from our menus to find every seat occupied and a crowd gathered in the entrance.
“I should have opened in D.C. from the start!” says Asad Sheikh, once the owner of five Indian restaurants in Northern Virginia, including three branches of Curry Mantra. Before setting up shop in the District last month, he sold his suburban collection to some employees but retained two of his chefs, Pradip Shrestha and Dolly Khan, who enjoy partnership in Sheikh’s latest production.
Like the name says, Bombay Street Food brings together the snacks and small dishes of the owner’s native Bombay (now known as Mumbai). Cue the samosas, potato patties, bhel puri and misal pav, the last a gravy of mung sprouts strewn with the short chickpea crisps called sev and eaten with a toasted bun. The kitchen’s fried spinach dappled with yogurt is no match for the first-rate palak chaat at Rasika (the newcomer’s version is both greasy and sweet), but seconds, please, of the keema pav: minced lamb shot through with dried red chilies and green chile paste, also eaten with a bun and served on a stainless steel tray with chopped vegetables. Same for the spiky vegetable fritters coated in gram flour and fried to a fine crisp. You’ll find them under a category called “monsoon,” which gathers snacks Indian families tend to eat in the comfort of home during rainy season, says Sheikh, including “cutting” chai, a half-glass of tea spiked (in this case) with black pepper and fresh ginger.
Distinguishing itself further from the competition, the kitchen also offers a handful of Indochinese dishes. Once it hits the table, chile chicken, draped in an onion-y sauce that veers from spicy to sweet, goes fast, like White House press briefings.
A roll call of popular Indian entrees — chicken tikka masala, lamb rogan josh, saag paneer — round out the selections, which include a biryani best ordered with tender lamb in the mound of fragrant steamed rice. “Must try,” implores the menu, and I second. Beer and wine are available for knocking back a feast.
Illuminated with strings of lights and perfumed with warm spices, the narrow dining room is a quirky mix of orange and black banquettes and scenes of daily life in Mumbai. One of several eye-catching murals in back pays tribute to the late Anthony Bourdain. Clutching vada pav (vegetable burgers) in both hands, the CNN superstar grins broadly in the photograph. Fried spiced potato patties can have that effect on a diner.
Sheikh has just begun to make his presence known in Washington. The restaurateur still wants to open a place that sells nothing but crowd-pleasing butter chicken (a deal for the idea in Georgetown fell through earlier this year) and he’s considering a chai stall somewhere. You might, too, if you were selling 300 glasses of spiced tea a night, as Sheikh says he is at Bombay Street Food.
1413 Park Road NW. 202-758-2415. bombaystreetfood.us. Entrees, $12 to $18.