Forget those turmeric lattes from those corporate chains — authentic South Asian chai is headed to Downtown Chicago. Chiya Chai, the Logan Square chai and momo specialist, is poised to open a quick-service location in June at 79 E. Madison Street in the Loop. Ownership sees an opportunity as an American version of a chaiwala, the group of merchants which supply drinks to offices all over India.
But the business isn’t dependent on office workers returning to downtown, says co-owner Rajee Aryal. She says downtown landlords are eager to work with reliable tenants, as COVID-19 has changed the landscape for property. That’s provided Chiya Chai with an opportunity and Aryal sees a niche to fill. Though certain types of chai can pack a punch, caffeine isn’t what the drink is about. It’s versatile enough to be restorative during a hangover, but it’s also mellow enough to chill. With centuries of history, it’s the original mocktail and Aryal and her family want to popularize that notion.
“With South Asian culture, this is what you do when you want to wind down, take a break and pause,” Aryal says.
Beyond the Logan Square location — which sports a full kitchen where cooks make paratha, rice bowls, chicken wings, and savory pies — Chiya Chai also has a small location on the Chicago Riverwalk. This quick-serve space by the water helped introduce the restaurant to new customers — both downtown and suburbanites made weekend visits. While the menu with scaled down to snacks — samosas, pies, and chaat (panipuri) — a full arsenal of chai was made available. Rice bowls are also headed to the Loop for a quick meal.
On Madison, Aryal says they’ll use induction burners to prepare chai traditionally, giving it more body and flavor. But for those who don’t want to wait, bottled chai — in four varieties — will be available. The drinks are also good for use in baking for the home cook, Aryal says.
Chiya Chai imports its chai from Nepal from a family farm, and before opening its Chicago restaurant, the family had a restaurant in the Twin Cities which still operates. They’ve taken to expanding the business to selling loose-leaf tea at various stores in Minnesota. Many of those teas are Ayurvedic, an ancient form of health care popular in South Asia. This treatment has soared in popularity in America, but it’s nothing new for the owners of Chiya Chai. A family member in Nepal is a well-known doctor who practiced the medicine, Aryal says.
While the health benefits from Ayurvedic medicine are disputed, chai is a more charming alternative to coffee. It’s much easier to drink multiple cups daily.
“People want a more healthy alternative to caffeinated drinks,” Aryal says.
Chiya Chai, 79 E. Madison Street, planned to open by the second week of June.