Last week, Nani’s Piri Piri Chicken opened in the expanded Ponce City Market Food Hall. It’s the second location for the concept from Asheville, North Carolina-based Chai Pani Restaurant Group and chef-owner Meherwan Irani. The first iteration debuted in The Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville in November 2020.
Inspired by Irani’s daughter’s maternal grandmother, known as “Nani” in Indian culture, the restaurants specialize in items made with Joyce Farms all-natural chicken, which is marinated, then rubbed with house piri piri from Spicewalla, Chai Pani’s sister spice company.
In addition to rotisserie chicken plates served with flatbread and two sides, the menu features the Chicken Salad Melt, Nani’s Chicken Burger, and Nani’s Salad. Homey but not too heavy sides include confit potato salad, green bean salad, Mediterranean orzo salad, savory corn pudding, dirty rice, and house-made piri piri chips.
Nani’s joins a growing number of Chai Pani Restaurant Group restaurants, including Botiwalla in Ponce City Market and Charlotte, North Carolina, the renovated Chai Pani in Decatur, and the original Chai Pani, Buxton Hall Barbecue, and the newish Buxton Chicken Hall in Asheville.
Last week, Irani sat down at a table near the Nani’s order counter to talk a bit about the restaurant group’s reactions to the pandemic, and explain how Nani’s grew from that experience.
“While most people were hunkering down, I just went out and opened a bunch of restaurants,” Irani said, stifling an ironic laugh. ”The pandemic was a catalyst. That’s the best way to put it. It forced everybody to figure new things out that they never imagined they’d have to figure out. The way I reacted to it was essentially asking what are the ways that people are going to eat differently?
“With Chai Pani Asheville, it didn’t seem like anything needed to change. It has become iconic. It’s a landmark. There’s a line around the block. And The New York Times recently put it on their list of 50 most exciting restaurants in the country, which was crazy 12 years in.”
With that, though, Irani realized that going forward, it still was going to be difficult sometimes “to get people out of their houses to experience good food.”
“It’s almost like the third space in the restaurant business, between eating at home and a full-service dining experience,” he said. “To me, Nani’s is that third space. The menu has been designed to work equally as well at home as a takeout experience, as it is to sit down and eat here. I would argue, actually, it’s one of our only concepts where your dining experience at home is probably superior to a sit-down dining experience.”
Digging deeper into its origins, Irani said the eureka moment for Nani’s was one day when his wife, Molly, came home with “the umpteenth rotisserie chicken from the grocery store.”
“It’s a crapshoot whether it’s going to be dry or juicy, and you don’t know how long it’s been sitting there,” he said. “And for $5.99, what are they giving you? And yet, it’s utilitarian. You can have it for dinner, and the next day, make sandwiches or tacos.
“I said if this is what people want to buy and eat at home, I think I can give them a far superior experience compared to the random grocery store rotisserie chicken. So what if I create a concept where you can get a fresh rotisserie chicken, get four or five incredible sides, and have a family meal at home that’s better than you could do yourself. That’s Nani’s when we opened during the pandemic.”
One big takeaway from talking about Nani’s with Irani is how excited he is about it.
“In the one year we’ve been open in Asheville, I’ve had chefs stop me in the street, and go, ‘Dude. Nani’s. Like, Dude. I had no idea. How did a brown guy make a better chicken?’” he said. “And I was like, ‘Dude, you could have done it, too. I just beat you to it.’ But of all the concepts we’ve done, this is the one I’m most proud of, because it was so out of my wheelhouse.
“Like I’m an Indian street food guy. But in a funny way, if somebody goes, ‘What was the most amazing part about America, when you first showed up in this country?’ I say it was going to a family’s home and them doing a roast chicken in the oven with all the fixings. That was something I never grew up with in India. It was the most American thing I can think of, and I still love it to this day.”
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays.
675 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-343-3005, nanischicken.com/atlanta.
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