If I had a buck for every time somebody told me about a great new restaurant concept that was going to set Kansas City dining on its ear, I'd have more than enough dough to open my own restaurant. Not that I'd ever indulge in that kind of madness. Besides, these great new ideas hardly ever get off the ground, or they're so poorly executed that they fail quickly — and expensively.
But rules have exceptions, and a good idea can become an unexpected and welcome reality. That's the story of Chai Shai, the little tea-and-samosa shop on the edge of Brookside (in the Rockhill Ridge neighborhood). It's one of the great restaurant-success stories of 2011. And what makes the tale so happy is that its genesis is so basic: two young entrepreneurs actually listening to their customers.
The original idea was pretty simple. Two Pakistan-born brothers, Abdul and Kashif Tufail, leased the corner storefront on East 59th Street in order to use the kitchen — the previous tenant had been a catering enterprise — for their thriving wholesale samosa business. They had reason to feel confident, having already started the operation as a sideline to earn extra money while attending the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
"We only wanted the space for the kitchen," Kashif says. "We had planned to paint over the windows." But curious neighbors stopped by to find out what the Tufail brothers were doing in the space, then encouraged them not only to make samosas but also to serve them. So they decided to use the existing dining room (several restaurants and one short-lived coffeehouse had operated there) as a tea shop that served Pakistani-style street snacks: samosas, pakoras, samosa chaat. It was uncomplicated and family-run.
Now 18 months after opening, the Tufails oversee 10 employees — their mother, Aasma, is the chef, and Abdul has returned to pharmacy school and works part time. They've been doing well enough that Kashif has hired former Roasterie manager Elise Kelly — a superb and knowledgeable server — as his assistant manager. Also onboard is a congenial bearded server, built like a lumberjack, who seems to call all of his male customers "Bud." It's the butch version, I guess, of the old hash-house salutation "hon."
"The business grew much faster than we ever thought it would," Kashif says. We started with a limited menu of appetizers and a few sandwiches, but our customers would come in and ask for dinners, so we started offering a few dishes on weekends. The demand was so great, we now serve dinner six nights a week."
So there it is: a good idea realized with hard work and resulting in success. Of course, it helps to have a good location, and Chai Shai is a few blocks from the UMKC campus. It's unusual to step into the dining room and not find several Indian, Afghan or Pakistani students sipping hot milky chai and sharing a plate of fried pakora fritters.
But on the chilly Tuesday night that I dined alone, the room was an interesting cross-section of the local population: older customers and young students, black and white patrons, one snooty woman who never stopped staring into her iPad, and a young couple gazing so deeply into each other's eyes that they barely touched their food.
The delicious fragrance wafting out of Chai Shai that night was such an intoxicating perfume of cumin, ginger, cinnamon and cardamom that I could imagine it luring people from as far away as ... at least 63rd Street and Troost.
I was lucky to snag one of the coveted tables in the dining room, which holds only a half-dozen of them in addition to the seats at the copper-topped bar and a few stools at the front window. And I warmed myself with a big china cup of hot black tea — a spicy brew concocted with star anise, cinnamon and cardamom pods.