When Choolaah Indian BBQ opened a location in East Liberty, diners fell head over heels for the fast-casual, traditional Indian food with a healthy twist.
Choolaah puts a modern spin on tried and true Indian traditions, creating an approachable, casual dining experience. It’s a brilliant way to attract both health-obsessed and apprehensive eaters. But I’m hesitant to fall completely for the Choolaah charm – not because of bad service or underwhelming food, but because Choolaah tries a little too hard to be hip.
The eatery boasts of being “exotically familiar,” “audaciously American,” “authentically unconventional,” and “comfortably non-conformist.” A sign reads, “I’m a knitting-fanatic, Steeler-loving, Choolaah-head,” with a bearded millennial in the background. Even the menu is riddled with flowery language, the “perfect balance bowl” a fan favorite. Choolaah targets its demographics so forcefully it made me squirm.
Choolaah references sanjha chulha, a Northern Indian ritual of gathering around a community oven to share stories and food. The restaurant transforms this tradition into huge tandoor ovens that cook meat and bread at a high temperature, its trademark barbeque. Next to the stark white registers is a glass-enclosed kitchen, with giant orange tandoors named after Pittsburgh Steelers.
My visit to Choolaah was quick and convenient. The menu catered well to dietary restrictions with build-your-own options. I ordered at the counter with the help of a very patient cashier, and my food was presented hot and ready in seconds. My meal, a perfect balance bowl with paneer, samosas, naan, and cardamom ice cream, was served on an artfully decorated, reusable tray.
The perfect balance bowl, one of Choolaah’s signature bowls, was half paneer and half roasted veggies over brown rice, smothered in tikka masala curry sauce. Staying true to its brand as a “healthy alternative,” the portion sizes weren’t absurd. Compared to any other Indian restaurant, Choolaah was a little skimpy with the rice. But I had a perfect, doughy piece of naan to tide me over.
I was surprised by the size of the paneer. Each cube was giant, too big for one bite. My ideal paneer is smooth and slightly spongy. Choolaah goes in a different direction. The paneer was like a cheese curd, sticking to my teeth. I attributed this to the cheese’s journey from Ohio Amish cheesemakers to the kitchen hands at Choolaah.
The samosas, three small pouches of vegetables and potatoes, were absolutely delicious. The dough was just thick enough to flake, and the buttery, crispy pastry added a satisfying crunch to each bite.
The Indian ice cream was icier than most Pittsburghers are used to, its texture thickened with rice milk. It was subtly sweet, the cardamom adding an aromatic, pleasant flavor.
I left Choolaah comfortably full, not disappointed but not raving. It was an enjoyable experience, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I could be eating better Indian food somewhere else.
1. Sauce Station
Choolaah features a sauce station complete with the classics: tamarind and apple, spicy mango, and mint yogurt. Each sauce brought a new flavor to the palate, a fun way to experiment with strangely delicious taste combinations.
I love naan, and Choolaah’s is beautiful. The texture was perfect, not too doughy, with a tiny bit of char on the bubbly sections. It broke with a slight tug, ripping into small, pillowy pieces.
3. Wall Murals
The walls at Choolaah were decorated with colorful images that connect the restaurant to its Indian inspiration. Ganesha, a Hindu god, overlooks the dining room overlapped with posters of New Delhi.