Naan Boti Chai Shai has been a hidden St. Pete culinary gem since it opened its doors three years ago in the Historic Deuces District. Tucked in the back of a south-side Indian grocery store, the Pakistani-Indian restaurant operated as a takeout counter with a few (indoor) lawn chairs and tables. It’s food was known only to the Burg’s most dedicated diners who hailed it as one of the city’s best kept secrets.
Recently, however, owner Mehreen Fayyaz began a mission to transition her takeout operation into a full service restaurant. Last week, she opened to the public. Her first order of business? An all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.
St. Pete’s first post-pandemic Indian buffet
If you’re familiar with Southeastern Asian cuisine, you know that lunch buffets are very common in Indian restaurants. You also know, however, that — post-pandemic — they’ve been pretty hard to find. Having one open in St. Pete (and a good one, at that), therefore, is a cause for celebration.
“I’ve always wanted to have a sit-down restaurant,” Fayyaz said. “So I bought the building my grocery store was in so I could expand and make a place where people could come out to eat. My concept was to make an Indian and Pakistani fresh kitchen.”
Fast forward to today and Fayyaz’s dream has become a reality. Naan Boti Chai Shai’s restaurant space is open in the evenings with a full, a la carté menu. She created the lunch buffet, though, to help make her food accessible to everyone.
“We use all farm-to-table ingredients,” Fayyaz said, “So an average dinner entrée here starts at $20. But I made the lunch buffet only $15 so that everyone could afford it. Everyone can come in and try the food.”
High-quality food at affordable prices
Just because the lunch buffet is cheap, however, doesn’t mean it’s low quality. Fayyaz studied food and nutrition in college, and is thus dedicated to creating dishes that not only taste good, but are also nourishing and healthy.
“In India,” Fayyaz explained, “there is a lot of study on the health benefits of food, and the way that certain spices combine to create those health benefits. I use these techniques to make sure the food I serve is nourishing and healing. Every morning I wake up at 6 a.m. to start preparing this buffet. We serve fresh, small-batch food made from the best ingredients.”
Because Fayyaz prepares her food from scratch each day, the buffet menu is constantly changing. Though guests can count on at least two vegan dishes, two chicken dishes and various sides per lunch, what those specific dishes are depends on what the Chef chooses to cook that morning.
If you want a *general* idea of what you might see on the buffet, however, here are some of the rotating dishes we’ve encountered (and loved) so far:
- Butter Chicken (our favorite) — tender dark meat chicken in a thick, subtly spicy tomato and butter gravy
- Chicken Korma (chef’s favorite) — a creamy curry, with a touch of sweet heat, featuring boneless thigh and leg meat
- Chana Masala — traditional vegan Indian chickpea curry
- Chicken Tikka Masala — dark meat, boneless BBQ chicken in a medium spicy buttered curry sauce
- Vegan Aloo Gobi — a simple but flavorful vegetable side dish of potatoes, cauliflower, spices and herbs
- Vegetable Samosas — crispy fried triangular pastries filled with juicy vegetables and soft potatoes
- Tofu Saag — thick, delicious spinach curry (like creamed spinach without the milk) featuring soft cubes of tofu
- Daal Tarka — Naan Boti’s take on the “famous” Indian lentil curry
- Tandoori Chicken — bone-in barbecue chicken legs and thighs, pre-marinated in yogurt and spices
- Naan Bread — home-baked from scratch, every day
St. Pete’s best kept secret
Naan Boti Chai Shai is open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner, with the buffet running during lunch hours (generally from 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.).
If you try the buffet and like it — and we’re sure you will — make sure to stop back in and try Chef Fayyaz’s full dinner menu. From Saag Paneer to Lamb Vindaloo, every dish she prepares has us convinced that her cozy little hole-in-the-wall just might be St. Pete’s best kept secret.
Naan Boti Chai Shai is located at 908 22nd Street S. To explore the restaurant’s full menu or keep up with buffet news, diners can visit the spot’s official website, or follow it on Instagram and Facebook. Read Chef Fayyaz’s full biography here.