Choolaah Indian BBQ Opens in East Liberty
The fast-casual Indian restaurant offers healthy, tasty options at affordable price.
photos by hal b. klein
Raji Sankar and Randhir Sethi are longtime entrepreneurs with a shared passion for enjoying tasty meals. They met in 2001 while developing a Pittsburgh-based technology startup called Print Cafe. "We're tech entrepreneurs. We had no idea we'd be sitting here talking samosas,” says Sethi.
It didn’t take long for Sankar, who lives in Pittsburgh, and Sethi, who now lives in Cleveland, to see the potential for growth, and frankly, fun, in the fast-casual restaurant market. Their initial impulse was to develop a concept that paid homage to their shared Indian roots, but they felt the timing wasn’t quite right. Instead, in 2004, they opened a pan-Asian noodle shop called Zyng Asian Grill in Squirrel Hill; it didn’t pan out. They hit a home run with their next concept, however: Sankar and Sethi established one of the first franchise locations of the hamburger chain Five Guys — the duo now run 20 locations.
In 2012, they felt the time was right to return to return to Indian cuisine and opened the first location of Choolaah Indian BBQ in Cleveland. A Pittsburgh storefront was at the top of their docket, but they couldn’t find the right location until they landed on a spot in East Liberty last year. After a months-long, beautifully detailed buildout including massive glass windows, custom artwork and even a binary code puzzle drawn into the walls, their fast-casual restaurant now is open.
About the name: Choolaah Indian BBQ isn’t a mashup of Indian cuisine and barbecue. Rather, “BBQ” indicates that the majority of the food served at Choolaah is cooked in custom built, gas-fired tandoor ovens. Sethi and Sankar said they decided to go with gas rather than a traditional charcoal-heated tandoor because they wanted to display the tandoors front-and-center (they’re visible through a glass window), something that would have been a more complex, and frankly, expensive task with an open flame. To make up for the lack of fire, they customized both the lining of the tandoor and the recipes to get a flame-cooked taste and, for the most part, that’s true, though Choolaah’s naan does miss the charcoal-touched bitterness that’s part of what makes the bread so appealing.
Choolaah does a nice job offering a menu loaded with healthy dishes prepared from quality ingredients a reasonable price point — most items are under $10. The company uses Bell and Evans Chicken, Family Ranch lamb, Faroe Islands salmon and its paneer is made by Amish dairy farmers in Ohio; Sethi and Sankar say 75 families earn a living by raising milk for and preparing the paneer. It’s nice to see a new opening with so many healthy options and a good number of vegetarian and vegan selections.
"We want to make social impact by running a great business. That starts with what we put in our bodies every day,” Sethi says.
Sethi’s wife, Simran, crafted the recipes after the couple spent two years traveling throughout India to learn various culinary traditions and techniques. “They even put a tandoor in their house,” says Sankar.
So far, so good. Pav Bhaji, a dish of mixed vegetables and legumes served with onions, serrano and toasted bread that was developed in India to provide a nutritious snack for textile workers, is a smart, savory way to start a meal. Juicy lamb meatballs — vegetables are the only filler — are terrific, particularly when paired with Choolaah’s mint-yogurt sauce. Black lentil dal is rich, creamy and layered with spice. The chicken biriyani bowl might be missing the signature crispy rice crust of a biryani, but it still is wildly flavorful.
"We always want to create delight. We always want to create smiles,” says Sankar.
Sankar and Sethi feel the social mission of the restaurant is essential, too. To that end, they’re donating 30 percent of profits for each of the first 30 days to a local nonprofit. East End Cooperative Ministry was the first recipient, and organizations such as Hello Neighbor, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, Bike Pittsburgh and Venture Outdoors are some of the other organizations on the docket. Choolaah’s owners also are committed to working toward a zero waste policy, which includes a partnership with 412 Food Rescue to redistribute uneaten food at the end of each day.