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Unfamiliar Spices Infuse The Unique Cocktails At Chiya Chai

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jun 29, 2017 6:25PM

A selection of the cocktails at Chiya Chai (yes, we drank a lot). Photo by Anthony Todd.

Masala. Cardamom. Turmeric juice. Szechuan peppercorns. Rosewater. Sounds like a snapshot of a (well stocked) spice aisle, not a typical list of cocktail ingredients. But at Chiya Chai in Logan Square, they're infusing their drinks with a heavy pinch of spice, and the result is intriguing.

"Our focus has already been on the use of spices," explained Chiya Chai co-owner Rajee Aryal. "We wanted to explore that in our cocktails, too! Because we know some really unfamiliar spices, we thought we could do something exciting." The cafe and restaurant is known, not for booze, but for their awesome food and huge tea selection—they have more than 15 different kinds of chai. But a thirsty visitor who picks up their bar menu might be pleasantly surprised.

First, let's get this out of the way: These are not fancy craft cocktails like you might find at some nearby bars. These are drinks to be drunk with food, they don't cost all that much, and they might be a touch sweet for some who prefer a super-boozy stirred drink. On the other hand, if you're looking for a drink to sit on the patio with (or a drink to pair with one of their totally phenomenal savory pies), they're pretty great.

Aryal is Nepalese, and is familiar with a whole range of spices that aren't used often in the typical restaurant kitchen in Chicago. The challenge, though, was trying to incorporate those spices into drinks - and she's not a professional mixologist. Luckily, she's an artist, and she brought those skills to bear on her drinking experiments.

"I’m trained as an artist, and I can imaging how things mix together—It’s like visualizing a painting and mixing colors," Aryal explained. "For example, how spearmint might taste with coconut. I can almost taste it in my head." So, when she was trying to figure out a way to make a more interesting margarita, and saw some szechuan peppercorns in her kitchen, she knew immediately that it would be a fun combination. "It had a minty, citrus flavor, and it really worked!" Thus was born one of their most popular cocktails, a margarita with mango and tongue-numbing peppercorns that turn what would probably otherwise be an unbearably sweet drink into something a bit more interesting.

Or take the "Maharaja," which arrives looking (sorry!) kind of like the sort of pink drink you'd order by a pool. But take one sip of this gin and blueberry cocktail, and after an initial rush of fruit, you're hit with all sorts of things: cinnamon on the nose, cardamom somewhere in the middle and a strong finish of... what is that, exactly? It's rosewater.

Rosewater is one of the hardest ingredients that Aryal has worked with, and it's not one you see a lot of mixers messing with. "We almost gave up because it’s so strong," she explained. "In the Maharaja, we had to be really careful with the proportions, because it can be bitter and has such a strong smell."

In the "Malabar," rye whiskey and lemon mix with black cardamon, which was an unfamiliar spice for me. "People are familiar with cardamom, but not black - it’s a completely different flavor profile," says Aryal. "It’s a lot spicier, it has a lot of peppermint, that sort of aroma and flavor. It’s more earthy." If you're looking for something not sweet and not quite as crazy, go for the CC Cool, a combination of fresh cucumber juice, lime, vodka, cilantro and triple sec.

So when you head to Chiya Chai for dinner (and you absolutely should), make sure to grab the drink list. Even better, between 3 and 6 p.m. every day, they do a happy hour special: $2 off all cocktails, which means every drink they have is $8 or less. A pretty great deal for a Logan Square cocktail, and a great chance to try some new flavors.

Chiya Chai is at 2770 N. Milwaukee Ave.