While most coffee shops will have a "chai latte" on the menu, if you want an authentic Indian version of masala chai, you're better off going to an Indian restaurant. Chai lattes are usually made from a syrup, powder, or other pre-mixed flavoring combined with hot water and a little milk, or sometimes it's made from a chai-flavored tea bag.
But chai in India (and other nearby countries) means something very different: a mixture of spices and loose black tea steeped in hot (usually buffalo) milk with hefty doses of sugar. Spices can include fresh cardamom pods and seeds, fresh ginger, black peppercorns, whole cloves, star anise, and cinnamon sticks.
While you may not be able to get buffalo milk chai here in New York City, you can find close-to-authentic chai if you know where to go.
Any search for Indian cuisine should begin in Queens, and Jackson Heights is usually a good bet. While chai is on offer at most eateries in the area, there are a few that stand out and Rajbhog Sweets offers one of our favorite cups for just $1. When you order they'll ask you how much sugar you want—in India two spoonfuls is the norm, but if you don't have a big sweet tooth, one should do the trick. The chai is brewed on a gas stove with whole milk, black tea, ginger, and "masala chai spices," including cloves, black and green cardamom, black pepper, and cinnamon. The result is a creamy, spicy cup reminiscent of the subcontinent's street offerings.
Rajbhog Sweets: 72-27 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, NY 11372 (map) 718-458-8512
Tawa Nepali Food
This Nepalese restaurant offers super-authentic chai. It's a hole in the wall with just two tables, and a charming older woman who appeared to be the chef ladled my chai ($1) from the stove behind the counter. I could see the black peppercorns and tea floating around in the milky mixture and the taste did not disappoint. They'll hand you a glass dispenser to add your sugar before you put on the lid.
Tawa Nepali Food: 37-38 72nd Street, Jackson Heights, NY 11372 (map) 718-457-7766
Ganesh Temple Canteen
We've written extensively about Ganesh Temple Canteen in Flushing and there's a reason: this Flushing temple serves excellent South Indian food. Although South Indians are usually more partial to coffee, their chai (listed as "Masala Tea," $1.50) delivers. Served from a canteen behind the registers, it's made with lots of cardamom and cloves.
Ganesh Temple Canteen: 45-57 Bowne Street, Flushing, NY 11355 (map) 718-460-8484
Kabab King Diner
If you ask a Jackson Heights local where to get good chai, they'll likely tell you to go to Kabab King Diner, which is basically a fast food joint. You pay $1 for an empty cup at the register and then fill it with hot chai from the large canteen stationed by the door. There are sugar dispensers (there's no sugar in the chai) and stirrers as well as plastic tops if you're on the run. This chai is for those who don't like too much spice—it's nice and milky but not too complex.
Kabab King Diner: 73-01 37th Road, Jackson Heights, NY 11372 (map) 718-457-5857
If you have a chai craving and you can't get to Queens right now, you can still find masala chai in Manhattan. While you can get a decent chai in any one of the restaurants in Curry Hill, our favorite cups exist outside that neighborhood. The MasalaWala on the Lower East Side offers the best non-ginger chai, with a secret spice mix that includes coriander and cloves—that's all we could get out of them! Make sure you order the Masala Chai ($3), which is made fresh and therefore takes about 10 minutes. Milky and spicy without relying on ginger, this tea has an almost nutty flavor to it.
The MasalaWala: 179 Essex Street, New York, New York 10002 (map) 212-358-9300
Bombay Sandwich Co.
Bombay Sandwich Co., which began as a stall at Smorgasburg, recently opened a brick and mortar space in Chelsea. The sliver of a space is actually quite welcoming and probably offers one of the better atmospheres to sip your tea in. Their gingery chai ($3.25) is made every morning and then put in a canteen behind the register. Made with sugar, this chai is Mumbai-style, with lots of ginger and cardamom. On one occasion this chai was super milky but on another it tasted a bit more watered down.
Bombay Sandwich Co.: 48 W. 27th Street, New York, NY 10001 (map) 646-781-9756
Bombay Duck Co.
If you find yourself craving chai in the West Village, you have two solid options. If you want atmosphere, Bombay Duck Co. is a charming café offering a perfectly adequate cup of tea ($2.50)--we just wished there was a little more oomph. Served out of a canteen, you add your own sugar to the mix of black tea, cardamom, and ginger.
Bombay Duck Co.: 190 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10012 (map) 212-529-2900
What it lacks in atmosphere it makes up for in the chai: Thelewala, a tiny box of a place, offers the spiciest chai ($1.50) in the Village, loaded with ginger, green cardamom, and black peppercorns. And, they don't skimp on the milk, making it nice and creamy. It's self-serve after you pay at the counter, with a canteen and sugar dispensers at the ready.
Thelewala: 112 Macdougal Street, New York, NY 10012 (map) 212-614-9100
Looking for chai in Brooklyn? The recently opened Dosa Royale (another Smorgasburg graduate) is looking to improve your Indian food options in Cobble Hill. At $4.00, this is probably the most you'll ever pay for an authentic Indian chai, but at least it's served in a charming metal cup and saucer. Oh, and it tastes good: nice and thick, it's made with whole milk, cardamom, and fresh ginger. There's no sugar added and you may have to badger your waiter to bring you some.
Dosa Royale: 316 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231 (map) 718-576-3800
About the Author: Devorah Lev-Tov is a writer and editor who writes about food and her world travels at Brooklyn Meets Bombay, and for outlets such as New York magazine, Bust, Modern Farmer, and Tablet. She is constantly on the hunt for her favorite international foods in New York City.