The name of a restaurant can mean just about anything these days — from the type of cuisine, location or a chef’s name to clever plays on words that might hint at the overall vibe.
And sometimes a name can be a literal sign of the ingredients you’re likely to find on your plate, as is certainly the case with Chilli n Spice Indian Bistro in south Overland Park, where both titular ingredients abound on a unique menu highlighting the flavors found in India’s various regions.
India is a vast country with many religious and cultural influences that have come to shape the cuisine throughout its regions. The food of northern India is heavily influenced by its large Hindu and Muslim populations, characterized by richer flavors and ingredients like cream, nuts and grains, in addition to the meats and breads cooked in tandoori ovens.
South Indian cooking is largely based around rice dishes and has a more pungent, spicier flavor profile than any other part of the country. Coastal states like Kerala and Andhra Pradesh were historically important parts of the spice trade, which is evident in the extensive use of hot chili peppers, whole spices like green cardamom, and ingredients like coconut, curry leaves and tamarind.
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Most of the dishes that come to mind when people think of Indian restaurants in America, like the ubiquitous tikka masala, tandoori chicken and creamy kormas, are derivations of the northern regions of India and represent only a small part of the scope that makes up its vast and varied cooking.
The menu at Chilli n Spice boasts a broader range of options from the north and south regions as well as Indo-Chinese-influenced dishes of the east, with a greater emphasis put on the spicier fare of the south. Located in a nondescript suburban strip mall, the restaurant sits next door to KC India Mart, a well-equipped Indian food market that it shares a kitchen and ownership with. This must come in handy, since many of the menu items contain several spices and more exotic ingredients not likely available at any your average neighborhood supermarket.
I was struck by the restaurant’s rather austere interior — a large boxlike dining room with a handful of booths and tables sharing space with a row of buffet steam tables. Whereas many local Indian restaurants attempt to evoke at least some modicum of the bombastic, Technicolor vigor seen in Indian Bollywood films, Chilli n Spice’s minimal decor is closer to that of a tasteful hotel conference room.
The service varied from inattentive and curt on one trip to charming and helpful on another. One of my dining companions chalked up some of the service quirks to cultural differences. I took the presence of servers and diners of Indian descent as a good sign, hoping the food would follow up on an interesting menu with an air of authenticity to its ingredients.
Well-known names like curry, vindaloo and korma are featured alongside less familiar ones like Mughlai — the Islamic-influenced cooking style of the north — or Hyderabadi, a fusion of Islamic and south Indian cooking styles from the capital city of Andhra. Some menu descriptions are vague or may get lost in translation, on the page and with the server, so it helps to have at least some familiarity with Indian food terms.
The less common dishes on the south Indian menus were piquing my interest, as were some of the fish options. Fish and seafood are used widely on the southern coasts of India, so my guests and I were eager to try their different versions. Unfortunately, on both visits we were told they did not have any of the fish, which I found disappointing.
I had better luck with some of the other selections, finding a few standouts along the way. Among the appetizers, we had a satisfying assorted fried vegetable plate made up of small shards of crunchy onion and spinach pakoras, samosas and spicy green chili bajjis, a battered, fried pepper. The crispy lentil and chickpea coating was perfectly enhanced by the lightly sulfuric taste of black salt found in traditional chaat seasoning on top. Served alongside a very nice homemade green mint chutney, they make a pleasant way to start off a meal.
With many of the meats served on the bone, it’s best to look before taking a big bite, as you may find a goat bone, whole cardamom pod or cinnamon stick lurking in your curry. This is to be expected in many cuisines, but is less common in American cooking. Cooking any meat on the bone will generally yield more succulent results. This is true with most but not all the dishes, as I did have some drier pieces of bone in one of the Andhra style specials, which are cooked in a spicy, dry gravy.
One popular item that defies this notion is a delicious dish on the Indo-Chinese menu named Chicken 65, a more modern dish reportedly derived from a famous restaurant in India. Made from small bits of moist, boneless white meat cooked in a vibrantly red-hued sauce of chilies, cumin seeds, fragrant curry leaves and cashews, it is potent and addictively spicy. It is available as an entree served with rice or as a dosa filling, which is an equally tasty way of enjoying it. It was also one of the many dishes that make you glad they leave a pitcher of water on the table to serve yourself at will.
Rice is a staple in all of Indian cooking, and is prevalent throughout the menu as a side or in a main role, as it is with the decadent biryanis. Biryani is a basmati rice dish cooked with vegetables, seasonings and meat that, when done well, is far greater than the sum of its parts. Served in a silver bowl with toppings and customary sides like yogurt-based raita, both the lamb and chicken are sumptuous and indulgent versions of the dish.
The single best item I had on either visit, and one for which I would gladly return, were the fantastic, large crepe-like dosas. They are made with a fermented rice batter, which gives them a chewier texture than your standard French crepe. They come plain or stuffed with a variety of fillings like spinach and paneer cheese.
They are served with the traditional accompaniment of sambhar, a thin souplike dish made from lentils, and coconut chutney. The sides are somewhat bland but work as a nice balance to spicy fillings or any other dishes which can be on the spicier side of the spectrum.
Chilli n Spice also serves a very nice version of the idli, a small, puck-like steamed cake made from a fermented rice batter similar to the dosa, which is also served with sambhar and coconut chutney. Both the dosa and idli are eaten throughout southern India as a breakfast treat or snack.
If you have a picky eater or someone with dietary restrictions, there is a nice selection of vegetarian dishes and less spicy choices to be found. The chole palak, chickpeas cooked in an indulgent spinach sauce, and the bhagara baingan eggplant dish are simple but very satisfying vegetable entrees. They also feature fine renditions of crowd-pleasing Indian breads like naan, roti, parathas and poori’s that go well with many of the offerings.
Overall, the large menu at has a handful of bright spots with some flavorful options that are less commonly found at other Indian restaurants in the area. The service and decor are somewhat limited, but if you’re looking for some of the more authentic and unique flavors of south India, it’s worth a stop.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef, Chow Town blogger and freelance food writer for The Star.
Chilli n Spice Indian Bistro
8562 W. 133rd St.
Overland Park, KS 66213
Twitter: @ChillinSpiceKC (not active)
Food: ☆☆1/2 Chilli n Spice features a large menu with decent takes on standard fare like chicken tikka masala, but the more unique offerings like dosas, idli, decadent biryanis and Indo-Chinese dishes are the best bets, giving a tastier insight into India’s vibrant regional flavors.
Atmosphere: ☆ The small, box-like dining room is casual and tastefully decorated, but can feel cramped and loud with other diners and servers all in fairly close proximity when busy.
Service: ☆1/2 Service can be inconsistent and less polished on basics at times, while some servers are better or more willing than others at explaining vague menu descriptions or less familiar ingredients.
Entrée Average: $$
Vegetarian Options: Appetizers like samosas, pakoras, breads, soups, desserts offer several vegetarian choices in addition to an entire vegetarian entree menu.
Handicap Accessible: Yes
Parking: Shared strip mall parking lot.
Kids: Kids menu featuring chicken and vegetable curry options.
Noise Level: Medium to high when busy, as close table spacing and background music mix with hard floor and wall surfaces for a somewhat louder dining experience.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals
What to Drink
Chilli n Spice Indian Bistro features two Indian beer options, Kingfisher and Taj Mahal, in addition to a choice between basic red and white wine. There is a selection of nonalcoholic choices like sodas, traditional Masala chai tea and Madras coffee or two types of mango lassis. The lassi is a slightly thick, yogurt-based drink that comes in salted or sweet versions, with the sweeter one lending a refreshingly taming complement to some of the menu’s spicier dishes and curries.
Assorted pakora and bajji vegetable platter $7.99
Chole palak $11.99
Lamb biryani $13.99
Chicken 65 $12.99
Palak cheese dosa $9.99