Tucked into a corner of Hope Plaza just behind the Wawa on Highway 17 sits a newly opened Indian spot. Its façade – unassuming. Its fare – comforting and sapid. Cousins Shyjan Mekkattuparamban Mathai, Giboy Varghese, and Jinoy Varghese opened the doors to their Avenue O restaurant, Chilly Masala Indian Cuisine, on November 4. Over the few months they’ve been open, the owners say they’ve been blown away by the community’s support.
“We were always looking forward to starting a restaurant business,” Shyjan said. Another cousin owns the liquor store next door and told Shyjan and Giboy about the open space. So, they applied and got it – a dream realized for the pair who had been catering under the same Chilly Masala moniker for six years.
The restaurant’s owners, as well as its chef, hail from the state of Kerala on India’s southwestern tip. The recipes used at Chilly Masala are a tasty mélange of southern and northern Indian cuisine. Southern Indian food, Shyjan explained, is exceptionally spicy, while northern Indian cuisine offers more tolerable heat. “American people like the northern style,” Shyjan said. “Mostly, our south Indian food is really spicy.”
The cousins are joined in the Sunshine State by some 65-70 family members. They remain close, gathering for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, baptisms, holy communion, and the traditional Kerala celebration of Onam. Food, no doubt, is cardinal at family get-togethers.
Two of Chilly Masala’s most popular appetizers are their Veggie Samosa, a deep-fried pastry turnover filled with seasoned potato and green peas, and Veggie Samosa Chat, a famous street food made with scrambled samosa topped with chutneys, chickpeas, and sev (long, thin strands of gram flour, deep-fried and spiced).
Another dish worth trying, especially for vegetarians, is Chilly’s Gobi Manchurian, made with batter-fried cauliflower infused with garlic, ginger, onion, chili bell pepper, and scallions in a tangy gravy. “It’s a mix of Chinese and our Indian [cuisine],” Shyjan said.
For main course dishes, Chilly Masala covers all the bases with vegan and vegetarian options, different spice levels, and foodie favorites like the North Indian dish, Butter Chicken, cooked in a tomato cream sauce, as well as Chicken Tikka Masala, cooked with tomato-coriander sauce and flavored with bell peppers and onions. The two latter well-recognized dishes, which grace the menu of most Indian restaurants, are popular menu items at Chilly Masala. “People play it safely,” he laughed.
And what would an Indian meal be without naan? The flat, leavened bread is made with all-purpose flour and traditionally cooked in a clay oven called a tandoor. Chilly Masala has quite a few flavors ranging from sweet to spicy. We tried the garlic naan, another patron favorite, which was warm and fluffy with a crisp bottom from its time in the tandoor.
Allow me to set the scene. A long white plate garnished with a blazing red appetizer lay before me on the table. The dish, Chicken 65, originated from Chennai and consists of rice-battered crispy chicken spiced with green chili and curry leaves. The sharable portion was tempting. ‘I’ll just try one bite. You know… for research,’ I told myself. After uncounted bites later, the plate was all but empty – thanks to the help of my trusty editor and sidekick (or maybe I’m the sidekick – unsure), Amy. Juicy, tender chicken crusted with rice batter and a faultless combination of spices. The saltshaker was within reach but untouched as the chicken was seasoned like a dream.
Shyjan and Giboy partnered with their chef, Nithin, to devise a menu that featured their most popular catering items. “We are grateful to our chef,” Shyjan said.
Dine in or carry out at Chilly Masala. The eatery also works with Doordash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub for delivery.
“We are getting support from the Winter Haven people. It’s really good,” said the Chilly Masala co-owner. Shyjan noted how thankful he was for the return customers, rave reviews, and word of mouth that have fueled the restaurant’s infancy.
As for the future, Shyjan said, “We are looking forward to expanding from here to a bigger place,” or a chain of restaurants.
Shyjan beamed while speaking about the Winter Haven restaurant, “It was our dream, and we are here now.”
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