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Here's Where To Get The Best $1 Chai In NYC

Does it get any better than cheap caffeine?

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This week on See Something Say Something, I talk to my dad, Waheed Akbar, as well as yellow cab driver Jamil Ali about immigrating, work, and movies.

Now, I love chai. So much so I literally made them take headshots of me drinking chai like an uncle for the podcast.

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Growing up in a Pakistani Muslim household, "chai" was just the word we used to describe tea, the way many other cultures do. If we felt fancy, we'd sometimes add spices like cardamom or cloves, but it wasn't neccesary. Chai flowed freely in our house, milky and warm. As a result, I am kind of confused by Starbucks-style "chai tea latte," which doesn't resemble anything like what I grew up drinking (although it does seem inspired by it). I wrote about the difference between CTL and chai here.

First up, my choice: Chandni, in Midtown West.

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This place is my JAM. When the BuzzFeed offices used to be in Flatiron, I would go to Friday prayers on 29th Street, and then immediately head upstairs from the mosque to grab a cup of $1 chai and pullao from Chandni. This is such a big part of my New York experience that I even wrote a personal essay on BuzzFeed dot com the website which ENDS at Chandni. Their veggie items are very flavorful and, of course, their chai is ALWAYS on-point.

We asked the chef, Muhammad Nawaz, about his recipe.

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I've drunk so much chai from Chandni in the past, but how it was made was totally a mystery to me. I assumed they made a huge container of it in the beginning of the day, and that they had some powerful ritual to produce so much flavor. But I was wrong. Muhammad Uncle took us right to the back and made it fresh within THREE MINUTES for us.

The recipe took 15 seconds to describe: "Water, milk, spices, put tea inside... and that's it! Tea is ready."

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As soon as he was done, he told us, "It's an international recipe. I learned it from my mother" and my heart swelled three sizes.

BTW: as soon as I walked in with a camera crew, Muhammad Uncle didn't miss a beat. He was like, "OH YEAHHH I know this guy!" *points to me* "He even brings his family in here sometimes." Guilty as charged.

We went back to the car to taste it.

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I usually drink my coffee black, but I can't get enough of Chandni's intensely sweet, spicy, and milky chai. It's like drinking a bouquet of flavor — you could really taste the cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon they had put in the tea. It's something I'll always go out of the way for.

Ahmed's rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️☕️ (out of five).

Jamil Uncle's rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️ (out of five). He prefers it without spices or sugar.

Zainab's rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️ (out of five). It was a little too sweet for her.

Punjabi Deli is VERY cramped, but smells amazing — like your grandma's house, filled with laughing uncles.

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It's a great spot to pick up some vegetarian food late at night. Just be prepared to eat standing or walking.

Unlike at Chandni, they steam the milk/water combination with an espresso machine and use tea bags, making each cup individually.

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The spices were mostly the same as Chandni (though some of them were powdered): cardamom, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon.

Back to the car for another taste test!

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For me, Punjabi Deli's chai was more drinkable than Chandni. It's aromatic without being as INTENSE of an experience. However, that also made it slightly less special than Chandni's. I'd be less likely to go out of my way to drink it, but if you gave me a thermos full of it, I'd happily down it throughout the day.

Ahmed's rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️ and a half (out of five)

Jamil Uncle's rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️ (out of five)

Zainab's rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️☕️ (out of five). She loved the cozy, cramped space of Punjabi Deli.

Last up, Jamil's choice: Haandi, in Murray Hill.

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Haandi is probably the main place I go to eat when my Pakistani folks come to visit. There's a bit more space so you can eat comfortably, and they do a LOT of things consistently well. Plus: Zainab claims she saw famous Pakistani singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan here, so it's gotta be legit, right?

They also have Kashmiri chai, which is green tea that turns pink through oxidization (and POSSIBLY food dye)! It's delicious sweet or salty with some crushed pistachios on top.

But we weren't here for Kashmiri chai — we were here for some milky, black tea!

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Unlike the other chais, there were very minimal spices in Haandi's tea. It was basically just 100% pure milk, sweetened as you liked it. When I first took a sip, I thought it was damn good, but couldn't compare to the flavor explosion that is Chandni. But the more I drank it, the more I realized I loved the simple, plain tea brewed to milky perfection. It was just like it was homemade.

Ahmed's rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️☕️ (out of five)

Jamil Uncle's rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️☕️ (out of five)

In the end, while Haandi had the best overall score, it's pretty clear that all three places offered incredibly delicious cups of chai for a good price point. Bonus: the food at all three places was AMAZING.

Watch the video of our journey here! And tell us your favorite cup of chai in the city in the comments section.

View this video on YouTube

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