Restaurant review: AJ’s Cafe is an affordable deli with a few surprises

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From the July 31, 2014 edition

From its physical trappings, AJ’s Cafe — which replaced C-Town Market and Deli about four months ago — seems like just another ho-hum Downtown sandwich shop with limited hours. A board outside advertises a few familiar-sounding subs and wraps. Inside, AJ’s Cafe is reassuringly clean and all, but its big and bare open space sorta resembles a generic lounge in a non-distinct office building. Until you see “AJ” that is, and you begin to understand this deli has a bit of Delhi in it.

Old patrons and fans of the former Taj Mahal restaurant — a pioneering Indian eatery near the OSU campus — will likely recognize the friendly face and warm countenance of Ajay Kumar. Not only was he a long-time employee at the Taj, but he and his family owned it. So, yeah, while you can get a Reuben and Chicken Philly sandwich at AJ’s, there’s also something called a Raja Wrap.

Before munching, let’s have a drink. There’s no alcohol, but there is java made from the beans of esteemed Olde Towne East local roasters, Upper Cup Coffee Company ($1.25). For the same price but less caffeine investment, AJ’s also offers hot “signature Indian ginger chai.” When I tried the chai, it was surprisingly lean and austere, with clove and allspice leading the subtle flavor charge.

Food-wise, eat-in or “grab and go” options range from breakfast sandwiches (including the vegan Zen Wrap, $4.25) to entree salads ($6-$7) to nine signature sandwiches ($6-$8.50) highlighting fish, beef and even a vegan ensemble. If soup’s your thing, opt for the vegan homemade Lentil and Spinach ($3). Resembling Indian dal, the pulpy puree is hearty, earthy and soulful.

And that good-sized Raja Wrap ($7.50) rocks. Bound in a “panini-fied” green tortilla, it’s like a chicken biryani burrito. Detonating its spicy flavor explosions are zesty Indian-spiced basmati rice, big chunks of tender tandoori chicken, jalapenos, fresh cilantro, red onions and cilantro chutney.

If tongue-tingling midday botanical heat isn’t your thing, try the pleasant Turkey Meatball Sub ($8). A toasted sesame-seeded hoagie roll holds mini-boulders of tender and herby-yet-mild homemade meatballs. Providing good company are zingy marinara sauce, fresh basil and melted provolone cheese.

Photo by Meghan Ralston