The Guru's Pick: Hot Breads in Chantilly

Mensa member Papan Devnani and his fellow "gourmensans" scavange for hole-in-the-wall eats.

By: Todd Kliman, Ann Limpert, Cynthia Hacinli

Think about Mensa and you think about people who use their noodles. You don’t think about people who use their noodles to find delicious noodle shops.

But for 25 years, a group from the local Mensa chapter has been gathering each month at a different area hole in the wall to socialize and sample a new cuisine.

They call themselves Gourmensans, and their guru is Papan Devnani, a self-effacing lawyer with a buzz cut and black-rimmed glasses who worked for the US Postal Service. His real interest is in unearthing food finds; he spends hours every week crisscrossing the area in pursuit of leads he uncovers in ethnic and community newspapers.

In the manner of a man who invents puzzles so he can have the pleasure of solving them, Devnani has set for himself the goal of finding only restaurants where the group can eat for $10 a person or less. He won’t consider any place that features American or French cooking, and not long ago he ruled out Italian.

What does that leave? An outpost of Haitian cooking in Chillum. An Indian restaurant with a separate Indian-Chinese menu designed for diners who grew up on the subcontinent eating their own spice-laden brand of Chinese. A Yemeni restaurant where Gourmensan founder Nancy Vogel says she watched one night as a freshly killed lamb was hauled through the dining room.

Devnani’s latest find is Hot Breads Indian Bakery, a vermilion-painted cafe in Chantilly where the eight members of Gourmensans met for dinner recently. The 11-month-old bakery is part of a chain with locations in Paris, London, and elsewhere.

Prices are astonishingly cheap, and the food is fresh and good. A chicken tikka sandwich topped with a mint chutney and served on toast is a kind of bolder, spicier BLT. And the roast-chicken sandwich is one of the best chicken-salad sandwiches around—made by pulling, or shredding, the chicken from the carcass (in the manner of pulled pork) and submerging it in a rich mayo laced with green onion. Both are $4.

You’ll also find such curiosities as paneer croissants and chicken curry buns, the latter a sort of dim sum–style bun filled with a curry whose gravy has been reduced to avoid leakage. There are cookies, too—salt and cumin shortbread cookies, pistachio and cashew cookies, and more. They went down nicely with a cup of creamy cardamom-infused tea.

Score another one for the guru.

Hot Breads Indian Bakery, 14027 Lee Jackson Memorial Hwy., Chantilly. 703-263-1466; hotbreads.com.