Eating at the hot new local restaurant — Joya’s — has become nearly mandatory for anyone in Greater Columbus who writes about food or posts online photos of it. Rarely has belonging to such a group been so rewarding. Put differently, believe the hype: Joya’s cooks some exciting stuff.
Continuously busy since opening in August, Joya’s generated early buzz because it’s the first eatery launched by local celebrity chef Avishar Barua, whose talent previously took him to top-shelf restaurants like Veritas Tavern and Service Bar as well as the “Top Chef” TV show.
Creating Joya’s, named for his mentoring mother, took Barua to the address of late lamented Sassafras Bakery in Worthington. That quaint space now resembles a hip little cafe with a couple tables and limited counter seating. While fairly spare, the room is enlivened by plants, trendy cookbooks, branded merchandise, peach-tinted walls and personable servers. A few make-do outdoor tables await the inevitable customer spillover.
Any sense of understatement evoked by such trappings evaporates when tasting Joya’s intense fare. Relatedly, diners familiar with Barua’s lengthy and funny Instagram posts — jokes and puns discharge from his fingertips like fireworks exploding in early July — will notice that “more is more” describes Barua’s way with words and his approach to the cooking at Joya’s.
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Elaborate sandwiches requiring numerous components and multi-stage, scratch-cooking techniques anchor a small menu that riffs on fast-food favorites, street food and popular, chile-spiked dishes from throughout Asia. The latter influences are prevalent, and several items are spicy but nuanced umami-bombs with links to the cuisines of China and India.
Take the outstanding kati roll ($15) — just don’t think about taking mine. Inspired by an Indian street-food classic, it’s like a curry-scented shawarma on steroids. The stars — delectable, juicy, ground-lamb kebabs — are bound in an enormous, pleasantly nubby and elastic, griddle-fried flatbread. Tangy, rich, spicy, tart and sweet accents arrive via egg, “maple chaat yogurt,” wonderful house apple chutney, pickled onions and “cilantro crema.”
Spicy fried chicken sandwiches are big nowadays. Joya’s is bigger and better than most ($16). Expect a lovely house-made poppy seed bun loaded with tender, tea-brined meat beneath a fantastically crunchy coating covered in a zippy, barbecue-like glaze. Good slaw, pickles, pickled daikon and Sichuan peppercorn flavors add to the sloppy fun.
Joya’s fried rice ($17) was another savory and spicy party in my mouth with similar chicken, but in unsauced nugget form. This Indonesian-influenced entree showcased “wok hei” smokiness (from a volcanically hot wok) boosted by smoky, extra-crispy and addictive bacon cubes complemented by a frizzled egg, papadum-esque rice crisps, cilantro plus sweet and citrusy flourishes.
The “not pad Thai” ($18) — an amusing, apt title — hit similarly smoky, spicy, sweet and umami notes albeit with thin, rather oily, rice noodles. Also in the entertaining bowl: curried omelet-like eggs; mint and basil; soft, sweet eggplant; bok choy bits; five-spice-scented Chinese-style barbecue pork.
Fans of Barua’s most famous item at Service Bar (we are legion) — his Taco Bell-riffing “cheesy double crunch tacos” ($16 for two) — will find those indulgent delights here. Mine had unexpected but welcome miso hints.
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Customers will also find Joya’s breakfast sandwich ($13): A lovable, scratch-made upgrade of the New York bodega classic “BEC” (bacon-egg-cheese sandwich). Another breakfast champion — Joya’s toast-in-a-box ($14) — is messy but considerably bigger and at least as good. That texturally complex, Korean-influenced meal conjured a spicy, cabbage-forward veggie omelet folded around (and inside) thick toast with melted cheese, loads of condiments and Taylor pork roll (New Jersey’s answer to Spam). Both breakfasts go great with Joya’s outstanding milk chai ($5).
Bargain alert: Joya’s counter-adjacent glass case has included these $3 specials: rosewater-almond glazed doughnuts — airy yet pleasantly chewy; brown butter krispy squares — abundant marshmallow and butter translated into superior, won’t-stick-to-your-teeth Rice Krispies-style treats; egg chops — vegetarian Scotch-egg-meets-samosa croquettes with crispy potato (not sausage) shells, they’re characteristically clever and delicious creations.
Where: 657 High St., Worthington
Contact: 614-468-1232; eatatjoyas.com
Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Price range: $6 to $18
Ambience: hip, cute and generally bustling little breakfast-and-lunch cafe with personable service and limited indoor and outdoor seating
Children’s menu: no
Liquor license: no
Quick click: This wonderful first eatery launched by a top local chef excels at clever riffs on popular dishes, and prominently showcases chile-spiked street-food favorites from throughout Asia; upscale cafe beverages, including a standout milk chai, are also offered.