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Vik’s Chaat Corner, Berkeley

December 6, 2006

[Edit:  This review is for the original Vik’s Chaat Corner.  They have recently moved here:  2390 4th St, Berkeley, California‎ – (510) 644-4412‎  I have not yet had the chance to check out the new one yet…]

Though i’ve never been to India, I spent formidable time in Edison, nj, during my undergraduate years. For those who’ve never been, there is a pretty fantastic Indian community there, replete with all manner and scale restaurants, shops, clothing, jewelry, etc.. Obviously, it’s not quite India, but it was all i had. And it was, of course, the food that always brought me and my ridiculous cohorts out to these sunday buffets for massive sampling of dosa, bangan bharta, cholle, kofta and others.

Nowadays I have pretty strong feelings about Indian food because I had so many quality meals back then, and so many meals have disappointed me over the years since. It’s happened in places that should have been great but were just lousy. It’s no different than Thai, or sushi these days. A lot of the novelty has worn off for so many people, and many established places can just keep trucking along whether they are good or not. But when the food is great, you’re reminded of why you were blown away by it the first two dozen times. Unfortunately though, it seems that there are more mediocre experiences than truly transcendent ones.

When you find the good ones…and I mean the good ones where you’re eating and your brain is in hyperdrive…feuled by salty, pungent mango pickle and stinky asafoetida, but you’re cooled and calmed with naan, lassi and cucumber-laden raitha…it brings new meaning to the term holy cow.

I’ve taken a real liking to this place in Berkeley on Allston called Vik’s because the food is fresh, cheap, and really freakin’ delicious. This past weekend I was there with tW and a couple of friends and their two little kids. It’s a great place to bring kids, by the way, because the warehouse-like cafeteria environment is so loud and boisterous at times that no one will hear it when your little girl accidently bites into one of the many chilis found in your sambar.
Bhatura Cholle
The food has never disappointed me. It’s mostly vegetarian, with a few fish and/or lamb specials thrown in as daily and weekend specials. There’s aloo paratha with it’s potato filling, batata vada, mango lassi and vegetable biryani too. The real standouts for me include the astoundingly good masala dosa, the samosa cholle, and the bhatura cholle. Both of the cholles come with a side of their namesake spiced chick peas, with the samosa coming out as wonderfully plump, satisfying little pyramids of peas, potatoes, carrots and black mustard seeds, and a generous pour of tamarind chutney on top. It’s kind of like a chick pea and tamarind sundae.

I have never seen the need to skimp on black mustard seeds, and apparently neither has Vik.

The dosa has a typical filling of curried potatoes (and black mustard) and comes with a yellow lentil puree which is cold, and a brothy, bracing and super-spicy vegetable sambar served hot for dipping your torn-off shreds of lentil crepe. The sambar was particularly spectacular this last time. If you’re not familiar with sambar and are so inclined…have yourself a net-sampler here. Probably the biggest crowd pleaser though, although it does lean towards the greasy side, is the bhatura cholle. It’s a super large fried puri made from a sourdough batter and is a hit with the kids. It comes out as an inflated ball of about 12″ in diameter which has slowly begun to deflate by the time you get back to your table. You just rip off a piece, watch the steam rise out of the hollow center, and grab a handful of the accompanying sides of chopped raw onions, mint chutney and the aforementioned mango pickle. I’m not going to say that it ‘brings you back,’ because I honestly don’t know if it was ever this good to begin with.

They also have a beverage selection of hot chai, Indian sodas and young coconuts, and some really interesting (though not always delicious) Indian sweets. I say not always delicious because I don’t have much of a taste for some of the drier, chick pea flour based pastries. I do however like the Cham Chams in both white and yellow, and the best of the best in the dessert box is the mava cham. I could say it’s like half of a gulab jamun filled with dense, split-milk pistachio cream , but i’d rather just say it’s pretty damn tasty.
Pink ChamChams

Also, for the knowledgable and adventurous amongst you, I recommend Vik Distributors grocery right next store…a fantastic selection of spices, sundries and all sorts of other Indian culinary accoutrements.

Beware the craziness of it all. One downside about Vik’s is that it’s a bit of a packaging nightmare. They’re too busy (nee, too wasteful) to use real plates and bowls, so please take home the containers and use them again. There’s no reason they couldn’t be using super cheap plastic cafeteria plates and just install a dishwasher. But I know how tough that can be. If you’re reading this Vik, call me…We’ll work something out! Also, lines tend to be huge on the weekend, but they go much faster than you would expect. The bathrooms can be a little rough too…it’s a pretty busy place.

It’s got a kind of In-N-Out thing going on with the loudspeaker and the calling out of names and what-not, so go with a friend. Have someone stake out a table while you wait on line. You order and then wait for them to call your name. You can stand around and watch the great *only in the bay area* mix of Indians and Mexicans working the line together.

One other thing…don’t tell anyone else about it.

726 Allston Way @ 4th
Berkeley…(510) 644-4412
Menu and link here.

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