When you ask someone if they like Indian food, chances are they’ll say “Oh my God I LOVE chicken tikka masala…and that naan bread that comes with…so good” (or they’ll bring up a graphic incident of post-Indian food stomach problems that have since scarred them). The reality is, far too many people’s knowledge of Indian food is limited to a couple of common dishes. And who can blame them? That creamy tomato goodness slathered over tandoori chicken is damn tasty. And plus, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between an Indian restaurant that’s an authentic gem vs. one that’s just mediocre and capitalizing on the American who feels that enjoying “ethnic” food is as easy as heating up Trader Joe’s Palak Paneer from the freezer…or who doesn’t realize that orange chicken from Panda Express is not actually Chinese food (but I digress). It’s okay if you are that person. Don’t be too hard on yourself. I am here to help. If you’re open to exploring some of the best cuisine the world has to offer, I invite you to read this post.
I, like many of you, tried chicken tikka masala at a young age and became obsessed. But it wasn’t until I was introduced to a different style in the U.K. — “Chaat”, or street Indian food, that I really fell in love. Fast forward a few years and 5 thousand miles across the Atlantic and you’ll find me at Vik’s Chaat, located in southwest Berkeley. This is the BEST street-style Indian food in the Northern California (and proof that good, real food can be found everywhere if you search a little). I’ve been going to Vik’s frequently over the past couple of years and it deserves your attention if you ever find yourself in the greatest place on earth (aka the Bay Area).
For 25 years, this family-run spot has been serving quality food and helping diners appreciate the true flavors of Indian cuisine. The modern/industrial interior makes for a unique yet casual experience, which I love. There’s also a small market in the back where you can buy bulk spices, lentils, chutneys, etc. so you can try and cook up a feast at home for you + your sweetie, you + your fam, you + your cats….And for all you dudes or gals out there who are trying to spice it up (hah), Vik’s Chaat is a solid lunchtime date spot.
This time around I ate there with some of my family members. We started off sharing the dahi batata puri – a compilation of crispy shells filled with chickpeas and potatoes served cold and slathered in yogurt and fresh cilantro. A great way to start off the meal without getting too full. On a spice level from 1-10, this is MAYBE a 2, so even Grandma can enjoy it. Then came the Dosa. If you’re not familiar with Dosa, it’s essentially a gluten free / vegan lentil pancake filled with some kind of vegetable + lentil combo. Spice level was around 4 or 5, so still quite mild. The accompanying sauces included creamy tomato and spicy coconut, along with a lentil & chickpea purée…It’s basically the chicken and waffles of Indian food…The perfect sweet and savory combo. I want some now actually.
This last year, I discovered my favorite new dish, Chole Bhature – a chickpea stew served with a massive yet thin puff of bread that always reminds me of the smell of fresh homemade donuts. I first tried it in Leeds, England, at a small place called Anand Sweet Shoppe. Since then, I began ordering it at every chaat stand and Indian restaurant I’ve been to. I wasn’t able to find one that was as good as my first in Leeds….That is, until I came home and ordered it at Vik’s and nothing was the same (#Drake). Spice level is between 6 and 7, so enough to where you can feel it, but you haven’t broken a sweat. Whether you’re here on your own, on a date, with friends, or with family, this dish is the real MVP. Most Valuable Plate (of food).
Please believe that Indian food has more to offer than naan and curry. Expand your horizons. Head to Vik’s. Get the Chole Bhature. Let me know what you think.