Vik's Chaat - My Chaat Education

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Repost from 9/08 to include new location info. 

I really am naive when it comes to Indian cuisine. Suddenly I have an Indian roomie, Veena, and the golden opportunity for education. Veena rooms with me during the week and then returns to her home in Concord for the weekend. This weekend I went to her place and she shared her world with me. This entry will be about our visit to Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.

Chaat refers to Indian street food. When the sun goes down, the people come out and stroll the streets socializing. All along the streets are vendor carts selling all kinds of street snacks. Before or after a show or movie, people will stop for bites to eat.

Vik's Chaat is located in a warehouse down by the waterfront of Berkeley. Before Veena came to the U.S. she worked as a receptionist at a five-star hotel in Bombay/Mumbai. One of her coworkers, the head of catering, also came to the States and he's the one who started Vik's. Veena tells me that at first he only occupied a small corner of his brother's Indian grocery and sold the chaat only on weekends. As his counter became more and more popular, he took up more space and opened more hours. Eventually he had to move his operation next door. More and more growth and then he had to annex another section of the warehouse. This gentleman died suddenly of a stroke while only in his 40's. The family continued the chaat business and since it keeps growing, they've now bought a warehouse two blocks down. They will be moving to that new location in April 2009. Now at new location.

Sure enough, there is a constant line at Vik's and one must be vigilant in snagging a table as it is vacated (still). The warehouse truly is a bare bones operation. The new location is much nicer and larger. It's been updated with a computerized order system and the pick-up counter split up depending on the type of  food ordered. But hey, low overhead keeps low prices, although Veena has seen the price of plates rise from $2 up to $4.75 $6.75 now.

I left our meal in Veena's hands and she selected three puris and I chose our one non-veg item.

First to come up was my non-veg lamb baida roti. Roti is a griddle-cooked whole wheat flour bread. This was filled with spiced ground lamb with onions and cilantro. It is served with a yogurt/mint chutney. Served piping hot, it was delicious. The crisp griddled outside, soft doughy bread, and then the fine, spiced meat.

Our puris came out together. These are all sold cold. Puris are small whole wheat chips that are fried into crispy, hollow puffs. This one is the sev puri with potatoes, onions, cilantro, mint, tamarind and garlic chutney. The sev is the orange shreds you see on top. It is very fine, like shredded cheese, but Veena says it's actually close to a pasta, like orzo. This was an explosion of flavors and textures all in one bite.

This picture shows dahi batata puri on the left and pani puri on the left. The first was puris stuffed with potatoes and garbanzos and covered with spices, yogurt, and tamarind chutney. Although it had similar ingredients, this combination was a different experience from the sev puri, but just as delicious.

The pani puri is Veena's favorite. She was raving about it and trying to explain it to me at my house and I just didn't get it. She was talking about being given a small, crispy puff that you filled with stuff and then poured in this liquid before you ate it. Huh?? And that the street vendors hand each person one at a time around the circle of his cart. Well here we were to experience it. You see the plain empty puff above with the fixins next to it.

OK. So you take a puff and you poke a hole into the top of it. Next you take some of the potato and garbanzo and you stuff it into the puri. Now top it with a spoonful of tamarind chutney. Last, take spoonfuls of the spicy mint water and pour that in as well. Now eat. An odd method of assembly and messy if your puri has a hole in it. But still tasty. After finishing the puri Veena poured the chutney into the mint water and drank that down. She was a happy camper.

We were stuffed at this point and so I got a couple of sweets to go. The desserts are not made here but are supplied by a specialty bakery.

Our four dishes came to $20 and filled the two of us. A great deal of good, authentic chaat. Just be prepared for the frugal setup and go for the real reason - the food.