Cannot. Live. Without Vik’s Chaat Corner

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

You know that moment when you’re sitting around the house with a friend or partner, starving, yet paralyzed by your inability to choose a restaurant?

Each of you wants to be more flexible and spontaneous than the other, so you just sit there looking at each other with broad smiles to mask the hunger pangs, and say, “I’m fine with anything, it’s up to you.”

Ugh, it’s exhausting, right? Well, imagine that scenario. Then imagine finding a restaurant that is so delicious, consistent and cheap that you never have to experience that again.

Do you feel that weight just slip off your shoulders like that soggy pizza you wish you hadn’t eaten last night? That’s how I felt when I found Vik’s Chaat Corner at Fourth Street and Channing Way in Berkeley.

Vik’s Chaat Corner, endearingly referred to as just Vik’s by us veterans, serves Indian food.  For those people who classify their Indian food by region, it is both Southern and Northern Indian cuisine, which is pretty unhelpful.

A better way to think about it is that it is a chaat restaurant. Chaat is Indian street food, and the word chaat in Hindi literally means “to lick.” Appropriately named, as the food was traditionally served on a leaf and was so flavorful that you could not resist licking the every bit off the leaf before tossing it. Chaat can be found all over India, or just right across the bay.

Eating at Vik’s can be quite the intense experience, so let me break it down for you. It is essentially a cafeteria-style restaurant where you order at one spot, they take your name, and then call it out as the food is ready.

Meaning that if you order five dishes, your name may be called out five times over the span of a few minutes. The menu can also be somewhat intimidating, because it is just a series of pictures of the food with narrative-like descriptions of each dish that may or may not include what is actually in the dish.

Take the Dahi Batata Puri (pictured). The menu’s description is as follows: “I still remember making the trek to the pushcart at Elko Arcade in Mumbai for these puris, filled and topped with yogurt and tamarind chutney. Make sure you finish the best part, the tangy mixture at the bottom of the plate, after the puris are gone...”

Now what they don’t tell you is that these puris are golfball-sized, crispy air-filled flour puffs filled with potato, garbanzo beans and puffed rice. Then add the yogurt, tamarind chutney, and top it off with chili and other spices.

To eat, you pick up the heavily laden puri, pop the whole thing in your mouth and enjoy, as you wonder to yourself if this is where the people who came up with Gushers fruit snacks got their idea.

For the faint of heart, not everything on the menu will be things you have never eaten before. They have dosa, biryani and samosa, but I urge you to find that dish on the menu that makes you say “What the hell is that?” Then order it. If you don’t, you will miss out on dishes like the Pav Bhaji, my personal favorite.

Bhaji is a thick potato-based curry with tomatoes, peas and green bell peppers that is topped with fresh onions, coriander and a lime. It is spiced such that it starts off with a sweet tangy vegetable flavor that slowly becomes a spicy heat. You eat this treat by scooping it up with Pav, a delectable light and fluffy bun that they toast on the griddle with some butter.

At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “Well, this sounds awesome, but am I really going to leave San Francisco, a city full of food, for this?” The answer is yes. Yes, you are.

I promise you, if you go at least once, one of two things will happen. The first is that you will have a fantastic time and decide that you, like me, cannot live without eating at Vik’s at least once a month. Or two, you will have a fantastic time and decide you, like me, cannot live without eating at Vik’s at least once a week. I promise.