Vik’s Chaat, an Indian food icon in Berkeley, is better than ever

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Vik’s Chaat, the heavyweight champion of Indian street food in the Bay Area, turns 33 this year and remains one of the region’s most unique culinary destinations. From the butter-yellow and lavender-walled sporks of the warehouse dining room to the parade of telescope-shaped dosas that sprout from the kitchen, Vik’s epitomizes the spectacle much like the House of Prime Rib, with its metal beef carts and martini shakers.

Recently, I had heard rumors that Amod Chopra, the second-generation owner, had returned to the kitchen of Vik’s in West Berkeley, taking on cooking duties while managing the grocery import and distribution operations of the company. There seems to be something more to food these days: crispier dosas, brighter flavors, more of that ineffable taste of home. If you haven’t been back lately, it’s worth a visit.

Chopra, now 52, ​​was one of Vik’s first recruits: as a teenager, under the tutelage of their grandmother, he and his sister prepared in the kitchen, worked at the fryer and were preparing the myriad of chaat components for the day. “My earliest memories of the restaurant were being woken up at 6 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday to start cooking,” Chopra said. After graduating from college, he spent a few years working as a financial analyst for a semiconductor company before returning to take over the business when his father’s health declined.

Amod Chopra (left) in the kitchen at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley. Chopra is the son of the owners and has returned to cooking at Vik’s Chaat after a hiatus.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Until last year, he mainly coordinated the company from his office; now he prepares the daily lunch specials and tastes everything as he goes. The look and feel of the dishes – the ratio of tamarind chutney to yogurt on dahi papdi chaat ($10), the maximum circumference of dosas – were tattooed on his brain after years of rehearsal. And he finds it exhilarating to start over those old moves and calibrate the food to the tastes he remembers.

One of Vik’s interesting contradictions is that although it focuses on street food, characterized by its fluidity and culinary informality, it balances this dynamism with the specific demands of nostalgia.

“We kind of locked ourselves into a very specific memory of India,” Chopra said. Cooks all over India are constantly revisiting the classics, playing with crumbled instant noodles, parmesan and quinoa, among other things. “But here in the Bay Area, people yearn for that quirky chaat. Our path is at the service of expatriates, the immigrant community, traditional chaat – traditional memories.

Dahi batata puri at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.

Dahi batata puri at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

So at Vik’s, doing chaat is like refining your movement in a choreographed dance: moving your feet and shoulders by fractions of an inch to achieve the ideal.

I see this delicate balance in the dahi batata puri ($10). Opened with a cook’s fingertips and draped in yogurt, crispy whole-wheat puris resemble sea urchin shells nestled in moss. Too much yogurt will drown them out, while too little will sap the sea breeze of milky freshness that enhances every bite. The puris burst on the palate with the starchy flower of boiled potato hidden within, followed by the flavor of tamarind chutney hit with bites of chilli powder just hot enough.

And then there’s the bhatura cholle ($14), a perfect take on the classic Punjabi dish. Cooked in hot oil, the puffy fried bread puffs up like a whoopee cushion, exhaling with a warm sigh as the diner rips it apart to dip it into the mixture of cooked chickpeas.

Cholle bhature at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.

Cholle bhature at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

For all the virtues of the Vik’s menu, it’s the daily specials board behind the counter that has always drawn me the most. If you’ve mostly focused on dosas and pani puri while eating at Vik (reasonable), this is the deal: specialties center around a thali-style presentation, with a main course, always something hearty and intimate, served with a set of accompaniments. Although thalis are most often round trays, with a solar system of small banchan-like dishes arranged in a circle, those at Vik’s are more like cafeteria trays. Compostable sporks only increase my nostalgia for public school lunch.

It’s the most varied cuisine you’ll find at Vik’s, with influences that cut across India’s many regions. On a recent visit, I enjoyed a thali with dumm murgh ($16) flanked by a rich chana dal, lightly marinated carrots and a garlic butter naan leaf. The centerpiece was Chopra’s take on Hyderabadi Chicken Curry, with succulent chunks of chicken thigh swimming in a velvety, aromatic cashew sauce the color of suede. Other weeks, you might be drawn to something totally different: a North Indian-style turnip mash spiked with ginger and garlic, or a comforting mound of cumin-flavored lamb-based kheema. chopped farmer.

A large jar contains a mixture of oil, chili peppers and spices at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.

A large jar contains a mixture of oil, chili peppers and spices at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Although I’ve been several times before, I often feel delightfully overwhelmed at Vik’s, and feel like I’ve just opened the instruction booklet for a new board game. This is partly due to the chaotic energy of the order and pick-up system. In the dining hall, the throbbing throb of Bollywood tunes is frequently interrupted by the summer camp crackle of a PA system, announcing names for food pickup to people lingering in the cavernous space. like impatient travelers waiting to board their plane. The open kitchen is divided into separate stations – for chaat, biryani, thalis and the like – and, if you’ve ordered lots of different things, figuring out where to go and which dish is yours as orders come in takes a bit from an exciting game show. Really, the service style is essentially the same as when it opened in warehouse space in 2010.

The dining room at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.

The dining room at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

On the surface, it seems the biggest pandemic pivot at Vik’s is his outdoor seating area, a set of pleasantly colored picnic tables laid out in the parking lot. But on a more subtle level, Chopra’s return to the kitchen is another welcome change.

If anything, the pandemic has clarified Chopra’s feelings about resuming the family business. “I realized I had been doing this for 27 years,” he said. “I kind of backed off. I really had no choice, on a subconscious level.

As an immigrant, how could you say no to your parents? he thought.

“For someone my age, what will my last years be like, to have no regrets?” Back to cooking, to dancing, was the answer.

Amod Chopra stirs the pans as he cooks before the doors open at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.  Chopra is the owners' son and has returned to the restaurant after a hiatus.

Amod Chopra stirs the pans as he cooks before the doors open at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley. Chopra is the owners’ son and has returned to the restaurant after a hiatus.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Soleil Ho is the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @hooleil


2390 Fourth St. (at Channing Way), Berkeley. 510-644-4432 or https://vikschaat.com/

Hours: 11am-2.30pm and 5pm-7.30pm from Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday.

Accessibility: Mainly on flat ground, with access ramps. Menu display on the door and behind the counter.

Noise level: Loud inside, quiet outside.

Meal for two, excluding drinks: 30$-40$

What to order: Dahi batata chaat, bhatura cholle, thali specialties, dosas.

Meatless options: Most of the menu is vegetarian. Some vegan options.

Drinks: Soft drink.

Transportation: A few steps from bus stops 36, 51B and 72. Private lot and street parking. Bike racks available.

Best Practices: Check the lunchtime specials on the Vik’s Facebook page before you go.


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