While some Indian jewelry and saree stores are rumored to have taken off for Los Angeles and more lucrative markets, new Indian stores and restaurants are opening almost monthly on and around University Avenue. Indian Americans travel from San Jose, Fremont, Palo Alto, Yuba City, and even Los Angeles to shop here.
UC MBA graduate Kirpal Khanna, who opened the first Indian store on University in 1971 as a grocery store, has expanded twice and added a variety of merchandise including screens, inlay boxes, hair tassels, glass bangles, musical instruments, videos, and a fascinating book and card store adjacent to the original storefront. Here you can find extensive selections of books on Ayurveda, the science of self-healing, cookbooks, Sikhism, Hindu gods and goddesses, cookbooks, and travel guides to India.
As president of the University Avenue Association, Khanna hosts a veritable community center in his incense-infused store and says all the Indian stores work in a friendly competition, helping each other.
In the same block, Fiji Indians are converting Ramson’s Discount Depot futon shop to a full service Indian and western clothing shop offering alterations on site.
On the north side of University, Gold Palace Jewelers (1085 University Ave.), is the Tiffany of Indian jewelry stores, with security buzzing in and out the curious. In an elegant, slightly untrusting atmosphere, Gold Palace offers Delhi- and Calcutta-made 22 karat gold jewelry, as well as Rolex, Omega, Movado, Gucci, and Rado watches—all under lock and key. Flyers advertising Vik S. Bajwa (Dem) for Governor adorn a table near the exit.
India uses 783 tons of gold per year, according to Maulin at Bombay Jewelry Company. Indians believe in investing in gold as a good investment and as an asset. Even poor families buy what they can afford as part of their family security, and brides and children receive gold, so Gold Palace sells small earrings and bracelets from $25 and up.
G&H International Emporium, 1027 University Ave., is another neighborhood Indian community center in this location since 1981, providing $25 full saree outfits from Punjab in northern India, bolts of fabric, gold and silver trim, incense, rice cookers, food blenders, DVD players, boom boxes, and irons. On the south side of University, India Chaat & Sweets (824 University Ave.) offers a lunchtime buffet ($6.99) and a cozy dining room with parking just off University on Sixth Street.
Milan Imports (990 University Ave.) blasts visitors with curry aroma at the doorway, emanating from scores of bins of spices sold in bulk at the lowest prices available in the Bay Area.
Unusual delicacies used in the cuisines of India, Somalia, Kenya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan available here include $2.99 a pound whole almonds (one-third the normal retail price), Indian cornflakes, chapati flat breads, whole wheat roti, chick pea twigs, four varieties of ground coconut, garbanzo flour, white and yellow corn flours, mace power, sumack, yellow garlic powder, 22 varieties of dal (lentils) and other beans, international teas, whole nutmeg and star anise, green Ethiopian coffee beans, Patak and Laxmi chutneys, Ahmed mango pickles, ghee (clarified butter), and mustard oil for massage use only.
At this location since 1975, Milan owner Mahinder “Mike” Parmar, born near Bombay, carries Indian movies, CDs and tapes (many $2-$3), and Indian movie posters, and tempting sweets from his Bombay Cuisine Restaurant Café next door at 2006 Ninth Street. Parmar also sells Spanish saffron at the best price around, $21 an ounce.
All saree stores here are having big sales as a run-up to Diwali, the Indian New Year celebrated this year on Oct. 25. Boasting Sharon Stone as a regular client, Sari Palace specializes in fabulous Indian bridal outfits (langas) for women that include 15 yards of fabric and can weigh up to 15 pounds including sequins and jewels, and cost up to $3,000. Women traditionally wear red for their weddings, but may wear any other color for the wedding reception, which means two outfits.
Salwaar Kameez outfits are more casual and include pants, three-quarter or short tops, and scarves. Shawls contain a mere two yards of material, and Sari Palace even sells the silk scarves separately for $15. Men’s jodhpuri suits run from $125-$150.
Bombay Spice House (1036 University Ave.) is a clean, small, family store where visitors are greeted by displays of samosas, fresh teas, and chai. Frozen imported Indian vegetables include cluster beans, methi-fenugreek beans, parwal, and violet yams. Bombay Spice House offers packaged spices, incense burners, mediation books, pestals and mortars, Indian cooking utensils, metal serving trays, and statues of Ganesh, the Hindu God of Wisdom and good thinking (believed to remove life’s obstacles), and of Laxmi, Goddess of Prosperity and money.
Berkeley Music House has thousands of Indian and Pakistani CDs, tapes, and movies, with customers flocking from throughout California for their unusual collection.
Bombay Jewelry Company is smaller than Gold Palace, but sells lots of gold bangles to Indians, because “You collect all the gold you can because you don’t know when your husband is going to die.” Maulin weighs all 22 karat pieces to arrive at a price, which varies daily.
Roopam Sarees and Sari Boutique owner Chhabildas Khatri (1044 University Ave.) was born in Fiji and has the busiest store on the street. Roopam sarees range from $25-$500, and come in French or Japanese chiffon, with shoes and colored glass bangles to match ($3 for 12), and sequined earrings and necklaces from $15. Children and belly dancers also get outfits here!
While in the neighborhood, venture a half block north on San Pablo to Indus Food Center and Halal Food Market, both Islamic providers of Halal meats, poultry, and produce. Indus’s meat prices are fabulous, with leg of lamb at $3.25 a pound, goat leg at $3.99, and chickens at $.99 a pound.
Halal Food Market supplies Middle Eastern, Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Indian and other groceries, as well as lamb, goat, beef and organic-raised chicken. Customers are treated as guests here, first offered sage-spiked tea from an urn on the deli meat counter, which comes with a dose of interesting and friendly conversation, all led by owner Naime Ayyad and manager Zafar Khan. Expanding after one year in business, Halal offers sweet butter, cheeses, yogurts, and a plethora of Islamic books.
Just south of University on San Pablo is a real find, new restaurant, Priya (2072 San Pablo Ave.), serving South and North Indian cuisine and “all halal meats.” Clean, slightly elegant, peaceful and festive, Priya is already packed with new fans. Its lunchtime and Sunday brunch buffets ($6.99/$10.99) feature many vegetarian and meat entrees, including goat, lamb, and chicken curries, with an unusual abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits. Owner Parvata Reddy Seelam has 20 years’ experience in the restaurant business, and it shows.
One of Berkeley’s best known Indian food merchants, Vik’s Distributors (726 Allston Way), offers products other markets don’t, including Bedekar’s pickled sauces, White Gold Basmati rice at only $5.99 for ten pounds, French and English digestive crackers, and ZEN chili pastes, Chirag garlic ginger pastes, and Gits curry mixes.
Indira Chopra’s Vik’s Chaat’s Corner is the steal of the day, taking up half of Vik’s warehouse and due to expand before the end of the year. Chaat (“snacks”) are $3, and weekday specials, both vegetarian and not, max out at $4.99. The only utensils are plastic spoons and Indian breads.