There’s good news and bad news for Berkeley’s chaat lovers.
Let’s start with the bad news: Vik’s Chaat Corner, where homesick Indian expatriates from all over the Bay Area and beyond line up to get their whiff of tamarind, rock salt and mint, and everyone else turns up—well—for the chaat, of course, is moving from its nondescript West Berkeley warehouse at 721 Allston Way.
The good news is it’s moving two blocks south to Fourth Street.
When Amod Chopra—a member of the family that owns Vik’s—put down an offer on a residential house in the Berkeley hills earlier this year it was not meant to be.
“I was outbid,” said Chopra, pulling up one of the restaurant’s 142 basic-black metal chairs. “I took my wife on an African safari to cheer her up. When we got back, someone asked us if we wanted to buy a property on Fourth Street. We ended up buying it, but only because we got outbid on the other property. And that’s where [the business] will be moving in April.”
It’s 11:30 on a Tuesday morning and there’s hardly any place inside Vik’s to balance your ginormous cholle bhatura.
High-heeled American teenagers jostle for elbow room with a Punjabi family from Toronto—both hunched over their mango lassis and pav bhajis, bread served with steamed spicy vegetables blended together.
A group of West Berkeley residents turn up for their afternoon sweet fix of barfi, rasmalai, rasgollas and hatsi halwa—the creamy, nutty and milky flavors dousing the fiery juices of the pani puri perfectly.
Wendy Lucas of San Francisco picked up four large trays of tri-colored barfis and yellow pista rolls for her wedding.
“I guess that’s enough for 120 people,” she said laughing.
“We went to Fremont and a few other places in Berkeley, but Vik’s has the most vibrant colors and their sweets are the freshest.”
By 1 p.m., the line snakes all the way to the adjacent parking lot and, at its peak, the crowd spills over into the grocery store next door, where Indians from as far away as Santa Clara hunt for bargains.
First generation Indians shop for their Pond’s talcum powder and Pillsbury roti while the second and third generations stop by for Kingfisher beer or Thums Up, a cola drink manufactured in India by Coca Cola.
The store attracts more than 200 people every day and the restaurant gets nearly 700 visitors on weekdays, Chopra’s mother Indira said.
Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman Hindi songs blare in the background, and steaming glasses of masala chai and plates of fresh-made chicken curry with rice, dal, chapati, raita, papaddums and pickles appear out of nowhere.
You pause for a minute and wonder: Is this really happening in the middle of the warehouse district on Allston Way?
“When my father first leased this space 22 years ago, people were afraid to make the trek two blocks from University Avenue because their car would get broken into,” Chopra said.
“We took over the warehouse, cleaned it up and soon we brought life into this place. I still remember the $100 our landlords John Norheim and Don Yost paid my sister and me to sweep and mop the place. It was the hardest $100 I have ever earned in my life.”
As teenagers, Chopra and his sister Shagun—both Berkeley High graduates—spent weekdays helping their father Vinod at the store.
“I stood all day long and made chaat,” said Chopra smiling.
What started out in 1989 as a 200-square-foot chaat station squeezed in between the cash register and the spice aisle quickly evolved into a popular Berkeley lunch spot serving piping-hot curries to people who kept coming back for more.
A melee of sounds carried over to the tables from the kitchen, and Chopra explained it was his team at work.
Amma—who is originally from Andhra Pradesh, India, and has been at Vik’s for 15 years—stood in a cramped corner next to the oven making coconut chutney and sambhar.
“Now that we have our own building, I want to redesign the kitchen to give everyone more space,” Chopra said.
“I need more people there to make the dosas and the baturas.”
The batura—a large puffed puri served with cholle, onions and pickles—can sometimes turn out to be as big as a football.
Chopra has big dreams for his new restaurant on Fourth and Channing Way, previously occupied by the children’s sportswear store Sweet Potatoes, but insists that its essence will remain the same.
Although the building—which is part of the city’s “Berkeley Jet” architecture series because it once belonged to a boat propulsion company—spans 25,000 square feet, Chopra plans to use 6,000 square feet to build a 175-seat restaurant and lease out the rest.
“It will still be the same high-quality food and the same prices but with faster service,” he said.
“We will do our best to keep the warehouse look. It’s what makes Vik’s special. I did have a few options to move out of West Berkeley and follow the Indian crowd to Fremont, but every time I thought of it, I felt I would be taking the essence out of Vik’s.”
It’s easy to spot why Chopra got involved with chaat—the seemingly frivolous street food served on banana leaves that is popular all over India.
As a young boy in Patna, Bihar, he spent a good amount of time eating it.
“I couldn’t forget the taste,” he said.
“In India people eat chaat at any time of the day. On the way back from work, school, as a snack, in between meals and sometimes even for dinner.”
Chaat, Chopra explained, means “to lick,” and “it’s only by licking your leaf clean of the rock salt, tamarind, mint and cilantro that you can unleash the zesty pungent flavor of this popular Indian snack.”
At Vik’s, visitors can sample dahi batata puri, bhel puri and pani puri among other tongue-tickling delights, but Chopra singles out the papdi chaat as a proven crowd pleaser.
Made with crisp flat papdi—bits of pappadum—spices, potatoes and garbanzo beans and topped with yogurt and tamarind chutney, a bite of Vik’s papdi chaat conjures up images of chaat carts along Mumbai’s busy Chowpatty Beach.
“We have been serving Indian street food even before it was popular to serve Indian food,” Chopra said.
“This is where we found success. After basking in the kind of warm welcome Berkeley gave us, we can never dream of moving anywhere else.”