What happens when you transport street food from the crowded, dusty streets of India to a sleek, no-fuss, 25,000-square-foot warehouse in West Berkeley?
Vik’s Chaat Corner on Fourth Street. The concept is hardly new. Bay Area foodies will remember walking into the chaat shop’s old location at 721 Allston Way and seeing some of the same things—pappadums from Kerala, the smell of dosa and of course the long, long lines for curry and cholle bhaturas—but, as someone said, “the new avatar is so much better.”
The first things you notice when you enter Vik’s are the massive twin skylights which transform this former World War II machine factory into a village courtyard, the diamond-shaped glass panels filling the four corners of the 7,000-square-foot room with natural sunlight and ventilation.
Adaptive reuse has always been the mission, said Sudhish Mohindroo, the architect behind the project, who made sure that everything from the wooden benches to the concrete floors was recycled.
“The wood comes from bleachers at a high school in San Francisco,” Mohindroo said on a recent Friday just days after Vik’s had its grand opening. “We really made an effort to go green wherever we could.”
To celebrate the occasion, Mayor Bates showed up in Indian garb, sporting a red tilak and garlands. Others gorged on samosas and dahi papdi chaat, a spicy snack made from papdis, potatoes and garbanzo beans, usually sold in recycled newspapers in India.
Amod Chopra, who left a job with Applied Materials in Silicon Valley to help in his parents’ business—his father Vinod is the original “Vik”—said that he had worried that the essence of the old restaurant would be missing from the new one.
“We had been in the old location for 23 years—it had soul, character, a certain charm about it,” Chopra said during a recent interview. “The minute you walked in, it felt like you were stepping into a microcosm of India. You can move into a bigger place, a new shiny place but it just doesn’t feel right. I spent a lot of time worrying about this, but in the end it looks like we have the right mix.”
The most important part about Vik’s, Chopra adds, is its casual atmosphere.
“People can come as they want, in whatever they want—even their pajamas,” Chopra said smiling. “If we ended up on the happening side of Fourth Street, then things would have been a bit different.”
But as always, the crowds are thronging to Vik’s, some admiring the food, others the architecture.
Richard Odenheimer, who brokered the property for Chopra, said that the skylights were the dealmaker.
When Chopra bought the place, the previous tenants had left cubicles, junk and a broken-down mezzanine behind.
Mohindroo took down the walls, added diamond-shaped glass tiles which were found in the building to the exterior—a pattern visible elsewhere in the area—and designed what he calls a “utilitarian interior.”
“We want it to feel like a marketplace, but without the chaos,” Mohindroo said. “That’s why we did away with nooks and crannies.
“We want people to mingle, but be able to have a private conversation as well. Something akin to being alone in a big city.”
The building’s exterior walls were changed from a dull grayish blue to a bright brick-orange and yellow to exude warmth and energy, Mohindroo said.
“And it reminds people of mango lassi,” he added smiling. “We are waiting to see how this part of West Berkeley slowly evolves into a neighborhood. How all the older industrial buildings get adapted in a new way as long as they work within the zoning.”
Sitting right at the edge of Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, anchored by Bayer Healthcare and the Fourth Street shopping district, Vik’s couldn’t have asked for a better location, Chopra said.
“Sure, we could have moved downtown,” he said. “But West Berkeley is our home.”
Fans of Vik’s groceries will be happy to see a space dedicated to aisles and aisles of Indian treats—something that had been limited to a rather dark and dingy part of the old store.
“This is an India in America,” said Miam Mazher, as he queued up to order aloo tikkas.
Longtime West Berkeley residents Megan Kirshbaum and Judi Rogers raved about the space.
“They were just a little backroom with a couple of chairs and tables,” Megan said reminiscing about Vik’s early days. “You had to wait in line and pounced when your order came through. It’s amazing how it has evolved.”
Rogers said that the only complaint she had was that it was still noisy.
“Yes, it’s bright and airy and very modern looking, but you can’t really have a conversation,” she said laughing. “But the food is so good that I’ll keep coming back.”
The new location? 2390 Fourth St. near Channing.