The Indian restaurant scene in the Bay Area is, for the most part, abysmal.
If you have had the good fortune to sample the authentic flavors of any of the cuisines of South Asia at the source or, at the very least in London, or even New York or Chicago, then you know what I'm talking about.
With few exceptions, there is nowhere to go when you get a hankering for a crispy butter dosa, a sweet jalebi, or an exquisitely aromatic biriyani. So Indian expats and other members of the desi community (collective term for members of the South Asian diaspora) in the Bay Area, along with those who have become addicted to the flavors of their cuisines, have learned to make do with pale imitations of their favorites.
The situation improved markedly about five years ago with the sudden influx of inexpensive Pakistani kebab and curry houses, beginning with Shalimar and Naan-n-Curry in what has been dubbed the Tandoorloin, and the subsequent explosive expansion of franchises and imitators throughout the Bay.
But, really, the one place that everyone unanimously agrees is truly exceptional is, perhaps, the most humble of them all.
When N and I first discovered Vik's Chaat Corner over a decade ago, it consisted of a few rickety tables and chairs hidden in the back of a dusty spice wholesaler's warehouse located in an unassuming, somewhat run-down part of Berkeley. It was a well-kept secret that was just beginning to be revealed.
That was then.
Now, Vik's is an institution. Despite several expansions into the warehouses next door, there are still impossibly long lines on the weekends. On Sundays, it feels as if the entire desi community and all the hippie wannabes of Telegraph Avenue have descended upon the place.
The press hasn't stopped its adoration of the humble snack emporium, either, adding accolade after accolade to the wall of press clippings. In the 2005 Zagat Guide, Vik's is tied for best Indian restaurant in the area, pulling in an impressive 25 points for food (although only 5 points for its decor!). This also marked the first year that they were (rightfully) included in the San Francisco Chronicles annual round-up of Top 100 restaurants.
And so I, too, give Vik's perhaps its highest honor yet by adding it to my personal Short List. Like its other legions of fans, I go for the well-crafted masala of contrasting flavors, textures and aromas found in their renditions of North Indian street food known collectively as chaat.
There isn't a clunker on the menu, so I find it difficult to single out just a few dishes to recommend. I'd be sorry to see anyone miss Vik's stellar renditions of sev puri, bhel puri, pani puri, and samosas, but my favorites on the daily menu are the dahi papdi chaat (pictured, right, crisp wafers topped with chick peas, steamed lentil dumplings, creamy yogurt, and tamarind and coriander chutneys) and aloo tikki cholle (pictured, above left, fried potato patties stuffed with peas and topped with spicy chick peas, tamarind and coriander chutneys).
When I'm willing to wade through the Bollywoodesque weekend crowd, I never fail to pick up a box or two of dhoklas (steamed chickpea flour cakes), N's favorite Gujarati comfort food, for the next morning's breakfast. They also serve a passable masala dosa and pav bhaji on weekends, but my favorite weekend treat is the lamb baida roti, a buttery bread stuffed with spiced ground lamb.