Masala Dosa, Vegetable Kathi, Assorted Indian Pastries
Occupation: Film Festival Director
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Viks Chaat Corner
Reviewed Viks Chaat Corner: Sunday, October 16, 2005
Why would I recommend a place like Viks? After all, you can’t really get a complete meal there, and it is, in part, a nuthouse. You sometimes have to wait in a long line stretching out the door, only to have a few moments to decide among the dozens of regular chaat (Indian street-food snack) offerings or daily specials that come out of the kitchen, where at least a half-dozen women work furiously to turn out freshly crisped dosas (large, thin crêpes made of lentil and rice flour) filled with savory meats, airy-light poori breads, scrumptious samosas stuffed with spicy lamb filling, or moist chickpea cakes flecked with fresh coconut and mint chutney. Dining in a warehouse on paper plates is not exactly fine dining, but Viks is a stunning example of a type Indian cuisine that, while more at home in the alleyways of Madras than in the shadow of Berkeley’s precious 4th Street boutiques, deserves to be widely known and shared.
What started some ten years ago as a friendly, backroom snack service of an Indian goods market has blossomed into a full-scale chaat factory. The owners expanded the hot food service a few years ago into the market’s next-door warehouse, which now has been fitted with a few long counter tables, little round cocktail tables, rather uncomfortable chairs, and a ceaseless flow of delectable savory snacks. After placing your order, you have to listen for the announcement of your food’s availability over the East Bay’s worst public address system that manages to make every announcement sound like the same garbled message. Orders need to be picked up from the friendly counter person and brought back to your table, which hopefully has not been occupied in the meantime by another hungry party. To add to the frenetic experience, your order, which, if you are smart, will contain at least four snacks, even if you are eating alone, comes up, not at once, but in a kind of haphazard sequence… So just as you have made your way back to your table and are ready to tuck into your ground lamb kabobs in a spicy-hot chocolate-brown sauce, you may be interrupted with the news that your dhokla (the aforementioned chickpea cakes) or mirchi vada (potato-stuffed Anaheim chili peppers) are ready to be picked up. The daily specials are worth paying attention to — crumbly idli (mounds of little rice flour cakes topped with daal), or fish kebabs, or lamb samosas. As you are ordering, grab a few of the super-sweet desserts from the display case, so you don’t have to wait in line a second time.
But the chaos is worth it, for this kind of South Asian (thus mainly vegetarian) snack food must, by definition, be prepared to order, and Viks does so with meticulous attention to balanced flavors and ultra-fresh ingredients. Wash some of those snacks down with a mango lassi (no beer or wine, unfortunately), and duck in next door to the grocery afterwards to pick up a bottle of lime pickle or, if you’ve been inspired, a pound of rice and lentil flour to make your own dhosas. But I guarantee they won’t turn out as great as Viks.
Occupation: Corporate Finance
Location: San Anselmo
Favorite Restaurant: Insalata’s Restaurant
Reviewed Viks Chaat Corner: Thursday, October 13, 2005
Viks Chaat Corner is located in Berkeley in a mixed industrial and residential area. I went there for lunch with no idea what I was getting into. I have only had Indian food twice in my life, so I was a complete novice.
The decor was Spartan; semi-industrial. Actually felt somewhat “Soviet” in its austerity. But that’s a design choice and somewhat typical of Berkeley. However, the smells wafting from the kitchen were intriguing and piqued my interest.
Ordering from the counter, I was able to get a table easily and waited only a short time for my food. It was busy, but not crowded, and I enjoyed listening to the Indian music wafting over the speakers. It was at a pleasant volume; present but not oppressive, and had I not been alone, it would have been easy to carry on a conversation.
Knowing nothing about the cuisine other than the understanding that curry is used in almost everything, I looked at the menu and randomly chose the Konkan Chicken Special, with a mango lassi to drink. I also ordered the Dahi Bata Puri appetizer (corn-puffed puris stuffed with potatoes and covered in a yogurt/tamarind sauce). The Konkan Chicken was a boneless chicken curry with homemade spices. The chicken also came with a mixed vegetable khadi, brown rice, chappati, papadum, and a raita and pickle sauce.
The chicken was good, although all I could really taste was the curry. I really enjoyed the vegetable khadi with its sublime mix of flavors that I couldn’t really place, but it was delicious nonetheless. I also enjoyed the raita and pickle sauce, which was a refreshing way to clear the palate. What I truly enjoyed was the mango lassi. It was fantastically rich-flavored and absolutely delicious.
The puris were a disappointment. Hard to get a hold of — was not sure if it was OK to eat Indian food with your hands; no one else was doing it. My basic takeaway from the puri was that all I ended up tasting was the yogurt and tamarind sauce. Served cold, it was a non-factor to my palate.
In terms of my overall reaction to the restaurant, I could see how, if one liked Indian cuisine, the mix of getting very good portions for very little money in an environment that allowed one to converse quite easily would be an attraction. However, I myself am not a fan of Indian cuisine, and probably only for that reason would not come back. Good value for the money, but you have to like Indian food.
Occupation: Public Relations
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Limón
Reviewed Viks Chaat Corner: Friday, October 14, 2005
When I first got there, it was very difficult to find parking. There were lots, but they all said “not for Viks.” Once we finally parked a couple blocks away, we walked into Viks Chaat Corner, which is more of a glorified cafeteria than a restaurant. It felt cold and uninviting. There is really no decor, and the whole serve yourself thing was just such a turn off to me. And what’s up with the sporks? Couldn’t they at least provide forks and spoons? It reminded me of KFC and how they give you a spork for your mashed potatoes.
The menu was so hard to read (a small wipeboard with tiny writing on the wall) and there were only three main course items to choose from, which was a challenge since I always get chicken tikka masala when I go for Indian food, and I was very disappointed to find out that they did not offer it at this place.
Although the crowd was very diverse, there was a good amount of Indian people eating there, which is always a good sign. Every time I go to an ethnic restaurant and see people of that ethnicity eating there, I like to think that it’s pretty authentic. In this case, it was just a little disappointing. The naan was really the biggest disappointment. Usually they are odd shapes, they come out still hot from the tandoor, and when you bite into them, they are nice and thick and chewy. In this case, they were like little tortilla shells made of naan dough, but drier and tasteless. The spinach was even worse. I found myself chewing for a while, because it was so tough and gritty and had bits of unidentifiable fiber weaved through. The sea bass special I ordered was okay, but there were only two little pieces of fish in my portion! I found myself “fishing” for more, but there just wasn’t any to be found. The so-called coconut curry sauce didn’t have any coconut flavor at all. My chai tea was way too spicy, and I wondered why it was only $1. You definitely get what you pay for here. You have to get your food and bus your own table. There is no service to really comment on.
People seem to really like this place. When we left, there was not one empty table and there was actually a wait. Seems like people eat here because it’s close to where they work and it’s cheap. I can’t say that I would ever go back. It’s just too far and not worth the $3 bridge toll from The City to eat mediocre Indian food. There are way too many other really great Indian restaurants right near my house that I think offer much better food and comfort. I think that if I worked near this place, I might go for lunch once in a while but only if I was dying for Indian food and there was nothing else available.