The United States isn't the only nation addicted to snack food. Every region in India boasts its own types of chaat, or snacks, some of which have migrated across the country to become national favorites. "Chaat is street food that has become a ritual," says Vinita Jacinto, a Punjabi-cooking teacher who hails from Bombay. All across India, chaat is moving indoors, from street stalls and train-station platforms to chaat houses where family and friends meet for afternoon tea or late-night meals.
Over the past four years Berkeley has become the place to go for chaat. With the arrival of Maharaj this year, Berkeley now sports four chaat houses that's four more than any other city in the Bay Area and, by the looks of their busy dining rooms, there's room for more. Homesick Indian Americans are making pilgrimages from San Francisco and Sunnyvale just for bhel puri and masala dosas. In Berkeley, chaat's not just for snack time. It's a perfect meal for budget-conscious diners and foodies enamored of small-plates dining. Here's where to try it:
Vik's Chaat Corner (726 Allston Way, Berkeley. 510-644-4412), originally an imported-goods store with a small chaat stand, gets more press and customers than any of the other houses, and for good reason. Many of the standard dishes and weekend specials have earned permanent spots on the tiny menu, but lunchtime entrées change daily. Fans of Chaat Café (1902 University Ave., Berkeley. 510-845-1431), on University near downtown, argue that its chaat is better than Vik's. Cleaner and more stylish, Chaat Café also boasts a larger permanent selection of chaat, tandoori-roasted meats, Indian wraps, and five to ten curries and daily specials, all under $10. Family-owned Shan Chaat House (2072 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. 510-883-0899) has been around for almost as long as Vik's. Slightly run down, Shan offers a full list of chaats, plus sweets and basic Northern Indian specials. The chaat is even cheaper than Vik's. With pleasant service, the restaurant is a good place for a quick, inexpensive bite. The newest arrival, Maharaj Indian Cuisine (824 University Ave., Berkeley. 510-704-1200), is owned by a pair of caterers and sweetmakers who wanted to open a restaurant and retail space for their desserts. It's the poshest of the four, with attentive waiters, colorful murals, and linen tablecloths and napkins.
Most of the snacks that have made it to Berkeley revolve around potatoes, chickpeas, and other starches, and many are vegetarian. Some of what these restaurants call chaat we've been ordering as appetizers for years. All four chaat houses serve samosas, pyramids of fried dough stuffed with mashed potatoes and peas or ground lamb. Instead of coming with a duo of mint and tamarind chutneys, these come with a spiced chickpea curry (cholay). Another well-known item is vegetable pakoras, usually spinach leaves and chopped potatoes coated in a chickpea-flour batter and fried until light and crispy. Maharaj also makes lamb and fish pakoras, and Chaat Café's amazing spice-rubbed, crisp-tender catfish pakoras can't be beat.
Puris, fried dough pillows of many different sizes, fill the menus. The Bombay specialty bhel puri is translated in Berkeley into a salad of puffed rice tossed with chopped onions and crispy lentil-flour things in a sweet, tart, and spicy mint sauce. Silver-dollar-size wheat-flour puris, also known as bhaturas, are also served with a plate of spiced potatoes and garbanzo beans. Crack a hole in the puri, fill it with the vegetables, spoon a bit of tamarind-mint water inside, and pop the whole thing in your mouth. The largest of the puris are rounds of deep-fried yeast dough which diners tear apart and wrap around cholay.
On weekends, Vik's serves order after order of masala dosas, huge crepes that hang over the sides of the paper plates that are supposed to support them. Made with a lacy, soft rice-and-lentil-flour batter, the dosas are stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes and accompanied by a spicy lentil soup (sambar) and sweet mustard-seed-flecked coconut chutney. Maharaj serves a smaller, less assertively spiced version of the South Indian snack every day, as does Shan Chaat House.
Perhaps someday chaat will become popular enough to migrate back outdoors into ballparks and street stalls. Just as long as it doesn't go fusion. Who wants chutney-topped nachos or ketchup on their pakoras?