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A Universe Near University

West Berkeley's spicy Indian treats.

T

The first thing that hits you when you walk into the Bombay Spice House (1036 University Ave.) is a thick wave of scents: fennel, cardamom, cumin, garam masala. The store also carries a variety of bottled pickles (lime and ginger, mango, lotus root, red or green chilies) as well as chutneys (mint, coconut, tamarind, garlic). For those of us too lazy to cook from scratch, there are boxed ready-to-eat meals as well as packaged mixes for confections like jilebi (a sweet flour-based dessert), pakoras (deep-fried fritters), and kulfi (an almond- and pistachio-flavored dessert). Junk food enthusiasts will enjoy the snack aisle, which features an Indian version of Top Ramen in "funky chicken" flavor and the line of Bollywood Bites snack mixes in flavors like "Megastar Farali Chevdo" and "Alu Thriller Bhujian." And where else could you find mint chutney potato chips?

Speaking of spicy, remember when Vik Distributors Inc. Retail and Snackshop (726 Allston Way) was nothing more than a warehouse attached to a grocery? Lunch crowds still flocked to the restaurant for its three low-priced daily meal specials (one is always vegetarian). And thanks to a recent design overhaul, the restaurant has doubled its dining space and invested in a new paint job and some classy furniture. (The snack shop retains its commitment to disposable plates and cutlery, however, so you can still enjoy watching diners futilely attempting to saw through chicken legs with plastic sporks.) The restaurant specializes in chaat, or snacks: Try the samosa cholle (a pastry stuffed with potatoes and peas, covered in a spicy garbanzo bean sauce), bhel puri (a puffed rice salad with onion and mint garnish), or aloo tikka cholle (potato patties in green pea and garbanzo curry). Vik's also carries a selection of bottled soft drinks that you won't find at your average Safeway.

Not far away is the Sari Palace (1000 University Ave.), which carries a rainbow of saris, salwar kameez (two-piece outfits), and kurtas (loose-fitting shirts), many beautifully dyed or embroidered with metallic threads, beads, or sequins on silks and chiffons imported from Japan and France. Sari buyers say you should expect to barter for the higher-priced items with more elaborate embroidery, such as bridalwear or party clothing. Start by asking for half off the price tag figure and expect to go up to about three-quarters of the price. You should expect to pay full price for everyday clothing. And make sure you buy exactly the sari you want, because most shops don't accept returns.

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