Lay Down Thali 

Looking for love and curry in Berkeley and Hayward.

It's February again, time for our second annual Hole-in-the-Wall Month, when I follow readers' tips and review places that normally wouldn't make it into Zagat, or even my own column. These are the places you don't recommend to your squeamish co-workers - the restaurants you tell your friends about but pray they don't spread the word too far.I struck gold at this week's holes-in-the-wall, a pair of Indian restaurants in Berkeley and Hayward. Not only am I struggling to figure out how to sneak back into Athithi and Curry Corner now that I've reviewed them, but I've fallen a little in love with their owners. The eateries have several things in common: They serve dirt-cheap, vibrantly flavored Indian fare. At neither should you expect china, or even a table. And both establishments are run all but single-handedly by charming, talented cooks.

Next door to Bongo Burger on Dwight Way, in the heart of the Telegraph Avenue student-retail ghetto, is a dingy little place with a couple of picnic tables out front and a new sign: Athithi Devo Bhava.

Athithi -- the full name translates loosely as "The guest is to be treated as God" -- has been open for lunch and dinner for just over five months. The inside isn't much to look at. In the sunny front room there's a countertop, a line of stools along the windows, and an open kitchen that seems to consist of a single stove and a couple of refrigerators. Chef-owner Vijaya Kumar presides over the cash register, and a single assistant keeps the stove smoking.

The menu, posted next to the kitchen counter, lists a few kinds of appetizers or snacks, stuffed breads, an ever-changing vegetable curry and dal, and rice dishes. You have to push yourself to spend more than $10. Example: samosas ($1.50) + paratha ($1.50) + vegetable of the day ($2.50) + raita ($1.00) + soda ($0.75) = $7.25. That's a lot of food, and you can spend even less by ordering one of the dirt-cheap rice plates or Athithi's grand-slam meal, the all-day-Sunday $7 thali includes two vegetable curries -- made from whatever seasonal vegetables Kumar picks up at the market -- one dal, two kinds of rice, pickles, chutney, and dessert.

The surroundings may be humble but, as Athithi's name suggests, the hospitality is bountiful. Kumar's presence animates the bare shack. She buzzes between the stove and the counter, charming regulars -- she claims to know all their names, and I believe her -- and hawking her fare to first-timers. She brings you your food as soon as it comes out of the pan, and may stop by your table later to dip a spoon into a plastic tub of her homemade lemon pickle and put a dollop on your (paper) plate.

Most of Athithi's Southern Indian food is simple, fresh, and light on the oil. The excellent pyramid-shaped samosas are stuffed with coriander-laced potatoes and peas. Fennel seeds provide an unexpectedly fragrant jolt to the vegetarian pakoda (aka pakora, spinach and potato fritters), which are a little overcooked but have good flavor. The most distinctive appetizer, veggie squares, comes out of the oil crisp and creamy on the inside. The squares are made from three kinds of lentil flour soaked with spinach leaves, then steamed, cut into squares, and fried. All the appetizers come with a sweetly spicy mint relish.

The whole-wheat parathas, or flatbreads, are stuffed before being rolled out to the thickness of roti and griddled. Eaten the moment they're tipped out of the pan, they have a lovely chewiness. Don't count on the filling to provide much flavor -- there's too little of it -- but sometimes you can taste a few curds of paneer (Indian cheese), a floret of curried cauliflower, or most distinctively, herbal methi (fenugreek) leaves. The parathas are perfect for dipping in dal, vegetable curry, or a bowl of spice-flecked raita.

On one visit to Athithi, sweet, rich beets stewed with cloves, cardamom, and a lot of chiles were the vegetable of the day. One day's dal was made with black-eyed peas, another with split lentils. Both arrived in plastic bowls that were polished clean by the time we left. Another entrée, potato-stuffed dosa (rice-flour crepe), couldn't match the quality of those at local competitors Vik's and Udupi Palace. But the broadly seasoned biryani, rice cooked with spices and vegetables, matched anything you find at Kumar's rival restaurants.

It's February again, time for our second annual Hole-in-the-Wall Month, when I follow readers' tips and review places that normally wouldn't make it into Zagat, or even my own column. These are the places you don't recommend to your squeamish co-workers -- the restaurants you tell your friends about but pray they don't spread the word too far.

On my first visit to Curry Corner in Hayward, two friends and I showed up at 2 p.m. to find the lights dimmed and the sign flipped to "Closed." My roommate knocked on the door, though, and the chef-owner Saras Rao let us in. "I just got back from a catering today, so I'm just getting started," she said, stirring a couple of pots on her four-burner stove.

The restaurant is normally open from around noon to six every day except Mondays, and primarily serves takeout Fijian-Indian food. There are two tiny tables and four chairs, from which you can watch Rao maneuver around her minuscule, cramped kitchen stacked high with pots, stacked tiffin containers, and spices.

The three of us pushed the tables together to eat family-style; another customer who came in thirty minutes later claimed the last chair and used a stool for a table.

Rao runs Curry Corner like a family kitchen, preparing a different selection of meat and vegetarian curries every day. It's never a bad idea to call ahead to make sure she's open and to see what's on the menu.

Curry Corner, tucked between two markets, is the lone Indian-Fijian restaurant serving Hayward's Samoan and Fijian communities -- the latter both Polynesian and Indian. Soon after the British colonized Fiji in 1874, they brought in thousands of South Indians to work on the plantations. As they did in Trinidad, the indentured Indian workers settled in Fiji, and now, generations later, make up 44 percent of the nation's population. Unlike Trinidad, however, ethnic tensions run high in Fiji. First in 1987 and again in 2000, indigenous Fijians responded to the election of ethnic Indians to major political posts by staging military coups and anti-Indian backlashes. Rao and her family came over to the States after the ‘87 coup, though one of her sons and numerous relatives remain in Fiji. She worked as a health and nutrition nurse for a while, then opened Curry Corner some four years ago.

For $25, three of us ate lunch and took home a box for a fourth friend who couldn't make it. We started with a bowl of loose split-pea soup filled with zucchini and flavored with kari leaves, mustard seeds, and lots of chili peppers. Zucchini and thinly sliced onions melted together in a mild vegetable curry dominated by turmeric and cumin. The centerpiece of the meal, a goat curry, had just started cooking, so the meat hadn't yet gotten all soft and lovely -- but cloves, cinnamon, and chiles popped out of the deeply flavorful, brick-red masala.

Rao spent the hour gossiping with my Kiwi roommate about her recent trip to New Zealand, and she seemed to know everyone who walked through the door. "She's a doctor who works with kids," she whispered to us after one woman ducked in to pick up her meal. "Cal State students," she noted after chatting with a couple of kids who checked in regarding the day's curries.

The next time I went to Curry Corner, I had learned the routine: I called a day ahead and requested fish, chicken, and Rao's homemade roti (flatbread), which she didn't have the time to make on my first visit. She gave me a rough price -- $8 per person -- and I drove back to Hayward to pick it up for a Super Bowl party, bringing my own plastic containers (she'd run out). I kibitzed with her while snacking on a potato-stuffed roti as she finished griddling breads and dropped the fish in the oil.

It took four trips to the car to load all the food: Big, juicy chunks of deep-fried snapper that had been dredged in a coriander- and chile-heavy masala. A mountain of white rice. Chunks of curried lamb, mild and tender. Chicken thighs and backs braised in a vivid masala until the meat barely clung to the bones. A thick golden mess of potatoes, carrots, and fresh peas. This time, the curries came with a stack of roti made with Fijian flour, thicker and softer than tortillas, plus a tart cilantro relish and cooked-tomato chutney.

You can't find much purer hole-in-the-wall experiences than Athithi and Curry Corner. Who needs decorations, clean tablecloths, waiters, or even menus? All you need is good food and a little love.

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