Vik’s Chaat, an Indian food icon in Berkeley, is better than ever

Vik’s Chaat, the heavyweight champ of Indian street food in the Bay Area, turns 33 this year, and it remains one of the most unique culinary destinations of the region. From the sporks to the soaring butter-yellow and lavender walls of the warehouse dining room to the parade of telescope-shape dosas that march out of the kitchen, Vik’s embodies spectacle in the same manner as the House of Prime Rib, with its metal beef carts and martini shakers.

Recently, I’d heard rumors that Amod Chopra, the second-generation owner, had re-entered the kitchen at Vik’s in West Berkeley, shouldering cooking duties alongside managing the company’s import distribution and grocery distribution operations. There does seem to be something extra going on with the food these days: crispier dosas, brighter flavors, more of that ineffable taste of home. If you haven’t been back lately, it’s worth a revisit.

Chopra, now 52, ​​was an early recruit to Vik’s: In their teen years, under the tutelage of their grandmother, he and his sister would prep in the kitchen, working the fryer and getting the myriad of chaat components ready for the day. “My first memories of the restaurant were of being woken up at 6 am on Saturday and Sunday to start cooking,” Chopra said. After graduating from college, he spent some years working as a financial analyst for a semiconductor company before returning to take over the business when his father’s health declined.

Amod Chopra (left) in the kitchen at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley. Chopra is the son of the owners and has returned to the Vik’s Chaat kitchen after a hiatus.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Until last year, he’d mostly been coordinating the business from his office; now, he’s making the daily lunch specials and tasting everything as it comes out. The look and feel of the dishes — the ratio of tamarind chutney to yogurt on the dahi papdi chaat ($10), the maximum circumference of the dosas — have been tattooed onto his brain after years of repetition. And he finds it exhilarating to go through these old motions again and calibrate the food to the tastes he remembers.

One of the interesting contradictions to Vik’s is that, while its focus is on street food, typified by its fluidity and culinary informality, it balances that dynamism with the specific demands of nostalgia.

“We’ve sort of backed ourselves into a very specific memory of India,” Chopra said. Everywhere in India, cooks are constantly iterating on the classics, messing around with crumbled instant noodles, Parmesan cheese and quinoa, among many other things. “But here in the Bay Area, people are longing for that original chaat. Our path is serving the expats, the immigrant community, traditional chaat — traditional memories.”

Dahi potato puri at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.

Dahi potato puri at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

So at Vik’s, making chaat is like refining your movement in a choreographed dance: shifting your feet and shoulders by fractions of centimeters to get to the ideal.

I see that delicate balance in the dahi potato puri ($10). Punched open by a cook’s fingertips and draped in yogurt, the crisp whole wheat puris look like sea urchin shells nestled in foam. Too much yogurt would drown them out, while too little would undermine the sea breeze whoosh of milky coolness that enhances each bite. The puris burst in the mouth with the starchy bloom of boiled potato, hidden inside, followed by the tang of tamarind chutney hit with just-hot-enough pinpricks of chile powder.

And then there’s the bhatura cholle ($14), a picture-perfect rendition of the classic Punjabi dish. Cooked in hot oil, the blistered fried bread puffs like a whoopee cushion, exhaling with a hot sigh as the diner rips it open for dipping in the cooked chickpea mixture.

Cholle bhature at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.

Cholle bhature at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Despite all the virtues of the Vik’s menu, it’s the daily specials board behind the counter that has always attracted me the most. If you’ve mostly hyper-focused on dosas and pani puri while eating at Vik’s (reasonable), this is the deal: The specials range and are centered on thali-style presentation, with a main dish, always something warm and homey-feeling , served with a set of accompaniments. Though thalis are most often round platters, with a solar system of small, banchan-like dishes arranged in a circle, the ones at Vik’s are more like cafeteria trays. The compostable sporks only enhance my nostalgia for public school lunch.

It’s the most varied cooking that you’ll find at Vik’s, with influences that span the many regions of India. On a recent visit, I enjoyed a thali featuring dumm murgh ($16) flanked by a rich chana dal, lightly pickled carrot and a sheet of garlic butter-slicked naan. The centerpiece was Chopra’s take on Hyderabadi chicken curry, with succulent morsels of chicken thigh swimming in a velvety and aromatic cashew gravy the color of suede. On other weeks, you might be drawn by something totally different: northern Indian-style mashed turnips spiked with ginger and garlic, or a comforting, cumin-scented mound of kheema made from minced free-range lamb.

A large pot holds a blend of oil, chiles and spices at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.

A large pot holds a blend of oil, chiles and spices at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Though I’ve been numerous times already, I often feel delightfully overwhelmed at Vik’s, and I feel as if I’ve just opened the instruction booklet to a new board game. Part of that is the chaotic energy of the ordering and pickup system. In the dining room, the pulsating thrums of Bollywood tunes are frequently interrupted with the summer camp crackle of a PA system, announcing names for food pickup to people who linger in the cavernous space like eager travelers waiting to board their plane. The open kitchen is divided into distinct stations — for chaat, biryani, thalis and others — and, if you’ve ordered a lot of different things, figuring out where to go and which dish is yours as the orders come up has a bit of a game show excitement to it. Really, the service style is mostly the same as it was when it opened in the warehouse space in 2010.

The dining room at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.

The dining room at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

On the surface, it seems like the biggest pandemic pivot at Vik’s is its outdoor seating area, a set of pleasantly colorful picnic tables set out in the parking lot. But on a subtler level, Chopra’s return to the kitchen is another welcome shift.

If anything, the pandemic clarified Chopra’s feelings about taking over the family business. “I realized I’d been doing it for 27 years,” he said. “I sort of backed into it. I really didn’t have a choice, on a subconscious level.”

As an immigrant, how could you say no to your parents? he mused.

“For someone my age, what are my final years going to look like, to have no regrets?” Returning to the kitchen, to the dance, was the answer.

Amod Chopra stirs pots while cooking before the doors open at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.  Chopra is the son of the owners and has returned to the restaurant after a hiatus.

Amod Chopra stirs pots while cooking before the doors open at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley. Chopra is the son of the owners and has returned to the restaurant after a hiatus.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Soleil Ho is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic. Email: soleil@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @hooleil

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