On Food

Chaat Rooms You Can Live With

This article appeared in the September 8, 2000, issue of the East Bay Express. The Counter no longer exists.
Cheap, satisfying, “highly relaxed” South Asian fare—with service to match—at two Berkeley chaat houses.

SHAN CHAAT HOUSE
2072 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley

THE COUNTER
1901 University Avenue, Berkeley

By Eve Kushner

Being married to a Pakistani creates some disadvantages: harassment by customs officials, prolonged stares while traveling in certain regions, and so forth. But when it comes to eating in South Asian restaurants, having an insider spouse is definitely the way to go.

Arif editorializes on whether dishes taste the way they ought to or whether they’ve been bastardized to suit American customers. He orders for us both, which is a relief, because the servers and I can rarely understand one another. He explains restaurants’ names (shan means “glory” or “prestige”) and translates words like chaat (literally “to lick”). Best of all, he provides a running explanation of what employees are saying as they argue in the kitchen.

During one recent meal at Shan Chaat House, after we inquired about the chai that had never arrived, the man we flagged down said he’d take care of it and then slipped into the other room. Yelling ensued. Next thing I knew, Arif was laughing hard. “Oh, man! The guy crushed him!”

Credit: Arlene Blum
Kachenjunga, 3rd highest mountain in world, on Nepal-India border. Taken from Darjeeling, India.

“What’d he say?”

Arif translated from the Hindi, which is close enough to his native Urdu for him to understand: “Hey, I sent you there to get the guy’s order. You didn’t get the order. You didn’t get the tea. You took a walk. Feel free to start working!” The berated server appeared shortly, holding two overfull mugs of chai. He spilled some onto the industrial gray carpeting, partly because his hands were shaking, and placed them before us with mumbled apologies.

We didn’t much mind the delay. The chai was perfect, and besides, bad service is part of the entertainment at many South Asian restaurants. According to Arif, service has traveled here from the Subcontinent pretty much intact. When you walk into a restaurant back home, he says, no one greets you or asks for your order. You’re lucky if the guy lifts his chin to say, “What?” If you speak before the chin lifts, he’ll act as if he hasn’t heard a word. As Arif puts it, service is “highly relaxed.”

So it goes at Shan, a family operation run by Parmjit Singh of Delhi. (The former proprietor of Shan India on Telegraph Avenue, he opened this new venue in May.) Arif and I even had to chase down silverware and plates. When you arrive, they hand you menus and tell you to find your own seat, which isn’t hard to do in this cavernous space where the Teaspot used to be. Near the front, a water cooler and stacked glasses function as a refill station, but this setup also creates confusion; as soon as we poured ourselves more water, the server came around with a pitcher.

So Shan is a tad disorganized, but there’s not the slightest bit of stuffiness. We found it easy to relax and look around, trying to pinpoint why the place is so charmless. Some details jumped out right away: the Foosball table on a raised platform, the wall of beveled mirrors, the wide-screen TV that sometimes shows Indian movies with the sound turned off, the acoustical tile ceiling. White plastic tablecloths that stick to your legs on a hot day take something away, as do the paper napkins in tabletop dispensers. The shiny wooden paneling could be lacquered better, but it’s not an eyesore. Large streetside windows definitely detract, though it’s hard to say why. Maybe it’s the four-foot-tall menu taped to the front, or the ratty pink cafe curtains obscuring the bottom of the glass. The main problem is that the restaurant occupies much too big a space, especially given its mere handful of customers. Nothing has been done to break up the vastness.

The food arrived rapidly; using plastic spoons, we heaped the various dishes onto plates that looked like they had come from a yard sale. First we sampled four veggie chaat. These appetizers, which dominate Shan’s menu, originated as snacks for poor people in India, where they’re served on outdoor carts (rather like roach coaches here, or at least traveling falafel wagons). As tapas did a few years back, chaat have taken off in Berkeley, maybe because we all have short attention spans or because we like to graze.

Most of Shan’s chaat can stand up to the competition elsewhere in town. The thick, flaky crust of the veggie samosa ($2.50) came wrapped around a mild mixture of potatoes and crunchy peas and met our expectations of what a samosa should be. But what elevated it above other samosas was that it sat in a pool of dark purple tamarind sauce, soaking up the sweet flavor but never becoming soggy.

Two chaat disappointed us slightly, though it’s hard to complain about dishes that cost just $2.50. The spicy papri chaat—wheat chips in a purplish yogurt sauce packed with garbanzo beans, potato pieces, and lentil dumplings—tasted just so-so. Hard to grip with a fork, the crackers should probably have been crushed more, as in the more appealing version of this dish at the Chaat Cafe on University Avenue. Similarly, Shan’s sev puri, which features small slivers of fried noodles atop potatoes, onions, and puri (thin pieces of fried bread), didn’t command much attention.

Camels in Rajasthan, India
© John Elk III
Camels in Rajasthan, India.

But other dishes pleased us to no end. The channa bhatura (priced at $3 and unhelpfully described on the menu as “seasoned garbanzo beans served with fresh fried bhaturas”) is bread that swells to football size when properly cooked. I gasped when it arrived, because it filled a large plate and stood several inches high. Once we ripped it open it deflated, revealing nooks and crannies in the soft interior. Though fried, it wasn’t a bit greasy, and we used it to mop up every bit of sauce we could find, especially the accompanying garbanzo concoction.

The chicken combo outshone even the channa bhatura. The mild, juicy chicken curry reminded me of coq au vin or something else that the French would serve in a brown sauce. The chicken fell off the bone as if it had been marinating for hours. For only $4.95 we feasted on three pieces of chicken and several accompaniments. The dal (lentils in a thick sauce) and salad seemed listless, but the thick, fluffy, comforting nan tasted perfect, and the basmati rice burst with flavor.

We cooled off with the late-arriving chai ($1), which works best as a sweet, heavy dessert drink anyway, just as it would be served “back home.” But cooling off wasn’t really necessary—on a spiciness scale from one (that of a mild salsa) to five (a habañero chili), I’d rate Shan as a two; it’s manageable, even for spice wimps like me.

When we returned later for another Sunday lunch, we found an animated Foosball game going on between four Indian youngsters. Intent on sampling more chaat, we skipped the Foosball and ordered four appetizers and tandoori chicken. The pieces of aloo tikki (fried potato patties, $2.50) had the soft, comforting texture of mashed potatoes. The green chilis and onions inside didn’t pack an immediate punch, but they made themselves known moments later. By contrast, the veggie pakoras ($2.50) left little impression. Because they had been fried till they had shriveled into hard masses, both the batter and the indistinct vegetables lacked flavor. The tandoori chicken ($2.50) also underwhelmed, not even coming close to the lemony version at the Chaat Cafe or the exquisite, smoky version served at the now-defunct Village Restaurant.

In the vada samber ($2.50), we found dense fritters made from split-pea flour. These were pleasant enough, especially when smothered in the wonderful lentil sauce called samber, but the accompanying coconut chutney knocked me out. Fresh from the shell, the coconut stripped away my illusions about the processed, desiccated stuff I’ve been eating for years in various forms. The masala dosa ($3.99) also hit the spot. Stuffed with somewhat spicy potatoes, this soft crepe of rice and lentil flour came with more of the toppings that we enjoyed with the vada samber.

On account of these two South Indian offerings, as well as uncommon dishes such as idli sambar, bhel puri, and sev puri (each $2.50), the menu strikes a refreshingly different note from those of most Indian restaurants in Berkeley, though the choices at Vik’s and Kamal Palace overlap somewhat. And the quality at Shan stands out for sure. As Arif remarked, “The food has more dimensions here than at a lot of places.” Indeed, once you get past the atmosphere, Shan is a winner, particularly for the price. The bill came to nearly $20 the first time and almost $17 the second time—with food left over on both occasions.

Ever on the prowl for South Asian food and curious to see how Shan stacked up against other places, Arif and I treated ourselves to lunch twice at the Counter. During those two meals, we noticed two quirks. First, there is no counter to speak of, only a small one where people sit while awaiting takeout food. Second, although the restaurant claims to serve “sizzling Pakistani food” and has in fact done so since May, it has also purveyed American dishes since 1997. Why the split personality? Is the Counter catering to the multitudes of Pakistani-American couples out there? No, Karachi-born owner Mohammad Hassan explains that he wants to keep all his original customers happy while also satisfying a demand from devotees of the now-closed Village Restaurant. Whatever the logic, I feel unsettled by the double marketing. It’s hard to choose between a tuna melt, Philly cheese steak, and dal gosht.

I should say that I tried the Counter’s cheese steak in the past and found it bland. Also, when Arif and I visited the Counter once this spring, we nearly died of asphyxiation. Our eyes watered and our throats burned as acrid kitchen fumes floated our way. Fortunately, the Counter seems to have fixed this ventilation problem.

In fact, its atmosphere is entirely appealing. Two-story panes of glass facing the intersection make the intimate interior light and cheery and provide a great outlook on the typical Berkeley parade. On one visit, we observed an Asian man in a white top hat scurrying back and forth across the street, a hippie strolling by with a cello on his back, and a group of scruffy backpackers braving the city’s wilds, as well as several narrowly averted car accidents. There’s also plenty to gaze at indoors, including photos of locals in a “Faces of Berkeley” exhibit. Wooden wainscoting and peach paint create a pleasing effect, as do the black metal chairs with soft mauve seats.

Elephant in South India.
© John Elk III
Elephant in South India.

The food, too, looks enticing, presented swiftly and courteously in attractive pottery and glass bowls. The quality is decent, if inconsistent and somewhat unremarkable. Mainly, the Counter offers tried-and-true entrées: tandoori chicken, kabobs, curries, and biriyani, with lassi and chai to wet the whistle.

On each visit we savored the thin, warm nan accompanying entrées. The first time, we split a bhangan bhartha ($5.49 as a lunch entrée), a spicy eggplant dish that struck us as more piquant but somehow less flavorful than the version at Kamal Palace. Gulping water, I asked the server what made the dish so spicy, and she mumbled that she didn’t know, then chalked it up to the seasonings (yes, I guessed that much), and finally mentioned something about garam masala, meaning a mix of many spices. Almost all our dishes at the Counter had a kick to them, rating perhaps a three on my spiciness scale. Although I struggled with the eggplant, it came with a side of dal, which gave us another half-entrée—a great touch. Arif and I also checked out the chicken saag ($5.49 at lunchtime). Its spinach sauce worked wonderfully, though the chicken impressed us less. I devoured the green salad accompanying these entrées, infatuated with the mysterious red dressing. The bill came to about $14, including a soda.

On the second visit we added an appetizer to our usual fare of two entrées and a soda, and the bill still came to less than $16. We started with a pair of crispy veggie samosas ($2.99). While marveling at how good they were, we each happened upon a frozen region at the center. Whoops. I didn’t actually mind too much, as the ice had a cooling effect, but it did take me by surprise.

For an entrée we tried the dal curry ($4.99), which we had sampled in small amounts with the bhangan bhartha on our first visit. I felt comforted by the porridgy texture of the thick sauce, but its blandness bored Arif. We both deemed the chicken curry ($5.49) delectable. The meat sat in a slightly spicy orange sauce that looked greasy but didn’t taste that way and worked beautifully over rice. Poking around in the sauce, Arif fished out what looked like a swollen raisin. “It’s a huge cardamom seed like we have back home,” he informed me, failing to mention that I should not actually eat it. I figured that fact out on my own and immediately began swigging vast quantities of water to erase the dreadful bitterness. Oddly, the salad struck us both as blah on this second trip. Arif says South Asian restaurants are bound to be inconsistent, because the cooks invent anew each day. That explains a lot, but shouldn’t salads be less of a crapshoot?

Arif’s insider status helped immensely when it came to understanding the server. On the first visit, I kept thinking the woman was addressing him in Hindi or Punjabi, but no: her English was so heavily accented as to be undecipherable to my ear. He kicked in his translation services again when loud voices arose from the kitchen. “Fight has broken out,” he announced with some glee, and I urged him to eavesdrop further. It’s not that I’m nosy, but kitchen conflicts add to the spice of dining in South Asian restaurants, and I’d hate to miss out on the free entertainment.