Sure, a leisurely stroll through Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto or College Avenue will offer any number of unique and brag-worthy meals, which is why finding a decent table can be almost as difficult as finding a parking space or available bike rack in those popular areas. But for the adventurous Berkeley visitor in hot pursuit of a micro-neighborhood with culturally authentic dining options, Northwest Berkeley has a bounty of South Asian restaurants and shops that you can enjoy without a passport.
A good place to begin is at the intersection of University Avenue and San Pablo Avenue, approximately one mile from North Berkeley BART. For fans of affordable South Indian buffets, Priya Indian Cuisine (2072 San Pablo Ave.; 510-644-3977) offers a fair balance of vegetarian and meat curries for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. Priya’s 10 p.m. closing time is fairly unusual for a buffet, but a pleasant surprise for customers who like to eat late. Those looking to try an Indian beer that isn’t Taj Mahal or Kingfisher will find some gems on their beverage menu.
If a buffet seems like a little much, perhaps a casual Pakistani eatery will suffice. Tucked between the many shops in the area selling saris, jewelry, and Bollywood DVDs, Kabana Restaurant has a loyal following that swears by their tandoori dishes as well as the chicken tikka masala. Kabana has recently relocated to a bright space a mere block away from their old location at 1106 University Ave., which is welcome news for patrons who found their previous location to be a little too much of a dive.
When a tranquil setting and elegant décor is a necessity, consider Bombay Cuisine (2006 Ninth St.; 510-843-9601). The service is professional and the atmosphere is conducive to a business lunch or a date night. Affordably priced, their customizable thali plate meals include two curries, dal soup, rice, assorted pickles, and a choice of puri or chapatti. The dinner thali includes all of the above, plus papaddum and something sweet.
Although it is a little bit of a hike from University and San Pablo, Vik’s Chaat Corner is a Berkeley institution that every self-proclaimed foodie must try at least once. Their selection of multi-regional Indian street food varies between weekdays and the weekend, although it is difficult to say which menu is preferable. The weekday menu features a large variety of puri dishes, many of which are vegan-friendly. On the weekends, trays and tables are mainly dotted with balloon-sized cholle bhature and dosas that could dwarf the average burrito in size. Saturday and Sunday afternoons tend to be pretty busy, but the cafeteria-style system works efficiently, just pardon the noise!
For both expert and novice cooks looking to re-create some of these dishes at home, Milan International (990 University Ave.; 510-843-9600) is a one-stop shop. This grocery store features a large selection of bulk spices, imported teas, jars of chutney, and sacks of basmati rice. If the weather is inviting, pop in here on the way to the lovely and scenic Berkeley Marina. Less than $10 can fill a picnic basket with a bag of spicy bhujia, a box of sweet laddu, a mango lassi and a few of their hearty samosas. Also worth mentioning: Milan’s impressive array of pre-packaged instant meals are handy to pack along on a camping trip, and many of them are priced “buy one, get one free.”
Berkeley’s diverse population and pervasive cultural curiosity creates a welcome environment for some truly unique meal experiences. Don’t be afraid to experiment: head to the city’s northwest corner and you’ll find an South Asian dining scene that is bound to satisfy even the most worldly of palates.
—By Nisi Baier
Nisi Baier was raised in Chicago, educated in San Francisco, and currently up to no good in Berkeley. She has worked extensively in the travel industry since 2005.