It has always seemed peculiar to me that here, in the birthplace of the United Nations, you could run down the street and grab a quick, inexpensive Senegalese or Istrian meal, but going out for Indian food was always a complicated Monsoon Wedding– style affair of reservations, white tablecloths and turbans, multiple courses, valet parking, and platinum cards. It seemed even more peculiar when you considered that in Berkeley, great, cheap Indian restaurants were as plentiful as Mojitos in the Mission.
All that began to change with the opening of places like Naan 'n' Curry and Shalimar — no muss, no fuss Indian eateries that did away with all the colonial formality and just dished out the straight dal.
Still, going from laid-back to a clean-cut, matching-uniforms, snappy-Bollywood-soundtrack kind of restaurant is a leap of Baja Fresh proportions — one that might detract from the perceived authenticity of the food. But Chaat Café (320 Third St., 979-9946, www.chaatcafes.com), the darling of Berkeleyans for six years, took a chance with its “fast, fresh, casual” — and innovative — approach to traditional Indian staples, and the world is a better place for it.
The mainstream-friendly move had been tried previously by Cha Am, another beloved Berkeley institution, but its S.F. location (next door to Chaat Café) translated about as well as a conventioneer from Ohio trying to pronounce “Gaeng-keo-wan.”
On the other hand, Chaat has kept it real, as they say, offering time-honored favorites along with dishes that appeal to more Americanized tastes, plus quick-bite options that are the best thing to happen to the burrito lexicon since lavash bread.
Modern and clean, but not cavernous or cold, the restaurant packs it in with Indians and Westerners alike, who seem equally enamored of fusion offerings such as tandoori wraps — lamb, chicken, and paneer (cheese) marinated in yogurt, garam masala, and other spices, then cooked in the clay oven and rolled inside fresh naan. It's fast food, to be sure — you order at the counter before seating yourself — but it's no heat-lamped pile of pappadams. Most of the dishes stack up against those at fancy, sit-down places that charge twice as much.
It would be hard to quibble, for instance, with the spicy seekh kabob wrap, a ground lamb sausage spiked with nose-tingling green chilies, grilled purple onions, mint chutney, and tamarind. And I would definitely go back for the aloo tikki — green chili and onion potato patties served with curried chickpeas — as well as the interesting bhel puri, a crunchy, refreshing chaat (snack) of puffed rice, potatoes, chilies, onions, and cilantro tossed in a tamarind/mint dressing.
But the thing not to miss is the tikka masala roll. Considering that it's a dish already cannibalized by the British from traditional chicken tikka, taking it further and rolling it inside bhaturas (soft, deep-fried bread, as opposed to naan, which is seared in the tandoori oven) doesn't seem heinous — especially when the results are this spectacular. Tender chunks of boneless tandoori chicken marinated in yogurt, turmeric, lemon juice, and cardamom are tossed in a creamy gravy of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and chilies, then wrapped in two bhaturas and served with a tongue-cooling side of tangy-sweet cucumber salad. Purists may scoff, but in the world of “fast, fresh, casual” it's a happy day when one doesn't also feel obliged to add “homogenized.”