For this month's Battle of the Best, I went off in search of the best Indian food in Berkeley. I grew up in Silicon Valley in the '80s, when good Indian food was scarce. Of course, things are very different now but back then, my father would have us pile in a car every Friday night and we'd drive an hour to Berkeley for good Indian food.
My father was just five years out of India back then and he craved food that resembled what he ate growing up. At that time, Berkeley was the haven for all the new immigrants wanting a taste of home. But by the time I entered university, Silicon Valley was already booming with quality Indian restaurants.
My memories of Berkeley faded and I found myself to be very particular about going out for Indian food. The spicing at restaurants wasn’t quite right. You would get a punch of flavor in your mouth at the wrong times. The cooks appeared to be more focused on speed and quantity rather than crafting tasty dishes.
I define good restaurants as ones that use a lot of spices to give the kicks of flavor but didn’t assault the palette. The spices didn’t overwhelm but complimented the food. And so considering my long history with Indian food in Berkeley, I was surprised to find Vik’s in second place. I knew about Vik’s in college and in my mind, had deemed it one of the best.
But according to the was now voted the best Indian food in Berkeley. I had never heard of Ajanta and I was definitely curious. And more to the point, was it really better than Viks? I decided to attack Ajanta first, after all, I knew I liked Vik's.
I checked out the menu and noticed the prices were significantly higher, which could be a good or bad thing. It could mean their ingredients are higher quality and they make the food well (and know they can charge the prices) or it could mean its a she she going out sort of place and people just like it for the ambiance.
My husband and I ventured into Ajanta on a Thursday night without reservations. The staff was extremely nice and the restaurant is what I would define as "fancy" but the attitude of everyone wasn't. It was just a nice restaurant, decorated how they thought people would enjoy it.
We started with vegetarian Samosa and crab cakes. The yogurt-mint-cilantro sauce that was paired with the crab cakes was amazing. But I'll admit, I'm a sucker for good Samosa and their Samosa was amazing. The crisp was perfect on the pastry, it was thick, but not too thick and the filling was perfectly spiced.
Moving onto the main dish, we ordered Saag Paneer and Dakshini Gosht. Paneer is a kind of cheese and one of my favorites. However, I forgot about the fact I generally don't like Saag Paneer, which is made of pureed spinach. But I ate it and the cheese was fresh, well made, perfectly fried and paired with their deliciously baked naan, it was enjoyable.
The best dish though was their Dakshini Gosht which is boneless lamb pieces cooked in a sauce made with onions, tamarind, almonds, coconut milk and spices (which included coriander and fenugreek among others). My mouth waters just thinking about that dish, how the spices were cooked perfectly and obviously thrown in at the correct time by the cook to make them compliment each other perfectly. And the lamb, that lamb was tender and (sorry to use this word again) perfect.
I can safely affirm that is the best lamb dish I have ever had in my life. We finished off the meal with Ras Malai, which is paneer (yes, that again) patties served in a thickened milk sauce that has been flavored with cardamom. Yes, it’s extremely unhealthy, but it’s worth it. It’s the best dessert when done correctly.
At the end of the night, I rated Ajanta a 9. They are the closest I have found to perfect Indian food. I need to introduce my father to Ajanta. I know after he tries Ajanta, those Friday night treks into Berkeley will resume and I have to thank Patch readers for that, I had no clue Ajanta existed.
Vik's I have to give a score of 8. They make really, really good Indian food and that shouldn't stop anyone from visiting. An 8 is good. They just lack a bit on flavor for some dishes. I was surprised to find Viks at a new location, with real chairs!
I guess I hadn't eaten there in awhile. We started with Samosa Cholle and the Cholle was amazing. The Cholle is a dipping sauce for the Samosa, not as thick as curry, more of a liquid texture like dahl. Their Samosa was done very well but they could have made the pastry a little thicker to balance out the massive amount of filling inside. Moving onto the Pani Puri! To me, this is an Indian classic. Its what you aren't supposed to eat on the roadsides of Mumbai because the Pani (water) is the local water and will make foreigners sick. One day I'll go there and brave it. One day…
Pani Puri is made of mini deep fried puris, or puffed bread that you poke a hole in to fill with the goodness. It can be stuffed with the potatoes, garbanzo beans, tamarind chutney and of course, the spiced pani. If you can fit it all into your mouth, do it. Vik's makes it well and the flavors and delicious!
We also ordered the Keema Mattar, which is ground lamb, green peas and curry. It was delicious but the spicing was obvious and yet it didn’t pack much flavor, which is always a curious contradiction. The lamb was just a tad chewy and overdone, but it was still a good dish. But it's something I may not order again when I return.
I always get Idli and I'm always disappointed, so if you're appetite isn't as hearty as mine, skip it. Idlis are just steamed rice cakes. Unless they make some amazing chutney (Vik's is good, but not amazing enough) the Idli isn't worth it.
My favorite is the Dosa! The Dosa is a crisp, crepe-like dish, fried and stuffed with potatoes. You eat it like you would most Indian food, by breaking off a piece, grabbing the filling with it and dunking it into the provided sambar and chutney.
Sambar is a vegetable stew and usually very liquidy, so I recommend dipping it into the chutney first, because the thick chutney rarely falls into the sambar. Viks actually makes one of the best Dosa's I've eaten (outside of home cooked Indian food) because it’s still soft on the inside, but super crispy on the outside. Sadly I was too full for dessert, but I always find my way back to Viks, its reasonably priced, casual and I know I'll always get something good.