Vik's restaurant offers a familiar taste of home

MY INDIAN heritage meant my mother always cooked three meals a day and worried that I didn't eat enough. So she'll be glad to know that I continued a family tradition on Sunday and went to Vik's.

Since my family moved to Northern California in the early '90s, I've regularly eaten at Vik's Distributors and Chaat (snack) Corner in Berkeley.

The flavors of Vik's take me home in big and little ways. The coconut and mango drinks and the rice hint that India's a wet peninsula near the equator, with a climate I can only stand in the winter. Vik's also serves the slightly different version of Coca-Cola, "Thums Up," made for Indians but imported to the United States for homesick immigrants.

I ordered the samosas. Two fried dumplings, filled with peas and potato, come on a bed of chick peas and sauce for less than $4.

Vik's seasons the samosas perfectly, which is to say, the way I'm used to.

The staff uses pepper and cumin and all the other spices that launched a thousand European ships (thus getting Columbus et al to the Americas). And the salt reminds me of Mahatma Gandhi's salt march, where he led a peaceful march to the ocean to make salt from seawater and protest the British salt monopoly — think the Boston Tea Party.

Too often, I take the range of vegetarian options at Indian restaurants for granted. Hinduism, which spun off Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, has as many diverse denominations as does the Judeo-Christian spectrum. Many have customs against eating animal flesh.

I'm used to being a vegetarian, and the masala the Vik's chefs use. (A masala is a mix of spices that varies by household and by region.) So is it really fair to say that the food at Vik's is good?

Aren't I just saying that I'm used to it, that I'm caught in the cycle of familiarity and preference that leads to a narrow palate and a closed mind? I've also praised Vik's for its "authentic" ambience. The weekend crowds make it difficult to find a table. Customers grab sporks from utensil bins and fill paper cups with water from fountains. I've bragged about the inconvenient hours and space, as though comfort makes a restaurant experience unauthentic.

But I'm getting sick of the cult of authenticity that equates shoddy surroundings with "keeping it real."

I'm happy Vik's has changed and improved during the past several years, growing from a tiny counter in the back of a grocery store to a full-fledged two-room restaurant with fresh green paint and framed newspaper reviews on the walls. I feel a pride in witnessing the growth of Vik's — even though they play Hindi songs, not Kannada ones that I can understand. And even though I can't stand ultrasweet Indian desserts.

My family has eaten regularly at Vik's for more than a decade, and so it's authentic to me. That authenticity transcends and overrides my normally judgmental palate.

It's not just a piece of information but a model that helps me understand everything else. A trip to Vik's is a ritual of faith.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each Thursday. You can e-mail her at