It was a bold claim to make: “The Best Indian Food in the Bay Area.” Really, that’s a superlative that one cannot toss out lightly on this foodie peninsula. But my coworker D did just that. A native of Bangalore and one who loves to cook the recipes she watched her mother make, made this claim. And me, a lover of Indian food, had to see if it was justified. The challenge to find any merit in this claim meant two BART trains and an hour’s journey south. The restaurant was not in San Francisco, but in Fremont, where Asians make up over 46% of the population. If there was going to be the “best” Indian Food, it was going to be there.
D took our friend Aaron and I to Chaat Bhavan, a vegetarian North Indian restaurant nestled in a strip mall next to a drive-thru Starbucks. There were families entering at a steady stream and the crowd caused us to overflow park at the nearby Extended Stay Suites.
Any foodie in search of excellent ethnic cuisine knows that you want to see people of that ethnicity at the restaurant and bonus points if the restaurant is filled with people of that descent. Passing through the glass mall door we were rewarded with two things that were the breadcrumbs on the “best restaurant” trail: a scent of the savory masala spices that make up the mouth-watering entrees and 100% occupancy – of Indians. The display of Bengali sweets resting under a large gold Ganesha statue also reinforced our “we’re in the right place” thoughts.
What makes a good Indian meal?
What makes a good Indian meal? D offered some initial tutoring. “It’s the spices,” she taught, “most people think of Indian food as just the curries, but it’s not. It’s the spices. “ We were being treated to the spices of the North, more coriander and garam masala than what she claimed was the simpler Southern spice palate. What makes Chaat Bhavan’s meal the best? It’s not only the spices, but also a less oily, less greasy faire than found in the heavy tikka masalas and aloo ghobis of the city Indian restaurants.
The very busy host seated us in 10 minutes. “They move very fast here,” D assured us when we first saw the crowd. The menu required us to take our time and look to D for more schooling on what we needed for a fair sampling of this cuisine. The extensive menu showcased “snacks” as appetizers, which included mostly street food found all over India: samosas, pakoras, cutlets, and puris. Memories of dining only on street food for a budget-strapped week in Kolkata added to my hunger and desire to order one of each.
There were curries (on a page labeled “Vegetable Delights”) and thalis, small lunch portions of urries, rice, and bread served compactly on a metal tray. This was my staple during many lunches in India. Also included was a full page of breads and “exotic refreshments.” Specifically, I liked the idea of a mango lassi to keep any “too spicy for this gal” dishes at bay.
D got a read on our tastes and took charge of ordering. The waiter originally looked at the Aaron, the only male in our party, for the order, but shifted sides of the table when it was clear D would be calling the shots at this lunch. We waited only 5 minutes – it started with the snacks and staggered until there was no surface area left on the table or room in our bellies.
For the first course, D ordered lighter street food: Dahi Bateta Sev Puri (DBSP) and Bhel Puri. The DBSP looked exactly as I remembered from the carts I sampled all across India. The plate was filled with airy spherical crisps covered in yoghurt, lentils, onions, potatoes, and the mystery masala spice blend. On top was mint, basil and a sprinkle of crispy sev. D helped me along, “Put it in your mouth at once – it’s one shot of all the tastes. “ And I did and it was good. In the Biblical sense. Crisp, cool, savory and sweet all at once. This was a very good sign of dishes to come.
The diligent waiters continued to deliver our feast. Next came the parathas – thin griddle fried breads with potatoes and cauliflower cooked in the dough. These breads became the perfect delivery device for our heavily spiced main dishes: Chana Masala, Aloo Masala, Kofta Curry, and a curiously orange-colored Biryani. My experience with Biryani has been average – in the past it was a flavorful rice dish served with either chicken, beef, or mutton. D shared, “Typical Biryani is sealed in dough and cooked in a clay pot for an hour, but that’s not here, it would take too long.”
Regardless of the elaborate preparations typically done, the Biryani tasted complex and as if it had taken an hour to combine and stew. This Biryani was all vegetarian and inclusive of about 20 ingredients including rice, currants, tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, cauliflower, onions, peanuts and more. D again shared wise and delicious advice: “Pour the Kofta over it and enjoy.”
The Kofta tasted like tomatoes and cream and lacked any oily reside. It brought a rich, thick texture to the flavorful rice and vegetables. All the food on the table made us feel like royalty with the abundance of deliciousness. Partway through I commented that we were probably not worthy of this food.
I felt my jeans get a little tighter, my face a little hotter (got a case of the “veggie sweats”), and my stomach nearing the “F” mark where it was once on “E.” I had to slow down and had barely touched the thali, which I had specifically ordered. Aaron, who is 23 and has a metabolism of the gods, was not slowing down and saw me losing steam. “Nice eating partner you turned out to be, I’m alone here.” The eating race was no more. D had never been a part of it but shared his strategy of “slow and steady.“
Over the next coma-creeping-on minutes we watched Aaron finish the Biryani and Kofta. I made one last ditch effort with the Bhel Puri and hoped the coolness would ease my stomach. It did not, but the fresh flavor did take my mind off my full belly.
At meals end, there was a clear, decisive verdict. Yes, this was the best Indian restaurant in the Bay Area. I’ll try more and will always hold it to the Chaat Bhavan standard. I don’t think I’m alone in this judgment. The restaurant was constantly shuffling diners about throughout our two-hour meal. Men covered in the colors of the nearby annual Holi festival came in spattered in fuchsia, yellow, and red. They waited with stained heads to pick up take-out for their families.
With my limited time in India, I can also assert that this was the best Indian meal I’d had. Next time I’ll need to accompany D back to her native Bangalore to try to find a meal that beats the vegetarian delights at Chaat Bhavan.