We need to chaat

Chaat Corner

2700 Northgate Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95833

(916) 641-6199

I’ve never been to India, but I almost went once. I had even gotten my shots when the trip’s organizer came up against some hitch with the airline. The trip was supposed to be rescheduled, but the original departure date had been September 2001, so understandably nothing ever came of it.

It’s probably just as well I didn’t go, because I would have been mightily tempted by the street food—despite fears of getting sick. I’m particularly fond of the snacks known as chaat, which are layered dishes topped with chutneys and seasoned with a spice blend in which the key ingredient is a distinctive-tasting black salt. They’re hard to find around here, so when I heard about a new place called Chaat Corner, I was determined to try it.

Upon arrival, we were almost daunted. From the outside, the place looked so very unenticing that I was dispatched to inquire about the menu. The interior was bare-bones, with a few tables, a refrigerator case and not much else besides a view into a big but crammed kitchen at the back. There is, however, bright paint on some of the walls and a hip corrugated-metal wainscoting, which may hint at improvements to come.

What the space lacks, however, the guy behind the register makes up for in friendliness. Young and enthusiastic, he seemed to be the owner, and the restaurant’s emptiness may have accounted for his eagerness to give me a copy of the menu. There was no chaat listed, but rather a short list of inexpensive curries, vegetable dishes and tandoori meats. When I asked about chaat, he brightened up considerably; right now, he said, he offered only samosa chaat but was planning to add more.

Good smells were coming from the kitchen, so I returned to round up my companions. After ordering a tandoori dish, chicken kofta curry at the owner’s recommendation, aalu ghobi (cauliflower and potatoes) and of course the samosa chaat, we sat ourselves down while the cooking got under way.

The first indication that we might be in for something out of the ordinary came with a plate we hadn’t ordered: cucumbers (I saw a cook peeling and slicing them right after we ordered) thickly sprinkled with brick-red spices and accompanied with lime wedges. This crunchy, palate-tingling dish was a true appetizer, with a lightness and a mix of flavors that made us hungry for more.

Dishes followed quickly after that surprise. First was the samosa chaat, with chopped-up pieces of samosa topped with duskily spiced, saucy chickpeas and green and red chutneys. Bits of crunch seemed to be more cucumber. It was spicy and tangy, with the flavors balanced and the whole something of a glorious mess—perfect for sopping up with the yeasty, pillowy naan, which came so hot from the oven that we had to wait a few minutes to eat it.

Next was light-textured beef seekh kabob—seasoned ground beef grilled on a skewer. The slightly coarse-ground meat was complemented by a sure touch with spices in the seasoning and the crunchy onions alongside. Chicken kofta curry was three juicy chicken meatballs in a buttery tomato sauce that was a more boldly spiced version of many restaurants’ chicken tikka masala. We might have liked more of the meatballs, but as there were three of us, it worked out fine. Besides, there was plenty of the sauce to spoon over the buttery basmati rice or sop up with the naan.

The bright-yellow aalu ghobi was less saucy and much fresher and more assertive-tasting than versions I’ve had in the past. The cauliflower was tender but not cooked into submission, and the dish was hotter than I expected, in a good way. The owner might have noticed us all turning a delicate shade of pink, because he came to the table to offer a dish of housemade yogurt to go with everything. (Everything is made in house, he said.) Thick and cool and tangy, it was delicious, and it offset the heat of the dishes perfectly.

There was more food than we thought we could finish, but it was so good that we polished it all off. The owner offered free chai tea as an after-dinner drink. It was not the almost potpourri-spiced version that has become popular at Starbucks et al., but instead strong black tea. It was very milky, very hot and very good with sugar.

As I settled the bill, he also said that he was frying up some pakoras and asked if we would like to try them. We were full, but he pressed a brown-paper sack of them on us to take home. The spicy vegetable fritters were excellent, even cold for lunch the next day.

The reception we got was so warm that I wondered if he had caught on that I was reviewing the place, but I couldn’t be sure. I did notice that other customers who came in also got very friendly treatment, so it may be just Chaat Corner’s brand of hospitality. It seems the owner has big plans for the restaurant: He told me he’s planning to reprint the menu and change the name (he said to Shalimar), in part because Americans don’t know what chaat is. I think it’s high time they learned, though. Chaat Corner, which has the best Indian food I’ve had in Sacramento, is just the place to teach them.