Join us for Tag Along, where local writers, artists, food authorities, and celebrities shine a spotlight on the best food and drinks in their favorite Bay Area neighborhoods.
On an uncommonly muggy spring afternoon, Bay Area-based baker Hetal Vasavada steps out of her car sporting a pair of creamy white overalls and a broad smile. It’s a bold choice of attire for a food truck tour, she jokes with a laugh, before stepping up to place the first order of what will end up being a long afternoon. Most people know Vasavada from her appearance on MasterChef. But outside of TV fame, she’s the author of Milk & Cardamom, a dessert-focused cookbook inspired by her Indian American heritage, and has plans for a second book soon. She also runs a blog, hosts online classes, and sells lemon cardamom snickerdoodles and mini pistachio rose cardamom frangipane tarts online.
Today, however, the New Jersey native won’t be sharing baking tips or showing off progress on her home renovation. Vasavada has been living in the Bay Area for more than a decade — spending time in sunny Mission Bay before relocating more recently to the Peninsula with her husband and daughter — and throughout her time here, she’s made herself an expert on the best spots for chaat, those myriad Indian street snacks that include spicy aloo tikki chaat and Amritsari chole kulche. In this installment of Tag Along, Vasavada shows us her favorite Indian food trucks across the South and East Bay.
115 E. Fremont Avenue, Sunnyvale
The first spot on our tour hides around the side of a Sunnyvale strip mall, though it’s easy enough to spot the vibrant red Chatpata India food truck with its A-frame awning shading the plastic tables slung off the side. Though the menu offers a range of dishes including chaat, curries, and paratha, there’s really one reason Vasavada considers this a must-visit stop: “This is the kadhi kachori spot,” she says with a smile.
The Rajasthani dish doesn’t show up on many Bay Area menus — in fact, this truck is one of only two places Vasavada says she’s seen it in the region, potentially because it’s “very annoying to make,” she says. She explains kadhi kachori is basically two foods, kadhi and kachori, that have been combined into a single, uber-comforting dish. “Putting it together like that is a very Rajasthani thing to do,” she says.
Kadhi is a fragrant, golden-hued yogurt sauce made with chickpea flour and an army of spices. Inside rest the kachori, or deep-fried pastries filled with a mixture of lentils and onions. The kachori dough, Vasavada notes, is particularly tricky to make since it’s stiffer than, say, a samosa dough, but should still remain delicately flaky. When enjoyed together, the fried fritters manage to retain their crisp exterior, making for a surprising textural juxtaposition between the chunks of kachori and the creamy, spiced yogurt sauce. “This is my favorite chaat,” Vasavada says in between messy spoonfuls that spatter across the table.
Pav Bhaji Hut
1201 Lawrence Station Road, Sunnyvale
Next, we head about 15 minutes north and slightly east to the Pav Bhaji Hut food truck, which sits under a canopy of trees on a frontage road that parallels the busy Lawrence Expressway. Here a mini food truck court hosts about a half dozen different vendors, and though there are also two permanent Pav Bhaji Hut restaurants — one not far away and the other in Fremont — Vasavada says the Pav Bhaji Hut truck makes the best version of the namesake dish.
Vasavada’s to-go order consists of regular pav bhaji, no cheese, and extra bread. The dish comes from Mumbai and, to Vasavada, it draws up memories of Juhu Beach, where it’s easy to find a vendor selling the super-popular street food dish to beachgoers who enjoy it with toes in the sand.
There are two keys to making worthy pav bhaji, she says. First, it should be cooked on a tawa, or a cast-iron frying pan. Peeking inside the Pav Bhaji Hut truck, it’s impossible to miss the hulking pan that takes up about half of the interior, heated from underneath by a formidable gas flame. Second, it should be made with lots of butter — “You gotta love butter,” Vasavada warns with a smile, “butter is one of the main ingredients with this dish.” Sure enough, the Pav Bhaji Hut truck staff paint the surface of the tawa generously with a stick of butter before loading it up with dozens of rolls.
When the rolls — light and fluffy like Hawaiian sweet bread but, well, less sweet — finish toasting they come out of the truck with a shallow bowl of thick umber stew. The stew features tomato, potatoes, and peas, but home cooks often throw in whatever vegetables they might have on hand along with a medley of spices including coriander, cardamom, fennel, cloves, and cumin. The vegetables then get cooked down until the texture becomes luscious and the flavors are concentrated and bold. The final touch is, fittingly, a pat of butter that melts on top.
Typically, you’d make mini sandwiches with the cooked vegetables and bread, making for a gloriously messy street snack. But Vasavada’s pro tip at the Pav Bhaji Hut truck is to perch on the curb and to make open-faced sandwiches sprinkled generously with red onion and cilantro, and enjoy them with the roar of traffic in the background.
41081 Fremont Boulevard, Fremont
Jumping back in the car, we curve northeast around the southern tip of the bay to Fremont — but since our last stop isn’t quite open yet, we make a detour to Apna Bazar, a destination for Indian and Southeast Asian groceries. The Fremont store shares the same parking lot as our last food truck, and we pop inside specifically to hit the Panwaari Paan Shop tucked inside.
Paan, Vasavada explains, is a mouth freshener, typically eaten after a meal in part to help with digestion. The triangular snacks are made with betel leaf, a peppery herb with menthol qualities. A paanwallah folds the leaves around fillings that can be savory or sweet, and at Apna Bazar, some of the paan come covered in chocolate or crowned with candy — “I’ve never seen that before,” Vasavada notes. We opt for the Royal Meetha Paan, which the store’s eager paanwallah explains is stuffed with a blend of rose petals, coconut, fennel, coriander, and candied watermelon rind called tutti fruiti.
A cup of squeezed-to-order sugar cane juice, doctored with a sprinkling of black salt and a splash of lemon juice, makes a perfect pairing.
40967 Fremont Boulevard, Fremont
By the time we’ve wandered every aisle of the grocery store and finished both our juice and paan, the windows are up at Chandni Chowk, a vibrant truck painted in a rainbow of colors. Scattered around the asphalt, steel drums painted blue, red, and yellow serve as both standing tables and pieces of decor, sporting faux Bharat Petroleum decals. Fire pits encourage customers to linger over cups of chai as Bollywood music floats on the humid air.
Vasavada orders both kinds of chai available at the truck: matka and cutting. The cutting chai is stronger, literally translating to “half cup,” meaning it’s brewed longer and offers more concentrated flavors of tea leaves, ginger, and cardamom. The matka chai, in comparison, has an earthy flavor since the tea comes in a clay mug that imparts delicately smoky notes to the drink. It’s customary to smash the mugs after you’re done using them — but if you’d rather take them home, they make great miniature pots for small plants, Vasavada suggests.
Aside from the chai, the draw here is the pani puri, which can be filled with one of five waters. Unlike at most restaurants in the U.S., Chandni Chowk serves the pani puri similarly to how they’re enjoyed in India, Vasavada says, meaning that the truck’s staff will fill each crunchy puri with mashed chickpeas and a splash of water before handing them over to be eaten immediately. “Warning: The panis are a little spicy,” she says before stepping up to the truck’s window.
Standing in front of the truck’s window we run through all five waters in rapid succession: First, there’s classic mint, then sweet and sour khatta meetha, followed by the mouth puckeringly tart kala khatta. Next comes pineapple, a straightforward sweet option, and finally, the most surprising, a tart and spicy pomegranate water that leaves a pleasant burn lingering on the lips. As the sun begins to settle behind a bank of clouds and more diners wander up for chai and chaat, Vasavada explains that this truck in particular makes her nostalgic for the food and drink of India. “This is my spot for any of my Indian friends,” Vasavada says, cradling a cup of chai in both hands. “I’m like, ‘Let’s go meet at Chandni Chowk.’”