Nikki's Chaat Cafe - fabulous Indian food in South Lake Tahoe (long)
My wife and I love the Indian snacks we get from Vik's in Berkeley where we live. On our way there the other day I noticed a car out front with a sign on the door reading "Nikki's Chaat Cafe - South Lake Tahoe".
What luck! We were planning a trip to SLT and had not found anything like this in our chowhound (and elsewhere) web research.
In what I imagine to be a typical chowhound move I knocked on the vehicle window and asked the occupants about Nikki's.
The woman in the passenger seat was very nice considering that a stranger was knocking on the car window and asking questions. She gave me a business card and went next door to buy supplies from the grocery store side of Vik's.
So...we get up to SLT (beautiful area...our first time...but not a topic for this board) and after a few days of cooking meals in our rented cottage we went out in search of some chaat.
Nikki's is an odd place. Located in a bland strip mall ("the bijou center") next to a drug store, this small restaurant looks like a typical hole-in-the-wall diner which it was before Bhupendra and Mita Dave opened Nikki's (named after one of their daughters) two years ago. In keeping with tradition they serve omelettes, pancakes and other breakfast stuff in the morning along with sandwiches, burgers and other diner food for lunch and dinner. I can't comment on these items as we were only interested in the other half of the menu devoted to the food of India.
In addition to a full lineup of Indian restaurant food seen in most Indian restaurants (chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, various curries, etc.) was a page full of chaat (masala dosa, bhatura chole, pani puri, idli, and so on) that would be familiar to anyone who eats at Vik's, Udupi Palace or the other Chaat places in the Bay Area.
We chose a few items and were very happy with what we got.
The masala dosa was crisp and well browned the way we like it and the potato filling was light and well spiced. The accompanying sambar (soup) was deliciously spiced with a bit of chile heat in the mix. Floating bits of okra added texture and flavor. The coconut chutney was drier than we are used to but tasty too.
Pani puri, little fried puri that you fill yourself with a spiced potato and chick pea mixture, spoon on some tamarind sauce and dip in cilantro water before popping the whole thing in your mouth was fresh and fun to eat.
I should point out that this is a sit down restaurant, not counter service like Vik's. Prices are thus higher than we are used to, but the extra care taken with the food and the fact that we could get this in SLT softened the blow. I was not taking detailed notes, just enjoying the food, so I'm relying on memory to approximate prices. The two chaat described above were around $7-$8 each.
Still hungry and interested in trying more, we ordered from the entree side of the Indian menu. Dry sauteed okra with a blend of spices was a good match for some thick lentil dal, cucumber raita, plain Nan and basmati rice. Everything tasted fresh and delicious. The okra was sliced in rounds and fried with spices until browned (no goopy, slimy okra here). The dal was smoky and bright with just enough chile for my taste. The Nan was puffy, hot and fresh from the tandoor (clay oven). The steamed basmati rice had a bit of cilantro in it for added interest.
The experience was very homey and relaxed. We sat outside where they have set up a few tables in the parking lot. The cars were whizzing by on highway 50 but we hardly noticed them, absorbed as we were in the setting sun reflected off the mountains and the snowless (so far) ski runs of Heavenly.
The bill (including two Kingfisher beers and two chai) came to about $50 before tip. A bit steep compared to what we normally pay, but the hospitality of the owners and the unique off-the-beaten-path experience made up for the extra expense.
We look forward to returning to South Lake Tahoe for the gorgeous scenery, azure blue waters and soulful, deeply flavorful Indian cuisine.
Nikki's Chaat Cafe
3469 Lake Tahoe Blvd
South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150-8910
We were just up in SLT (before the fire luckily because we were biking everyday!).
We ate at Nikki's our first night and loved it. From the bay area, we often have Indian - some great, some rather mediocre, and this was good food. The dosa was crispy and big, we had ours with paneer and spicy (which wasn't that spicey, but nice anyway). The sambar (soup) that came with it was good as well. My kids and husband loved the pakora (we asked for mild for the kids). The palak paneer was good, but not too spicey. Also had black lentils that had kidney beans in them. Also good. Naan was not so good though, but that is OK with us.
We liked it so much we went back. This time we forgot to ask for spicey so we got some hot sauce, which was good, but not too spicey the day we had it.
The uthappam was OK, but a bit undercooked for my tastes. The dosa was good, but I preferred it spicey. Sambar was different, more cilantro taste, but still good. The buffet didn't look to exciting, and most people were having their wraps.
One note - the service is strange. They bring things out slowly (don't believe the "fast"). They make everything to order, but our curries came out 15 minutes before the rice and for our lunch my son's pakora came out 20 minutes after the dosa. I couldn't figure it out, but they are super sweet.
We ate here last night and were *not* disappointed. I had the puri mentioned above and it was delicious, delicately flavoured and very moorish! The dhal soup was a little disappointing and under seasoned but when we added some hot sauce and some seasoning it passed muster. Onto main courses; One of our party was spice averse so went for the good old favourite Chicken Tikka Masala, it was everything one expects CTM to be, sweet, smooth and creamy with a lovely back flavour of the tandoori spices the Chicken was cooking in. My partner and I had Chicken and Lamb Vindaloo and we were initially disappointed that when we asked for it "spicy" it came with a minimum of heat. We asked the charming and effusive host Mita if we could kick it up a notch and she produced a small dish of their soon to be released to the world (and named after their other daughter) hot sauce that brought it up to my English palette standards of spice, she laughed that most people can't eat the food if she makes it what she would call spicy but she definitely had us meet our match with the hot sauce!
Overall this place was one of the best Indian meals i've had in the United States, the production of the hot sauce lifted it into the ethereal as it added not only spicy but a whole big dose of chili flavour without overpowering the rest of the dish, a rare feat indeed!
The meal for 4 including a bottle of so-so Indian "Champagne" came to just over $100. Kudos to Nikki's for evangelising India's burgeoning wine industry but I fear it's going to be a few years before they start making wines that stand scrutiny with the rest of the world, but they are definitely on the way!