Surrey chaat houses offer alternative for those seeking spicy cheap eats

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      Vancouver has a vast array of Indian restaurants, ranging from upscale dining at Vij's to Delhi-style cuisine at Delhi-6 and Siddhartha's Indian Kitchen, and from Mogul dining at Akbar's Own to low-cost South Indian dosa houses.

      That's in addition to long-standing Punjabi restaurants such as India Gate, SitarIndian Oven, Raga, Tandoori Raj, and Himalaya, to name a few.

      But so far, I haven't been able to find any chaat houses within Vancouver city limits. For those, you have to venture out to Surrey.

      Chaat is tasty Indian street food often made with potato pieces, crispy fried bread and chickpeas, garnished with onions and various spices, sometimes soaked in yogurt, sometimes sprinkled with dry noodles, and sometimes even coming in a bun.

      One of the most popular of these places, Apna Chaat House, is in a Surrey strip mall at 7500 120th Street. It offers multitude of options, including aloo tikki, bhel purisev puri, pav bhaji, and keema pav.

      Apna also features Indian-style Chinese dishes in a bright, festive milieu. But be forewarned: this place can be packed around the dinner hour on weekends, with customers milling about for their takeout orders while others patiently wait for a seat.

      This unpretentious gathering spot has all the chaos and heart that you'd expect to find in India. Some of the flavours are a tad spicier and in-your-face than what you might be accustomed to in Vancouver. Perhaps this is because almost all of the customers are of Indian or Pakistani heritage and they're used to it that way.

      It's a stone's throw from the Cineplex Odeon Strawberry Hill Cinemas, making it an ideal destination to include on a Bollywood or Punjabi movie day. 

      Another option is Akash Chaat House and Restaurant in the Payal Business Centre at the corner of 80th Avenue and 128th Street in Surrey.

      On Saturdays, it's going to be packed with a mostly Punjabi Canadian clientele looking for a fix of stuffed tiki with chutney, golgappe, dahi bhalla, and other Indian street food at extremely affordable prices.

      One of the charms of this place is the huge map of Punjab on the wall, which asks customers which district they're from. But don't kid yourself: this is not like a trip to an elegant dining hall. It's simple, crowded, and cheap.

      Around the corner is Payal Chaat House, which offers a more upscale and relaxing culinary experience along with Punjabi rap videos on the big screen.

      They're just two of many places to eat in the Payal Business Centre, which is a destination shopping centre for anyone seeking a full-on Punjabi experience in Surrey.

      For those with a hankering for South Indian vegetarian food, there's Mahed Chaat House in Chana Plaza at 8556 120th Street in Surrey.

      Sooner or later (if it hasn't happened already), we can expect a variant of one of these chaat houses to open in Vancouver.

      Keep in mind that many of the dishes offered in Surrey's chaat houses are already available in Vancouver's dosa joints and other Indian establishments—just without quite the same freewheeling, informal atmosphere.