I think this is East Bay Institution Week for Holly and me -- first Lois the Pie Queen, then the Thai Temple Brunch, both of which we've been hearing about since we moved here two years ago. Thankfully, the Thai Temple was as delicious as the Pie Queen was disappointing.
The Thai Temple Mongkolratanaram is on Russell St, near Adeline, in Berkeley. On Sunday mornings from 9-2 they serve a mind-bogglingly wide array of food, in an outdoor market setting. One arrives and purchases tokens for a dollar each, which are then exchanged for food at the various stalls. We ate mightily well for about six dollars each; most of the main dishes, such as curries, mango with sticky rice, or fried chicken with sweet rice, cost four or five tokens. Thai iced tea or iced coffee for a token. They also have an amazing selection of fruits, packaged desserts, and little fried coconut cake desserts, which we didn't leave room for.
We got a box of spring rolls (the wide rice noodle wrapping noodles and herbs), a bowl of beef noodle soup, and a plate of sum tam (green papaya salad).
I was most excited to see the sum tam, since this is one of my personal culinary holy grails. Sum tam is a chewy, crunchy salad of shredded green papaya, cabbage, green beans, peanuts, tomatoes, and a chili/garlic oil with a scattering of dried shrimps. It is customarily served with sticky rice, and I always eat it with my hands though I don't know if that is proper.
I had brilliant sum tam at Tuk Tuk in Seattle many years ago, and after that cafe closed I searched in vain for other versions. The only one I've found so far is at Soi 4 on College, and that version is delicious, but not as earthy or complex as the one they serve at the Temple. The key, I think, is the dried shrimps. They are usually omitted from the recipe, i guess to attract vegetarians. But at the Temple, as at Tuk Tuk, they use dried shrimps, which lend both texture and a nutty/salty flavor to the melange.
At the Temple, one orders the sum tam and then witnesses the preparation of the dish. The raw cut vegetables are scooped into a big wooden bowl. The vegetables are pounded with garlic, chiles, shrimps, and fish sauce and probably some other secret tasty things, and then served up fresh.
It was delicious and plentiful, and such a wonderful surprise.
The beef noodle soup was assembled to order with fresh-cooked rice noodles (you can choose from three widths) and a variety of meat pieces - well-done beef, meatballs, tripe, and some other things I didn't recognize - in a sweet, tangy broth. To my palate it tasted like a Thai-spiced version of pho. The broth and the noodles were delicious; neither Holly nor I were in much of a mind for meat exploration, so we left the various cow parts in the bowl. (We kinda overdid the lamb kebabs last night.)
The spring rolls were fresh and crisp with chewy noodle wrap. Holly said they tasted like summer. A lovely palate brightener after two powerfully flavorful dishes. Next time we want to try some of the curries and desserts, as well as what looked like a big heap of batter-fried fruits and vegetables.
Overall it was a pleasant and yummy experience. This would be a good place to take family or groups since there are lots of places to sit and so many things to try. All kinds of people were there, and there was a young gamelan-like orchestra warming up for some sort of concert or class. It was a beautiful sunny morning and I felt lucky to be an Eastbaynian.
Thai Buddhist Temple Mongkolratanaram
1911 Russell, Berkeley