OK, trying to please everyone by reporting back on the recently (and not so recently) recommended Thai temple in Berkeley. Tida was the latest reminder that I had to head over on a Sunday to taste what has been described as some of the best, most authentic Thai food in the area, as well as one of the most unique settings to try it in.
The verdict: WOW. A must. But this is no secret chowhound haven, there are big crowds who have long ago discovered this gem, and standing in line for a long time is easily compensated by the great food, great prices, and unique surroundings.
After a beautiful hike in Tilden park on Sunday morning, with views of the city and the bay, my wife and I drove down the hill and parked right behind the Berkeley Bowl. The Thai temple is just a block away. (note - great one two punch - lunch at the temple, followed by groceries at the Berkeley Bowl) We got there around 11:30 and the place was already packed. It is a pleasant temple with tables scattered all around, a long row of tables in the back serving as a makeshift "cafeteria" line with stations next to each other for different treats.
First, we cashed in $15 for tokens (which the food stations accept as donations). We immediately went for a combo of the two coconut based thingies (forget what they're called) - one custardy smooth with a bit of green onion, yet still sweet with coconut milk; the other a fritter with a bit of crunch. Both hot off the griddle. Both incredibly tasty. A great start (and a great finish - we had exactly 3 tokens to spend at the end and went for a second helping!).
The coconut thingies and the drinks are apart from the rest of the stations, which is very nice. The other 3 stations - curries and cooked items, sweet sticky rice with mango, and som tum (green papaya salad) - all ended up having a mass of people not sure which line they were in, cutting in front of people, generally causing chaos. We went right to the front for the som tum - since most people seemed to be after the sticky rice. I requested the som tum bpoo as someone on this board many moons ago recommended (includes dried crab in addition to the dried shrimp). Two women stand behind the table and mix all the ingredients to order, cabbage, carrot slivers, green papaya slivers, dried shrimp, nuts, nom pla fish sauce, and other seasonings and spices. This is one amazing dish - spicy hot, crunchy cool, a little salty - we gobbled it up quickly, very very happy that we had come.
By this time, the crowds were getting very thick. We even heard that it is much worse as soon as school starts back in. The crowd was a combination of people looking for great food, people wanting to be a part of the local thai community, and people looking for a good inexpensive meal on a weekend. Lots of Berkeley hippy kinda kids. Good people watching! A small troupe of Thai girls in traditional outfits posed for photos, then promptly sat down and ate their sticky rice.
Yes, the sticky rice, so the line had grown to probably 40 people for the sticky rice alone. The servings are made up one by one, so it is slow. A big portion of diced mango, a big portion of white sticky rice, a small portion of black sticky rice, some mung bean seeds for crunch on top, all topped with a dollop of coconut milk. A simple and very satisfying treat. Part dessert, well, mostly dessert I guess. Of course, we topped it off with another round of the coconut fried thingies (that is the official name, isn't it?)
Washed it all down with some thai iced coffee, eyed the curries for our next visit, paid our respects to the fish swimming around in the giant bowl ponds, and headed off to the Berkeley Bowl, full of great thai food, and eager to come back again to the temple for lunch.