BART from the airport and kids old enough to haul their own luggage have made a considerable difference in our ability to get from SFO to Berkeley in a predictable fashion, but our kids still want to go to Cactus Taqueria on Solano as their first meal in the Bay Area. Maybe no longer. The food was decent if unexceptional on our first visit (oxygen-deprived and jet-lagged, I really cannot be very discriminating) but when another segment of our extended family arrived, we went there again, and it was quite disappointing. The duck in orange salsa was just chunks of okay duck with sliced-up sections of orange (seeds included). I convinced my younger daughter to order something other than her usual tamales, but she frowned over the enchiladas with shrimp, and ate less than half of them. I took a bite, and could not fault her; they were soggy and dull. If that weren't bad enough, parents seem to treat this as a "family restaurant" (meaning that the kids are permitted to run wild and make a mess, something we never let our kids do anywhere, ever). We watched one loud, messy group leave... and the next set of parents had to clean up their mess so that they could sit down. Poetic justice, perhaps, but I don't need to witness it.
I think I may convince the family to transfer their allegiance to Tacubaya, which we finally visited. I had been avoiding it because I was pissed at Dona Tomas for the way they treated us on our last visit. Tacubaya fills the niche vacated by Picante (and now Cactus); the food is generally good and occasionally great, and it's fairly quiet and empty if you go early. Prices are a bit high, but not unreasonable for the neighbourhood. And I can check out the Cafe Rouge menu and try to snag a table if something utterly compelling appears on it.
We ate at Vik's three times, allowing me to branch out from my usual vegetable dosa. The keema samosas (weekend special) are also good, less greasy and more flavourful than the norm, and the samosa cholle has the chickpea curry on the side instead of ladled over, which is quite civilized. I ordered a weekday special rice plate (moilie fish, sea bass in a thin yellow sauce which was quite flavourful) and was pleased to see it come in a segmented plastic plate; the earlier piling of items onto a single flat paper plate made for a rather messy and chaotic experience. Now if they could only lose the sporks, they'd be perfect.
We went back to China Village, twice, for the first time since right after the chef who brought them to fame left. It is not what it used to be, but it is still a better-than-average Chinese restaurant. Some of the items from the glory days are not done as well ("red bowl of death" fish, dry-fried Sichuan beef) and one senses that the chef's heart is not in them, as there are new dishes that are much better (spicy conch, braised duck, and dishes appearing on the specials menu on the whiteboard at the entrance). We will put it back on the regular rotation, but our hearts still ache.
We hadn't been to Lalime's in a couple of years, but our relatives wanted to go, so we did. We were seated in a small room right opposite the bar holding a single table, and pretty much abandoned; service was very perfunctory. My younger daughter has made a habit of ordering a couple of appetizers for dinner here, but this time they were tiny (example: a duck charcuterie plate with a dab of rillettes, four slices of smoked duck breast that together wouldn't have covered a business card, and a little Melba toast triangle with some pate on it). My starter of grilled jamon serrano, manchego, and membrillo was about three inches square. We did not starve, as my main Berkshire pork chop with succotash was large. It just wasn't very interesting, especially considering the winning rendition I'd had recently at Wood Tavern. And what happened to the prix fixe? Even the Lalime-labelled Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir was served too warm, and tasted blowzy and dissipated.
We had better luck with Sea Salt and T-Rex, both of which have improved in the year since we last visited them. Lalime's joins its younger sibling Jimmy Bean's on our blacklist.
We dropped in at the Berkeley Thai temple to get a couple of items to go as part of a larger lunch at home. At eleven, there was no line for green papaya salad (as good as ever, and better than the one I had at the LA temple last year, now facing a hopefully-temporary suspension of their food sales), no line for mangoes and sticky rice (portion has shrunk, and no roasted mung, but you get both white and black sticky rice, and a few slices of coconut-milk custard), a modest line for kanom krok (which we ate on the spot), a longer line for noodle soup (which I never thought was anything special), and a very long line for the steam-table food "donated" by the same local restaurants I now avoid. The patrons in LA, at least last year, seemed to be mostly Thai; the patrons in Berkeley seem to be mostly grad students terribly pleased with themselves for being in the know. At least they don't choke the neighbourhood with cars, which is apparently what happened in LA. --PR
Vik's Chaat House
2390 Fourth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710
1335 Solano Ave, Albany, CA 94706
Wat Mongkolratanaram (Thai Buddhist Temple)
1911 Russell St, Berkeley, CA 94703
1788 4th St, Berkeley, CA 94710
1881 Solano Ave, Berkeley, CA 94707
1329 Gilman, Berkeley, CA 94706