Restaurants & Bars

Three weeks in Berkeley (report, long)

Prabhakar Ragde | Sep 28, 200203:30 PM     6

My family and I spent three weeks in Berkeley in August, as usual, but
this time with the help of the Chowhound message board. Many thanks to
those whose postings shaped our trip. Here are some notes.

New finds

Thai Temple -- Thanks to Chowhounds, I knew exactly what to look
for. The green papaya salad was a visual treat (watching its
preparation) as well as a taste treat. Also good were the sticky rice
and mangoes, the coconut custard cakes, and the fresh spring
rolls. Even the steam table food is better than most Thai restaurants
in the area! You really should get there by 10:30am, though.

Chaat Cafe -- Decent attempt at interpolating between Vik and Breads
of India, but not nearly as good as either. Still, the lamb wrap is a
serious amount of good food for the price.

Pyung Chang Tofu House (Oakland) -- Great tofu, but there wasn't
enough variety in the three types of dishes we ordered. Nice rustic

We Be Sushi (SF, Valencia) -- Didn't expect much, but it was decent
low-rent sushi, and saved us on a Monday when we just wanted a light
bite before dinner at Delfina.

Tartine -- Having just come from three weeks in France, our
standards were high, but their pain au chocolat was probably the best
I've ever had. This is no light morning snack, though; eat one and
you'll have trouble working up an appetite for dinner. The almond
croissant is similarly filling. Also, these cost about twice as much
as they would in France. Quite the treats, but I can't imagine
visiting this place weekly. Well, I could, for about a year, and then
I'd be dead.

Chez Papa -- Nice approximation of a Provencal bistro, down to the
accents of the crew. Friendly service, very good food, but the place
is small and gets noisy. Asparagus soup with truffle oil and marinated
anchovies over mache and shaved fennel were seriously good, as were
the smoky beans available as a side order. They cheat on the tarte
Tatin, though, by using puff pastry. There's a cafe just down the
street that looks like a great hangout.

Azie -- Visited at short notice on the basis of a Chowhound
posting that reminded us that prices are down after the dot-com
bust. We went, dressed schlumpily as always, for an early dinner, and
it was terrific, particularly the heirloom tomato salad (done several
different ways in a divided dish) and the steamed fish. The "pear
tarte Tatin" wasn't really a tarte Tatin, but was spectacular
nonetheless. They even had glasses of Templier rose for $8.75, not bad
considering a half-bottle at Kermit Lynch cost $12.50. Only odd note
was the mashed potatoes on the vegetable platter, which didn't go with
anything, as far as I could tell.

JoJo -- Next door to Bay Wolf and living up to its
standards. A single-page menu of French standards interpreted by a
husband-and-wife team with great CVs, served on the narrow bottom
floor of an old house. One of those low-key restaurant experiences
that creep up on you until you float out the door totally satisfied.

Bay Breads Patisserie -- The canneles and macarons were not quite up
to the best Parisian standards, but not bad. Next time we'll try the

Places that have kept up quality or gotten better

Cactus Taqueria -- Solid, tasty, inexpensive Mexican food made with
quality ingredients, something I just can't get at home.

Kirala -- The sushi special seems to be a tiny bit less generous than
before, but still good, and the kitchen specials are still a great
deal. I never seem to order anything else.

Dona Tomas -- Best carnitas I have ever had, and enough innovation on
the menu (most of which works, some of which doesn't) to keep me going
back. My kids live for the huge sundaes with cajeta.

Vik -- "I certainly hope there's a restaurant called Vik you're taking
her to, because she's really excited about it," said my daughter's
teacher. Four bucks for masala dosa or chole bhature, either of which
is a tasty and filling meal, is amazing. So maybe they can put the
prices up a quarter, keep the bathroom clean, buy a numerical ticket
system, swab the tables occasionally? I know, that's part of the

Grasshopper -- This Asian small plates place is the kind of restaurant
that could abruptly close, so I'm glad to see it seems to be doing

A Cote -- Menu seems to be a little more conservative (a trend we
noticed all over), but portion sizes are still fine, and the
flatbreads are still terrific.

Sushi Ko -- We hadn't visited this place for years, and were surprised
at how good the chirashi sushi was at lunch -- no filler, quality

Lalime -- Now into secure middle age, like its proprietors, they're
not as flashy as in their youth, but also more consistent and homey.

Phuping Thai -- There appear to be scores of problematic Thai
restaurants in the East Bay, and this offshoot of Thep Phanom in SF
delivers the most consistently. Not a revelation, but a good meal.

Isa -- Again, a slightly more conservative and classic menu than on
our last visit, but with stunning results -- chef Luke Sung can do
things with a simple baked chevre with tomato confit that hint at
wizardry. And he clapped me on the shoulder and said "Welcome back,"
though we'd walked in without reservations on our third visit in two
years, with a nine month gap since the last one.

Santa Fe Bistro -- Gone is the grilled duck leg for five bucks; lunch
prices are creeping up towards the dinner ones (even though they
retain the rather odd order-at-cash-register policy), but quality is

Delfina -- Great food, and we're two for two on having the most
unassuming and genuine service I can remember, from two different
servers, so it must be their hiring policy. The place does get loud; I
could have done without the know-nothing with the NY accent
name-checking every food trend of the past decade right behind me. But
from appetizer to entree to dessert, the food more than made up for

Nizza La Bella -- On our third or fourth visit, it seems that the
place has finally hit its stride; all the dishes were tasty and
arrived in timely fashion. I do wish they wouldn't seat five of us by
putting a chair in the narrow hallway of four-person booths.

Places that have gone too far downhill

Breads of India -- The annoying mesclun salad was reduced to a few
wilted shreds, which was fine by me, but the main dish had shrunk to
four cubes of lamb in a pool of sauce, and most of the space on the
plate was taken up by low-budget rice and dal. Even the fresh breads
were undercooked. It isn't neglect, because the owner was present (he
joked with our kids and offered them candy). The basic concept of five
high-quality dishes each day is a really good one. But somehow the
spark is gone.

Straits Cafe -- I've always been uneasy with the neocolonial feel of
this place, but on this visit the food didn't justify itself as
before. Duck kapitan was tough and fatty and sitting on a small amount
of unidentifiable sauce. Some of the dishes were okay, but expensive
compared to what one might find elsewhere. I stopped eating early,
realizing I wasn't going to be satisfied, and took my bored nephew
across the street to the Wherehouse.

Red Tractor -- Bad vibes from the moment we walked in. Sullen staff,
all the nice stuff on the menu (like the gumbo and the complex
barbecue sauce) gone, filthy tables, and total slop on the plates when
they arrived after a ridiculously long wait. The original concept of
high-quality Midwestern food has devolved to a bad diner nightmare.

Thirsty Bear -- The original long list of tapas has shrunk to a
handful, with a more conventional list of entrees. We ordered three
tapas and arroz negre. "Do you want that split two ways, or four?" the
server asked. I frowned in puzzlement and said, "We're sharing
everything." Patatas bravas were soggy; the marinated pork tenderloin
and fig skewers over white beans yielded exactly four small scraps of
meat and four tiny half-figs (good thing there were four of us), and
the beans were completely forgettable. The arroz negre was decent
sized, but it was grey, because they'd skimped on the squid ink; the
seafood was mostly squid rings, and the whole thing tasted mainly of
salt. We couldn't finish it; I thought it was because it didn't taste
good, but when the bill came, they had charged us for four
portions. They dropped it to one when I complained that I didn't order
four, but that was the clincher. Off our list, and I'm not going to
try their spinoff on Valencia, either.

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