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Monday, August 22, 2005

Dining at my Doorstep for $40 a Day (D&D#4)

Heart of the Hood

In the spirit of the Eat Local Challenge sponsored by Jen at Life Begins at 30, my entries in Sam's Dine and Dish #4 challenge (aka "Be Rachael Ray for the Day" - I've never seen any of Rachael's shows because I don't have cable and barely watch TV, and in my current anemic condition, I Don't Do Perky) are all from places walking distance from my house in west Berkeley, California, and on or very near San Pablo Avenue.

If you know Berkeley at all, you know that San Pablo Avenue is not the pretty and touristed part of town. Even last year, had I seen Rachael Ray wandering around the 'hood, I would have thought she had gotten somewhat lost looking for Sur la Table or one of the famed Oceanview eateries (Bette's, Cafe Rouge, etc.). Food shopping has been great for the last few years among the diverse businesses of the area; the section of the Avenue above and below University Avenue is now designated as the "International Marketplace" district due to its wide selection of ethnic markets - East Indian, middle Eastern, Mexican, Thai, The Spanish Table (for all your paella needs) and Country Cheese (amazing cheese, plus an interesting selection of mostly-international groceries and bulk goods).

But in the last year or so, the formerly quite pedestrian dining options on the Avenue (post the demise of Pepito's Deli, which is still missed in Berkeley foodie/chowhound circles) have been considerably improved by some new arrivals. Combined with the great ethnic groceries and the trendy clothing-jewelry-and-funky stuff stores opening up like mushrooms after a rainstorm south of Dwight Way (so much so that local wags are calling it "West Telegraph"), the eating options are making San Pablo-and-environs in central Berkeley a true destination neighborhood. (We're still not sure what to call it. Once we get a catchy district name that sticks, we've really arrived.)

So many great eateries are here now that to give the true flavor of the neighborhood, I am dining and dishing for two days in the neighborhood, beginning and ending at the new heart and soul of the Westside, the Berkeley branch of the world-famous Caffe Trieste, 2500 San Pablo (@ Dwight).

The Berkeley Trieste opened up within the last year (after about as long, it seemed, of windows announcing "Caffe Trieste coming soon!") and is rarely less than completely packed. Like the mothership in North Beach, it offers coffee, pastries, soda, beer, wine, and light fare (soup, salad, pizza) and a series of live entertainment (mostly opera) for a very reasonable price. Bring a book, or your laptop, and stay as long as you like.

Breakfast at Caffe Trieste:

Latte: $ 2.65
Pastry: $2.00
Subtotal with T&T: $ 6.00

For lunch, since breakfast was light, it's a perfect opportunity to visit one of west Berkeley's better-kept neighborhood secrets, Bosphorus, at 1025 University (near San Pablo). The space was formerly one of the ubiquitous East Indian restaurants on University, and once you get over the idea of a large Ganesh-type elephant pillar in the middle of a Turkish restaurant, the space is quite pleasant. The main dining space has carpets on the wall and Turkish bric-a-brac, and there are two comfy-looking window booths (with kilim pillows) and more private booths in the back behind the "wood lace" screens. Impressively for am inexpensive restaurant, the noise level is not set to "din" in the main dining room.

Most customers go straight for the buffet, and at $7.90 for the lunch version, it's not surprising to see why. Much of the buffet is vegetarian, or vegan, and features plenty of tasty veggies. Now if I really were Rachael Ray (e.g. I had a producer asking lots of questions, writing everything down, and researching things as needed) I would be able to tell you all about what I was eating - I recognized certain dishes such as dolma, okra stewed with tomatoes, pilaf with veggies, the ground lamb kebabs (mixed with some other meat, I think), and of course the rice pudding - but I'm willing to make myself look like an ignorant fool in front of the whole food blogging community to say, I don't know what I ate here, but it was all good, and you should check it out when you're in the hood. It's worth a trip.

Lunch buffet at Bosphorus: $7.90 plus T&T: $10

(Dinner buffet is $11.20 - still very reasonable.)

Now on to dinner. The latest hot eatery to open up on the Avenue is Sea Salt, a project of the same people who brought the Bay Area the fabulous Lalime's. Sea Salt is in the old Brick Hut Cafe/Cafe Talulah space at 2512 San Pablo Avenue, a couple of doors down from Trieste.

fresh fish

As you can see from the menu, it takes some thinking to work a meal at Sea Salt into a "$40 a day" budget. But with that huge lunch, some of the lighter choices start looking good. And with the rest of the 'hood so affordable, there's even room for a small appetizer of the exquisitely presented and blastingly fresh oysters, served with mignonette (and cocktail sauce, but I never look at cocktail sauce when mignonette is present). The rest of the fish (and the general dining experience) is first-rate as well.


Dinner at Sea Salt:

2 oysters $2.00 each
Clam chowder with bacon and sourdough bread: 8.25
Anchor Steam $3.00
Subtotal: $15.25 plus T&T - about $19.00

Bringing today's total to approximately $35, including all taxes and tips; which leaves room for another treat at Trieste, or something else judiciously chosen off the menu at Sea Salt, or a nightcap at the Albatross Pub (a great neighborhood joint), or just extra cash in your pocket for shopping the Avenue.

Day Two

To start off, I go a little out of my regular walking range to a famous West Berkeley eatery, the child of Chez Panisse, Cafe Fanny. I normally avoid Cafe Fanny because it is both crowded on the weekends and somewhat pricey, but it is a Berkeley institution and I wanted to cover the diversity of the Avenue.

You can eat either inside (standing up at the bar, a la Parisian cafes) or outside on the tiny patio.

In the Chez Panisse tradition, everything served is best-of-breed; products, if not house-made (like the justly famous granola), are often sourced locally. Indeed, on weekends, there are two lines in the parking lot; one for the Cafe, one for the Acme Bakery next door, source of the levain bread. I advise leaving asides things like eggs-and-toast that you can get other places (recommendations for those follow) and sticking to some of the more unusual/specialty items. One of their bowls of cafe au lait ($3.25) is highly recommended, and a comforting thing in the often-foggy west Berkeley mornings.


Breakfast at Cafe Fanny:
Cafe au lait: $3.25
Cafe Fanny granola with yogurt and fresh fruit 6.95
Subtotal with T&T: $12

[Edited to add local tip from Melissa from the comments: get the coffee at Fanny, and get a sweet or savory pastry from Acme to go with it.]

For heartier American cafe-style food with a Berkeley twist in the neighborhood, I highly recommend both Meal Ticket (further up San Pablo, just north of Gilman, address 1235 San Pablo) and the Homemade Cafe at Sacramento and Dwight. The Homemade has the best home fries in town and if you order something like the huevos rancheros there, or the salmon-and-eggs brunch at Meal Ticket ($9.95; weekends only), you might not need to eat till the next day. (The piece of grilled salmon was as big as my hand, no joke.)

For lunch, a visit to one of the holdouts from the pre-gentrified neighborhood is in order; unless, of course, you're a vegetarian, in which case you are out of luck. Among carnivores in the East Bay, "where's the best barbeque?" is a constant topic of ... er ... discussion. I used to live near the North Oakland Flint's, worked near Doug's in Emeryville, but for my money the Berkeley Everett and Jones at 1955 San Pablo (@ University) has a great combo of good meat, good sauce, and good service. And of course for me, location, location, location (but I *will* travel for good Q). You can eat it there, either on the counter or at the picnic tables outside, and stick your spare change in the extremely soulful jukebox. You can also eat on picnic tables outside, or the counter inside, but one look should be enough to confirm that you ain't in Paris, baby.

Marga has a review of the Hayward location on her blog, which I find to be pretty accurate in describing the Berkeley location. Don't dress up. Follow your nose to that wood smoke. And get ready for some fine Q.

Lunch at Everett and Jones:

Sliced beef lunch: $7.10
Soda: $1.00
Subtotal, with tax and tip: $9.50

For an inexpensive and tasty lunch or dinner, Casa Latina (1805 San Pablo, near Delaware) offers excellent fresh Mexican food, with the added temptation of a full-on Mexican bakery (panaderia).


Tacos are $1.50 each, tamales $1.75, so this is a fabulous place for Cheap Eats. You can get a meal (including a drink) and some delicious pan dulce for dessert or breakfast for around $10. (The bakery means that it is open early: 6:30 am on weekdays, and they do have an espresso machine.) But in this case, it's a good place for a coffee and some pan dulce for "later".

Snack at Casa Latina:

Macchiato to go: $1.75
Pan dulce (4 pieces) to go: $2.60
Subtotal with T&T: $5.50

At the end of day two, it's time to go back to Caffe Trieste and enjoy a beer ($4) or glass of wine ($3) and soak up the vibes. Caffe Trieste has some nice light dinner options (slice of pizza, $3, soup $4-5, or salads in the $5-$9 range) to act as an accompaniment to your beverage and atmosphere. Or have some cake ($4.50/slice) and coffee. As Rachael would say, "yummy!". There's probably even some change from the $40 to tip the musician.

Dinner at Caffe Trieste:

Glass of house red: $2.95
House salad: $4.95
Veggie pizza: $2.95

Subtotal, with T&T: $13.00

(On weeknights, "Pizza, Salad, and a Pint" are offered at the special "Happy Hour" rate of $6.50 between 4 and 7 pm, a deal much beloved by the locals.)

This is but a sampling of what is available in the neighborhood. You can have burgers at Lanesplitter, jerk chicken at Jamaican Soul, sandwiches at Country Cheese, tamales by the dozen at Mi Tierra, and surfeit yourself on East Indian food (all up and down University) if your heart desires. So if you see Rachael and her crew wandering around West Berkeley, don't assume that she's lost. And if you're visiting Berkeley, take the 51 bus out here from downtown to San Pablo and come see how the "year rounders" live.

Charlotte, this is great. Thanks for the mention. So cool that you did things within walking distance. I have been wanting to try out Cafe Fanny, and now have other Berkeley treats on my list as well.

Hi Jen, I will confess that CF isn't my favorite (if I spend that much on breakfast I want something heartier, and the Homemade really is so much closer to me), but if you haven't been, it's worth going to. The buckwheat crepes are good.

There's definitely enough in the area to warrant a trip ... especially with the variety of ethnic food shopping available. I love the frozen section at the Middle East Market. If you want company in the nabe let me know, I love showing it off.
Hi Charlotte,

It was nice meeting you at the BBQ at Meathenge's! You and I seem to enjoy many of the same eateries. :-) My tip on Cafe Fanny is to get the coffee there, but get a savory or a sweet pastry or a baguette at Acme next door.

Thanks for the info on Sea Salt. I hope Derrick and I can check it out sometime soon.
Hi Melissa, I enjoyed meeting you too!

That's an excellent tip, and the post has been edited to include it :)

I have been meaning to do a more structured review of Sea Salt for a little bit here and will post it when I get organized.
Charlotte - you are a girl after my own heart - not one days - but two. I wish my producer would let me do that for the show.

Maybe it's time we brought $40 day to San Pablo Ave??

You did Rachael Ray proud! Those oysters look amazing.
Rachael - you are so sweet to stop by my blog! Hope to see you in the neighborhood soon.
Hey Charolotte

I've nearly finished the round up. I hope to publish it on B&P tomorrow

thanks for taking part

I'm so homesick!

I know these places...and miss them. You make everything sound so good!

We lived in Oakland, on Broadway...technically, right across from the ramp at the end of Broadway.

Very nice job.
"I Don't Do Perky"...

LMAO! That's awesome!

Now, we HAVE to make it to Seasalt. And I agree with you, the Albatross is a mighty fine pub.
wow, i dont think i remember any of those places whilst i was there for school! i think about as far away from campus as i got was...SUN HONG KONG on shattuck, lol!

anyway, thanks so much for coming out to play in the dine and dish party! hopefully we'll see you at the next one, too!
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