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Gourmand in the Gourmet Ghetto

Posted by CMH Gourmand on March 21, 2010

Alternate Titles:
OAK Gourmand
Back to Berkeley
Why hasn’t Jim moved yet?

View from the UC Berkeley campus

There are a few places in the world I would be quite content to reside full time: Melbourne Australia, Kaikoura, New Zealand, Portland, and Austin. The geographic point which may be the most viable for my lifestyle is the section of Berkeley known as the Gourmet Ghetto. On my latest sojourn, I took residence in this neighborhood to reacquaint myself with old favorites and to discover a few new ones.

Michael Pollan is a respected writer that lives and works in Berkeley, California. I agree with his writings and concepts. However, on my latest trip I discovered an inconvenient truth. As a result I must say to Mr. Pollan – YOU LIE! The Omnivore’s Dilemma is not about how we should approach eating food in a system that has become over industrialized and is in fact is often creating food that is food in name only. Mr. Pollan’s writings are fine food for thought and discuss a path we must incorporate into our lives sooner instead of later. However, his idea of an Omnivore’s Dilemma is not accurate nor accurate to his own surroundings. The true problem, in the very city where he lives, is this: How in the hell does one decide where to go to eat? With only five days to incorporate 3-6 meals and snacks per day, how could I be expected to constantly make Sophie’s Choice level decisions about my next meal. The Bay Area is my heaven with the Gourmet Ghetto being my Garden of Eating.

On my previous trip to Berkeley, I made many discoveries which resulted in being overwhelmed and paralyzed by writers block. I tried to write about my adventures but for the most part I could not articulate the depth of my experience there – as shown by the feeble attempt linked here. I was hard pressed to even get photos posted of my favorite places.

This time, I will merely to attempt a cliff notes version of my trip and endeavour to mention a few things that may be handy if someone opts to replicate my excellent adventure. I think you may understand why this is such a daunting task for me. Please note, you are likely to develop a repetitive stress injury just by clicking on the links in this field report.

First, a note about getting to my destination. I love the San Francisco airport. It is clean, efficient, well designed, offers good food options, displays wonderful art and has an excellent aviation library/mini museum. I have passed through SFO numerous times on my way to the South Pacific (including one eleven hour layover). However, if you are going to be bouncing around the Bay Area the better airport option is Oakland.

Flights tend to be cheaper going into Oakland. Weather tends to be less of a factor there as well. There is a shuttle which will deliver passengers to the Oakland Coliseum Bay Area Rapid Transit station for three dollars. BART is awesome. The Downtown Berkeley station is just a few stops away so total Berkeley to airport door to door time is 30 to 60 minutes depending when you board BART. My entire holiday was planned so that I was no more than a 30 minute walk and/or BART ride to my dining destinations. This was my first iPhone powered trip so I had a BART map and timetable loaded in my palm or pocket for perfecting my transit plans at any moment and according to any whim.

My base of Bay Area operations was the Downtown Berkeley Inn. This small hotel is located in the heart of Berkeley within one minute of three movie theaters and an excellent thrift store (Crossroads Trading Company), a two minute walk to the BART station and the edge of the University of California at Berkeley campus and easy access to farmers markets, microbrews, bakeries, restaurants, groceries and hippies.

On to the food (finally).

Gourmet Ghetto and North Berkley

Where to begin? Shattuck is the street serving as the epicenter of culinary Berkeley. Those places that were not dined at were stared at longingly. I studied the menus and/or asked questions of staff to help me decide and conquer during my next time in town. Here are the places I did go to.

The Cheeseboard Collective
This worker owned enterprise offers superior breads and an assortment of over 100 cheeses. Their cheese counter and knowledge of their Cheesemongers are among the best in the country. When you walk in take a card with a number and wait your turn at the counter to sample cheese. While you are waiting, grab some bread so you can make all of your purchases at once and have the option of snacking on bread and cheese when you leave.

The top attraction at the Cheeseboard and their neighboring pizza outlet is the daily pizza special. Each day one pizza choice is offered to the public and the masses consume it until there is no more. On Friday and Saturday expect long but fast moving lines (one choice allows for very quick turnaround time) and be prepared to try to deal with no pizza if you arrive late in the production window. Is the pizza good? Absolutely, I would say it is among the best in the country – perfect crust and the finest ingredients. The pies offer no frills. They are served in plain natural cardboard boxes with a recycling station designated for the empties by the door. The dining room area fills quickly as does the grass median in the middle of Shattuck lined with impromptu picnickers munching on perfect pizza.

Here us an insiders tip just for you. Pass the grass strip and pop into the Epicurious Garden across the street. Additional entrees and drinks can be acquired here. There is a tea gardenesque dining area here that is perfect for a mixed pizza dinner (I opted for a mole enchilada as an appetizer). There is also a publicly accessible restroom here which is rare in a community wary of the homeless population. The garden is a destination itself for a relaxing eating space. Among the many culinary choices are cooking classes if you have the time to sign up for one.

I am a coffee snob. By which I mean, I am a snob about not being controlled by a need for coffee. I do have addictions: eating too much and being hypervigilant searching the ground for loose change ($2.18 so far this year). I drink about one coffee per month, usually some girly, frappy, whip creamy concoction. However, I love the smell of coffee and I respect the history of the beverage. That being said, before there was Starbucks, there was Peets. And before Peets, it appears that American coffee was crap. I always have two or three Peets when in the Bay. The Peets at Shattuck and Vine was the first I sipped their brew and it is the location of the first Peets ever. The backroom has a mini museum of the company history including a short video to watch while waiting for your order. The regulars and irregular hippie types have been hanging out at this location for up to forty years and make for good people watching.

Vintage Berkeley
Across from Peets is a wine shop. The selection is not huge but there is a well thought out variety of wines to choose from, weekly tastings and some of the best wine notes in the business. The staff are friendly and if you are looking for wine to go with your meal or a snack, this is a convenient place to fill that gap. The building is a former pump house which seems appropriate for a wine business.

Saul's brisket sandwich with au jus

Sauls Deli
Saul’s Deli has all of the characteristics of an old school deli. Saul’s has a fifty plus year heritage of Kosher cuisine. The owners also respect the history and tradition of authentic deli’s, a rear wall is lined with old, framed menus of some of the most renown delicatessen’s of North America. Of course there is a Berkeley twist here: smaller portions, local sourcing of organic meats, Acme bread, homemade natural creme sodas and such.

Triple Rock Brewery
This microbrewery serves selections of their own beers as well as an array of regional, national and international beers. A popular Thursday happy hour special is a one liter bottle of their Monkeyhead beer which is high in alcohol content and low in cost. That is what I chose.

Triple Rock was good. Jupiter is better. This is interesting since the owner of Jupiter was the founder of Triple Rock Brewery. The atmosphere and beers are a little more heavenly here. The food is good as well, including the wood fired pizzas.

Moving from breweries to bakeries. There are two exceptional choices on Shattuck.

Virginia Bakery
Make sure not to confuse Virginia Bakery with Virginia Cleaners which is just a few blocks down the street. This bakery was founded in 1934 and continues to focus on a foundation of traditional baked goods. Virginia Bakery proves that old school basics can keep all generations happy. I enjoyed each item sampled here. The best was a Belgian coffee cake.

Masse's Bacon and Maple Macaroons

Masse’s Pastries
The variety and the presentation of the pastries in this small shop is amazing. The quality of fancy baked goods and the creativity of the flavor combinations continue to content the masses and even make the Yelpers hard pressed to find fault in this culinary find. And yes, Bacon and Maple macaroons – WOW!

Walking far away from Shattuck but still focusing on incredible baked goods I made may way down University Avenue to the far west side of Berkeley for a return to the finest diner in the world. As you might surmise, this place impresses me. So much so that I will eat breakfast (my fourth favorite meal) here.

Bette’s Oceanview Diner and Bette’s to Go
While I was hard pressed to articulate my impressions of my first trip to Berkeley, there was one place that I was able to get into print. I was able to channel the special qualities of Bettes so well that it got the attention of Jane and Michael Stern. I had met them in Nashville and passed my Bette’s impressions on to them as soon as possible. They loved the place too. You can read all of our impressions in the link above. On this trip I had another great breakfast and had room for what I missed from before – macaroons. The woman who bagged my Chocolate Espresso Twinkie promised that each bite would provide five minutes of bliss. It took ten seconds to consume. It did make me very happy for at least ten minutes.

What else does Berkeley and the Gourmet Ghetto have to offer… a lot, including a Thursday (North Berkeley) and Saturday (in the heart of downtown) Farmer’s Markets.

In addition to Berkeley and North Berkeley, I also took some BART fueled field trips to explore the Bay Area. My first dining detour, was two stops away. I don’t like to backtrack when I travel, so I decided to take BART to El Cerrito Plaza which is just two stops away from downtown Berkeley. Before I started the 15 minute walk along the Ohlone Greenway I saw a See’s Candies and dropped in to pick up a few samples as emergency supplies for the journey.

The trail took me to the middle of Solano Avenue in the heart of Albany. The area is a more suburban extension of Berkeley; more yuppie than hippie but still equally food focused. Walk to the far west end of Solano Ave, up the crest of a slight hill and you will see a great view of the bay. Solano Avenue is crammed with all types of eateries including: Nepalese, Himilayan, tons of Thai, incredible Indian, an old school hamburger and ice cream diner, two toy shops, high end Vegetarian/Vegan and more food options. If you walk to the far east end of Solano, you are technically back in Berkeley and definitely near one of the top ten pizza places in the country.

My first meal of day one was at Zachary’s in the form of two slices. I walked about 35 minutes to get there and I was able get a table which is a rare thing. My last full meal of the trip was at Zachary’s as a carry out deep dish pizza. Zachary’s Chicago style pizza in slices, as a whole pizza or deep dish has won every pizza award in the Bay Area for over a decade and in spite have having a full plate of choices, I had no doubt I would eat here twice. On the walk back to the main drag of Berkeley there are plenty of places to plop down to eat a slice of pie (one good place is Live Oak Park). You can also walk through a tunnel and explore the side streets on the way back to the center of the city.

I had another side trip in mind. I was a housesitter during my first trip to Berkeley. In the home, there was an old poster for a restaurant called Bay Wolf. I was intrigued by the artwork but I had never heard of the restaurant. The homeowners returned the evening before I left and told me stories of the origins of Bay Wolf. They endorsed it was one of the best eateries they had tried in their thirty years of Bay Area exploration. Unfortunately, by the time I heard their tales it was too late to eat there. I was determined to dine at Bay Wolf on this trip, even if I had to go to Oakland (which is where it is at). It was an easy journey. I took BART to the MacArthur station and then walked about 10 minutes on 40th Street to Piedmont.

Bay Wolf
Bay Woolf was everything I wanted it to be. The service was great. The menu was filled with fresh seasonal ingredients and featured unique cocktails. My meal consisted of a pear Mojito, carrot soup, fresh fried oysters with goat cheese and a half serving of oxtail ravioli. I paired a Ginger Portini with a trio of housemade sorbets (Tangerine, Grapefruit and Chocolate) for my dessert. I respect Chez Panisse but with one trip to each, I give Bay Wolf the edge.

During my meal, I recalled my friend Robin lived in Oakland, so I gave her a call. She welcomed me to town by letting me know she was moving to LA in twelve hours. Conveniently, Robin was wrapping up a farewell dinner with friends at a pizza place 100 feet away. We were able to meet up so I could help her finish packing.

My time with Robin convinced me I needed to come back to Oakland to explore so I did so the next day. My first stop was at Pizza Pazza where we met the previous evening. My slice of pizza here is very good. This is also the only combination pizza shop and antique store I know of. I then started to explore Piedmont Ave. This street reminds me of the High Street strip in the Short North. Piedmont features a variety of restaurants, specialty food stores, several comic book shops, cool book stores and more.

An Oakland landmark is Fenton’s Creamery in the center of the length of Piedmont. Fenton’s is the epitome of an old fashioned ice cream parlor. It may also be the home to the creation of the orginal Rocky Road ice cream. I tried the ice cream (very good) but had to hightail it out of the front door after a quick survey since there was a birthday party of forty plus four year old children monitored by four rapidly decompensating parents.

My mission of exploration had a destination – Mountainview Cemetery. It is a bit of a walk to the top but it is worth it. The grounds lining the road to the summit are lined with almost two centuries of Bay Area history in the form of tombstones. The view from the crest is phenomenal, you can see the entire bay – both bridges, Oakland, San Francisco and everything else.

Oakland as seen from mountainview cemetery

So you may have heard about a place called San Francisco? How about a wine region known as Sonoma? I was determined to spend some time in these places as well. I added on a side trip to Muir Woods with the assistance of Extranomical Tours.

I like to take tours with small, independent companies – in addition to having a way to drink without driving this also allows me to meet interesting people from all over the country and sometimes the world. Our day tour took us to Muir Woods for an hour. Then we visited three Sonoma wineries: Cline Cellars, Kunde and Jacuzzi Wines. Um yeah, Jacuzzi, the same family that made a fortune in hot tubs. Jacuzzi was the best of the three wineries visited. My favorite pour of the tour was Jacuzzi Moscato Bianco. This choice was supported by most of our group. Jacuzzi has a Tuscanesque tower one can climb for a great view of all of Sonoma county. Jacuzzi also samples their excellent olive oils (including a jalapeno infused oil) for free. In between wineries we had lunch at the Sonoma Cheese Factory where they are happy to give out samples of cheese, fudge and gelato. On my previous trip to California I had visited Napa and Sonoma back to back. I had decided that I liked Sonoma wines and the attitude of that region a bit more. The one overlap from my previous exploration was the Cheese Factory so I was happy to drop in again to fortify myself for more wine tastings.

The tour bus dropped me off at the Ferry Building near the Embarcadero BART. There are many, many reasons to visit the Ferry Building market. I am going to list four.

Taylors Automatic Refresher
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher is a famous landmark in Napa. Fortunately for me, they have a second location in “The City”. Taylor’s serves up everything one would expect from a classic diner but there is a twist, actually, a lot of twists. Taylor’s uses Niman Ranch beef, recyclable greenware, serves Mahi Mahi fish tacos and takes their comfort food to a gourmet level.

The encased cured meat products sold here are so good they could tame a bear or maybe the devil himself. I arrived after the shop’s posted closing time of 6 PM but the friendly staff sensing my salami deficiency let me buy a few items they could ring up easily.

Cowgirl Creamery
One of our Ohio dairy heroes, Jen Bhaerman used to work here. Jen is now the marketing maven for milk evangelist Warren Taylor of Snowville Creamery. Jen knows cheese so if she thought the Cowgirl Creamery was worth working for then I knew it was worth eating. We were both right. This is superior cheese.

Acme Bread Company
Take some artisan meats from the salumeria of Boccalone, slice up Cowgirl Creamery triple cream Cheese and blanket with really good bread and you have: the best midnight snack sandwich consumed in the United States on March 12th 2010.

I wrapped up my Bay Area adventure catching up with my gal pal the Beer Wench at Bobby G’s for four or five pints of west coast microbrew, a board game, a slice of pizza and culinary shop talk. The Wench started her site in Columbus. We met in 2008 while teaming up for a couple beer tasting events. Ashley is doing well and says hello to her friends here in Columbus. Even though she gets to experience the fooder’s bounty of the Bay Area every day, she says she misses Columbus and the can do attitude of our town. I think that is quite an endorsement and it was an interesting idea to think about as I pulled myself away from heaven.

3 Responses to “Gourmand in the Gourmet Ghetto”

  1. I have the same feelings of overwhelming indecision with regards to California dining. The diversity and quality really is amazing.

    That said, I am happy to live in Columbus where we are growing more gourmet by the minute at a quarter of the price of living on the left coast.

    CMH G Comment:
    And how! (Exhibit Q: Our two James Beard Award nominated chefs!)

  2. Amanda said

    Wow. This is impressive. And I wish I had been there…I love California. 🙂

  3. Bear said

    I can almost smell the eucalyptus.

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