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Jun 9, 2002 03:59 PM

Thai Temple Sunday Brunch in Berkeley

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I think this is East Bay Institution Week for Holly and me -- first Lois the Pie Queen, then the Thai Temple Brunch, both of which we've been hearing about since we moved here two years ago. Thankfully, the Thai Temple was as delicious as the Pie Queen was disappointing.

The Thai Temple Mongkolratanaram is on Russell St, near Adeline, in Berkeley. On Sunday mornings from 9-2 they serve a mind-bogglingly wide array of food, in an outdoor market setting. One arrives and purchases tokens for a dollar each, which are then exchanged for food at the various stalls. We ate mightily well for about six dollars each; most of the main dishes, such as curries, mango with sticky rice, or fried chicken with sweet rice, cost four or five tokens. Thai iced tea or iced coffee for a token. They also have an amazing selection of fruits, packaged desserts, and little fried coconut cake desserts, which we didn't leave room for.

We got a box of spring rolls (the wide rice noodle wrapping noodles and herbs), a bowl of beef noodle soup, and a plate of sum tam (green papaya salad).

I was most excited to see the sum tam, since this is one of my personal culinary holy grails. Sum tam is a chewy, crunchy salad of shredded green papaya, cabbage, green beans, peanuts, tomatoes, and a chili/garlic oil with a scattering of dried shrimps. It is customarily served with sticky rice, and I always eat it with my hands though I don't know if that is proper.

I had brilliant sum tam at Tuk Tuk in Seattle many years ago, and after that cafe closed I searched in vain for other versions. The only one I've found so far is at Soi 4 on College, and that version is delicious, but not as earthy or complex as the one they serve at the Temple. The key, I think, is the dried shrimps. They are usually omitted from the recipe, i guess to attract vegetarians. But at the Temple, as at Tuk Tuk, they use dried shrimps, which lend both texture and a nutty/salty flavor to the melange.

At the Temple, one orders the sum tam and then witnesses the preparation of the dish. The raw cut vegetables are scooped into a big wooden bowl. The vegetables are pounded with garlic, chiles, shrimps, and fish sauce and probably some other secret tasty things, and then served up fresh.

It was delicious and plentiful, and such a wonderful surprise.

The beef noodle soup was assembled to order with fresh-cooked rice noodles (you can choose from three widths) and a variety of meat pieces - well-done beef, meatballs, tripe, and some other things I didn't recognize - in a sweet, tangy broth. To my palate it tasted like a Thai-spiced version of pho. The broth and the noodles were delicious; neither Holly nor I were in much of a mind for meat exploration, so we left the various cow parts in the bowl. (We kinda overdid the lamb kebabs last night.)

The spring rolls were fresh and crisp with chewy noodle wrap. Holly said they tasted like summer. A lovely palate brightener after two powerfully flavorful dishes. Next time we want to try some of the curries and desserts, as well as what looked like a big heap of batter-fried fruits and vegetables.

Overall it was a pleasant and yummy experience. This would be a good place to take family or groups since there are lots of places to sit and so many things to try. All kinds of people were there, and there was a young gamelan-like orchestra warming up for some sort of concert or class. It was a beautiful sunny morning and I felt lucky to be an Eastbaynian.

Thai Buddhist Temple Mongkolratanaram
1911 Russell, Berkeley

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  1. Nice report .... thanks for the detailed descriptions. I'm looking forward to a visit there myself.

    1. Thanks so much for the brilliant review!

      I have been attending thai language class at the Temple for some time now, and manage to feed myself silly before the three hour class begins.

      A tip: when you order the som tham, ask for "som tham bpo"... it is the isaan (Northeastern) style with salty preserved crab. You will get a big smile from the woman making the dish and a great taste treat. By all means, have it with sticky rice (kao nee-o).

      When you are handed it say "sepp illi" -- Lao for aroydee (very delicious).


      6 Replies
      1. re: RichardAdams

        Typo! that should be "som tham bpoo"!

        1. re: RichardAdams

          richard, thank you so much for this wonderful information.

          now, how does one pronounce "bpoo"?

          buh-poo, with the "buh" cut very short, is my guess.

          1. re: patrick

            you pretty much have the right idea, Patrick....

            try not to pronounce the "p" with a puff of air...keep your tongue against the back of your lower teeth and that might help..... and it is kind of "low tone"

            ahhhhh, the asian languages!

            1. re: RichardAdams

              What other dishes are worth trying there ? Is this a weekly event ? Is there a website for this ?

              1. re: Han Lukito

                The Temple sunday brunch is indeed weekly. We've meant to go several times but every time (except last Sunday) we woke up to pouring rain. I assume they cancel in the event of rain; I'm not going, in any case, if it's pouring, as most of the event is outside.

                There is no web site that I know of.

                A trusty friend says that the steam table dishes are not that interesting, and that the fried chicken is really good. However, we still want to try some of the (steam table) curries next time. This was some of the earthiest, tastiest Thai food I've had in the Bay Area, so I want to see what they do with the standards now that I've eaten my requisite plate of som tam.

                Also, try the fried coconut desserts, they looked and smelled wonderful and next time we are going to try them too. And the tempura-looking vegetables, or whatever they were.

            2. re: patrick

              Bpoo is pronounced like the letter P in Apple (American English pronunciation). Bp represents an unaspirated P (no puff of air). Usually when transliterating Lao into English, unaspirated P's are spelled as P by itself, whereas aspirated P's are spelled as PH.

              So "Pa"/"Pah" means fish in the Lao language and the P is of course unaspirated.

              On the other hand, Phet ("spicy" in Lao) is pronounced with an aspirated P because it is followed with the letter H.

              "Saep E-Lee" (sepp illi) means really delicious in Lao.
              "Saep Lai Lai" means very, very delicious in Lao.
              "Saep Dee" in Lao is actually equivalent to the Thai "Aroy Dee", both mean "deliciously good".

        2. I was here earlier in the summer and was blown away. There is such a good selection of food for a Temple feed without a restaurant. Now that I am living in the Bay, I plan on going more frequently.

          7 Replies
          1. re: Gnnochiboy

            Most of the food is brought in from local Thai restaurants. The papaya salad's a major exception.

            You bumped a topic from 2002. Not much has changed, though.

            Wat Mongkolratanaram (Thai Buddhist Temple)
            1911 Russell St, Berkeley, CA 94703

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Would love to hear more re people's favorites.

              1. re: sundeck sue

                Click the "Places Mentioned" link and read some of the topics linked there.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Did so (clicked places mentioned link), but apart from this thread, almost no mention of particular items (only that papaya salad, fried chicken, coconut dumplings are made there, the rest from local thai restaurants). And in one of the zoning articles, someone speaking on behalf of the Thai Temple rhapsodized about the yellow curry. Would love to hear more re dishes that people love--or don't love!

                  1. re: sundeck sue

                    The yellow curry probably comes from Tuk Tuk. I'd be skeptical about raves for the steam-table food.

              2. re: Robert Lauriston

                One thing worth noting since the thread is now reanimated: it now opens at 10am, not 9, as a result of continuing difficulties with neighbors and the city. And closes at 1pm.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I remember reading that they would no longer be serving fried chicken (also in response to zoning difficulties referenced below), so I'm not sure if it is still on the menu.