Trip report -- old favourites (goodbye to some)
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
Possibly the problem with the Cactus on Solano is that it's near a movie theater that often shows kiddie movies. Also, it's smaller than Picante, so the annoying kids are more in your face (or lap). In any case, it's horrible. It bothers me not just that parents let their kids go wild, but that the kids don't learn that a restaurant experience isn't supposed to be like that. Barney's on Solano is similarly chaotic.
I've enjoyed your posts, by the way.
I agree that the more disturbing part of it is seeing kids get the wrong impression about what it means to be in a restaurant. It's become the sort of place I wouldn't have taken my kids to at an impressionable age -- though I did take my kids to Cactus and Picante from day one, so perhaps it has gotten worse. And I think I could forgive all this if the food merited it, but I don't think it does any more. --PR
I really enjoy your trip reports. I've gone back through the archives and read
about a few of your earlier visits. Thanks!
So, have you tried the taco trucks? I've pretty much given up on Berkeley taquerias
lately. Occasionally the one that's not Gordo right next to Gordo on College in the
Elmwood, but only rarely. Cactus, bleh. Tacubaya, expensive bleh. Now twice a
week it's south to International.
The place on International and 22nd is a totally family oriented spot. Two trucks -- one that's
all pork and beef, one that's mostly fish and shrimp -- a parking lot, a roof over a bunch
of picnic tables, and a bathroom. There's also a restaurant attached but I don't know anything
about it and reports are sketchy.
The tostada de ceviche from the fish-ish truck is great, as is a torta de carnitas
from the other.
re: Chuckles the Clone
We hit El Ojo de Agua and La Torta Loca in 2004, but haven't been back, despite very fond memories. We did manage to make it to some of the Salinas taco trucks on this trip, with Melanie Wong's help (report posted to the California board). Thanks for the tip on the facilities at International and 22nd. --PR
re: Prabhakar Ragde
re: Chuckles the Clone
re: Robert Lauriston
Yeah, International is, well, pretty international.
But Sinaloa is as nice as it gets. There's a high school across the
street so the area gets a bit more attention from OPD. And the place
apparently is a repurposed old A&W drive-in, so there's more than
just a dusty parking lot.
There are always a bunch of families eating there -- the civilized kind,
not whatever is happening at Cactus -- which seems to be one of PR's
criteria. Some trucks are good that way; some trucks, like the one
behind the check-cashing place at High and Int with the notorious
"ledge", could not be recommended.
re: Chuckles the Clone
Where's the high school across the street from Sinaloa? The other three corners are a used car lot, a furniture store and a place that has something to do with some kind of medical or emergency services. There is an elementary school a couple of blocks away.
I think "as nice as it gets" is stretching it a bit. Nothing against Sinaloa, but let's not oversell the locale.
re: Ruth Lafler
re: Chuckles the Clone
Alameda *County* (us City of Alameda residents get picky about that!). That's apparently a new program since 2001 -- new to us who have been driving by the corner for over 40 years (I remember well when it was still an A&W) -- in that "some kind of medical or emergency services" building.
I dunno ... I'm partial to the murals on the building at El Ojo de Agua, but they don't have much seating, it's true.
re: Ruth Lafler
My kids were cool with the homeless people and general urban feel of the area near La Torta Loca; plastic chairs and a place to pee are about all they'd ask for. I think the only thing that spooked them in recent memory was waiting in the car with me on Eddy St. while my wife went around the corner to Saigon Sandwiches. Neither Fruitvale nor the Tenderloin featured spoiled acting-out kids. --PR