Picante in Berkeley--who cares?
I went to a Christmas party where they served butternut squash tamales which seemed pretty good, so I finally went to Picante after living in the neighborhood for 2 years.
What a huge disappointment. We had the ceviche which was too sweet and was filled with a thick tomato sauce and was unlike anything you'd expect to be served in a real Mexican restaurant let alone Mexico.
And the pork tamales were pretty dull and filled with a minuscule quantity of pork much less than the quantity of pork you'd find in the cheap 12 for $10 kind you get in Oakland, and not nearly so tasty as those.
And we had the enchiladas en mole. which was white flavorless chicken breast folded into a raw tortilla and liberally drowned in a too sweet and cinnamony mole.
The beans and the salsas were pretty good.
And just as everybody says, It's cheap and you CAN take the kids there.
For myself, I'm going to try every joint in Fruitvale before I go back for that stuff.
I have to agree. I'd heard great things about it, so I tried it a few times. Never had an outstanding meal, and I don't even remember having one that I'd categorize as "Yeah, it was decent." Couldn't even tell you what I had there -- it was that unmemorable. No reason to go back.
I don't go there very often, but if I do, I only order the butternut squash tamales or the tostada salad. I received a $10 coupon from them in the mail a few months ago and I'm trying to make myself use it before it expires.
I've been going there for years and years, as it's something of a favorite with the office gang, but I definitely lean more towards your sentiments, albeit not quite as harshly.
That said, I almost always get the manchamanteles tostada, and always enjoy it; occasionally I get the skirt steak carne asada. Jamaica agua fresca is always solid.
In the past I have enjoyed the Sopa Azteca. (I did try many things before settling on manchamanteles). Most everything else I've tried, including the chips, salsa and guacamole are too bland and Anglicized (not that there's anything wrong with that, inherently) for me to really enjoy, but when I want Mexican for myself, I crave the strong flavors you get off some taco trucks and in the Fruitvale.
What you say is pretty much it. Convenient, good for kids, bland but I don't think it's that cheap. Picante uses quality ingredients but it lacks soul or depth. Dona Tomas suffers from the same fate - quality ingredients, care in prep...but it's lacking in something.
Best of: Chicken burrito with extra rajas and cream - plenty of hot salsa.
Low tacquerias and taco trucks aren't sourcing their pork as carefully. Bean cookery is good here. Can be solid. Sometimes temps are off. Crawling with kiddies.
Tacubaya - gets a lot of flack on this board - has some outstanding guacamole and is always subtle and delicious. Their portion/price is related to the high rent, but what the hey?
I actually have several favorites at Picante.
Their chicken mole burrito is really good. The sweetness comes from pineapple. My wife and I like to order a side of those delicious, but narrow chips and dip some of the goodness out.
They have perhaps the best pinto beans I've had. I think it's because of the lard. A sad trend in Berkeley is to make all the beans vegetarian, but they really are better with the lard.
But if you're vegetarian, they have a good take on the veggie burrito, Picadillo de Legumbre. I always prefer roasted veggies in the burrito instead just plain bean and cheese if I'm going the meatless route. Theirs are always quite tasty, though one time when we visited right before close (like 9:45, they close at 10) they were a bit mushy.
I've also always been impressed with their non-alcoholic drinks. Iced tea is (I think) hibiscus or some other fruit-laced blend that's refreshing. I've also enjoyed all the agua frescas I've had there, though they sometimes run out of a flavor or two during busy times.
They make their own corn tortillas fresh and I've never had a raw one.
One of the plusses to going during warmer days is the outside patio to the side with the fence and fountain. When I've stressed out, there's nothing like digging into a place of rice and beans while the fountain is going.
I have only two complaints about Picante:
1. It can often get very crowded during dinner time, with lines out the door. It's best to visit for lunch or a very late dinner.
2. While you can tell that they source quality ingredients, it does make them a bit more expensive than say Gordos.
My wife have been there many times (in fact, they were quite accommodating when we asked to have our rehearsal dinner there, making sure that we had a good menu and allowing us to take over the side patio for a couple hours). We intend to visit many more.
I eat at Picante because they use Niman Ranch meats and serve good draft beer. The flavors may not be "authentic," but the food is consistent and when forced to choose I prefer ethical meat to authentic flavors. The chicken flautas, rajas, and carne asada are perfectly decent. There are definitely some duds on the menu, and I stay away from the pork and the mole. Overall, it is a good value relative to other places that use naturally raised meats. That said, if you don't value naturally raised meats and you don't have kids there's really no reason to eat there.
re: Morton the Mousse
Characterizing people as not valuing ethically raised meats is a pretty harsh judgment, especially from someone who has just proclaimed how important it is to him. I value them -- almost all the meat I buy to cook and eat at home is ethically raised -- but I also value other things, like supporting small immigrant-run businesses, eating locally (many ethnic restaurants, especially Asian restaurants, use meat that's raised by local producers, even if they don't have the Alice Waters seal of approval), and above all, flavor.
I can't eat a label -- if it doesn't perform on the plate, then it's not worth the money or the calories. To me, places like Picante are a triumph of political correctness. Morton, I know you're a good guy and this doesn't really apply to your circumstances, but to me, Picante is an extension of Fourth Street: a place for Berkeley yuppies to pat themselves on the back for how cool and politically conscious they are without having to sacrifice any of their materialistic, over-consumptive lifestyle.
re: Morton the Mousse
It always makes me smile that your first post on the board, AFAIK, was Nellie's Soul Food which is almost the anti-Morton type of joint. So I guess taste can triumph sometimes..
Anyway the new Taco Grill in Oakland is serving organic corn tortillas and Niman Ranch meats. I don't know if you caught that post ...authentic, yet ethically raised pig snouts :-0
From what I'm reading it doesn't seem dumbed down as most of the nuevo Mex-Cal joints like Donna Tomas and group. I'd be interested to see what you think if you try it ...and the ice cream guy in the same area ... but the ice cream is just plain old milk...however hand-churned for an hour ... like REALLY hand-churned ... just a wooden bucket and a paddle. The reason I mention that too is that I think flavor-wise it compares favorably to Sketch ...and I'm not being facecious here. It has that same delicate taste and a lot of love is put in it. $1 a scoop ... so despite labor, that wouldn't cover organics.
I think you can eat well at Picante if you know what to order, but that has changed over the years, and if you guess wrong you can have a pretty bad meal. Good margaritas. The chorizo and potato tacos used to be a safe bet but I haven't had them in a while.
re: Robert Lauriston
So what I read from this is: order the butternut squash tamales, tostada salad, manchamanteles tostada, skirt steak carne asada, jamaica agua fresca, sopas Azteca, chicken burrito with extra rajas and cream and plenty of hot salsa because it is flavored with children in mind, and the the chicken mole burrito is good , but not the chicken mole enchiladas. And avoid anything pork, or with mole, and if I am an ethical vegetarian who likes beans and drinks lots of beer and margaritas I might enjoy breakfast. Thanks hounds-- I think I'll go to Fruitvale.
re: Robert Lauriston
The chorizo and potato tacos are still the same and pretty much the same as always and my usual order. Greasy, crunchy goodness. Although for some reason I seldom go to Picante, despite living only half a mile away, I don't recall ever having a bad meal there. I know what I like and I order it. I also like the fresh tortillas and the green sauce. I've also had the tostada which was pretty good.
Yes, Picante is bland and the food seems to change over time (been eating there for years), but mostly it's filling, reliable, and somehow comforting. But, now with a kid it's great!
I like the soup, the steak burrito with rajas and guacamole, and the manchamanteles. The caesar salad was really good last time too.
I just returned from Mexico (Puerto Vallarta and San Sebastian) and I'm always disappointed that it's so hard to find good, solid, traditional Mexican fare in the Bay area. They do the basics so well: good corn tortillas, very good beans and very, very good rice, great grilled steaks, great salsa, and simple guacamole without all of the fluff.
I grew up in Texas and miss the Tex-Mex!!! California, though also a border state, does not have its own unique version of Mexican food nor does it seem to do the authentic stuff well. I know there are places out there (Fruitvale, La Bamba in Richmond, etc), but I want them in Berkeley ; )