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Berkeley, California, a City Tasting Tour


Berkeley, California, a City Tasting Tour

To most of the world, Berkeley is a California university town. To foodies, it's much more: international students and immigration shape the city's food scene.
24 October, 2016

To most of the world, Berkeley is a university town in California. To foodies, it’s know as the home of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. Because of the latter, it’s also where you walk around before that dinner reservation you booked exactly one month in advance. But the college town, a former centre of the 1960s and ‘70s hippie movement, has more going on than classes and Cali-fresh cuisine.

Thanks to an international student body and waves of immigration, Berkeley’s food scene is diverse. Walking up Telegraph Avenue, you can smell Ethiopian berbere wafting from open storefronts. Hong Kong and Taiwanese bubble teashops have their own apps instead of analogue buy-12-get-one-free punch cards. And the area around Chez Panisse near Shattuck Avenue and Vine Street has developed into a fine dining epicentre called the Gourmet Ghetto, complete with artisanal cheese shops and addiction-causing bakeries.

But you are in California, so there’s no better way to start the day than with juice. So head to Juice Bar Collective. Located just around the corner from Chez Panisse, this all-organic, mostly local juice bar and café opened in 1976 and has been serving orange, carrot and mixed vegetable blends ever since. Branching out from dogmatically healthy, though, it also sells mac ‘n’ cheeses, homemade fruit pies with flaky, all-butter crusts and lemon cream ice box pies.


Waft down Telegraph Avenue to Brundo, following your nose to the Ethiopian spice shop, grocery and caterer. The shop exports natural, organic and sustainable spices, seeds, lentils and grains from Modjo, Ethiopia, selling directly to stores across America from its distribution centre in Oakland. While there are a number of Ethiopian restaurants in the area, the small storefront is the best place to learn about traditional ingredients. Small cards explain the different spices and their uses, from teff for fermented, sponge-like bread called injera to awaze chilli pepper paste, Ethiopian oats, roasted barley, fava bean flour, spiced clarified butter or the all-important berbere, a hot chilli pepper spice blend usually made from fenugreek, paprika, ginger, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and a handful of other dry spices. Think of it as the garam masala of Ethiopian cuisine. You can also buy complete Ethiopian coffee roasting sets, traditional clay pots called Diste, cookbooks and Ethiopian aromatic hops stems. Or order heady begue lamb tibs and gluten free injera in advance and pick up your one-the-bone, slow-cooked lamb to eat back in the eucalyptus grove.

For fresh produce, the local standout is the Berkeley Bowl, a longstanding independent supermarket that in 1999 expanded to a 40,000 square-foot mega market on Oregon Street. Now with a second location, the stores provide Whole Foods with some healthy competition. Grab a seared ahi tuna salad or a slab of beef lasagna from the café or stick with the fresh peaches, cherries and plums trucked directly from local farms. Berkeley Bowl 2020 Oregon Street; 920 Heinz Avenue As your energy dips, you have an important choice to make: do you want to go up or come down?

Up: For sugar, caffeine and tapioca boba, Sharetea is your destination. This Taiwanese bubble tea house serves a stellar Okinawa milk tea with roasted brown sugar, freshly cooked taro milk tea, and fresh peach green tea. Choose your preferred sugar and ice levels, and always add grass jelly.

Down: To calm yourself, however, there’s MeloMelo Kava Bar. Yes, k-a-v-a, not Spanish bubbly. The café serves traditional medicinal drinks from Vanuatu (off the west coast of Fiji) in the bottom of hollowed out coconuts. The menu is short: single and double shots (it’s probably best to shoot rather than sip the bitter purist version) of ground kava root (Piper methysticum), which is related black pepper. More palatable are the versions blended with coconut water; ginger; or coconut milk, orange and cinnamon. The café also sells kava truffles, tinctures, growlers and dry kava for pressing at home. And there’s a three-for-$15 special during the noon to 6pm happy hour.

With your Chez Panisse dinner reservation approaching, make a last stop at the Cheese Board Collective. This worker-owned collective has been around since 1971. The bakery schedule is online (you’re going to want Tuesday’s Berkeley buns and Friday’s challah), and its cheeses are written on a blackboard in alphabetical order by animal. There are more than 40 sheep’s milk cheeses, about 30 blues, and seemingly more Jacks than in all of Monterey. Try everything from truffled Gouda to cave-aged gruyère to peppercorn-studded Pepato, and grab some quince paste and Marcona almonds to go with for a DIY-cheese plate.


Your last stop is an easy one. At Chez Panisse, take whatever’s on the menu, from a Green Goddess salad to incredible pasta, delicate meats, and simple, seasonal desserts. Asking for whatever’s fresh is like asking Rene Redzepi for something local. Just know that whatever it is, it’s served with a side of integrity.