UC Berkeley: Changing the way I think about Cafeteria Food

When I reflect back on the lunch I had on Friday, I realize how much has changed since my college cafeteria days. I intentionally made a point to visit UC Berkeley’s student union dining room for What’s Poppin’, A Pop-Up Dining Adventure. For the month of March, three female and minority chefs from San Francisco’s incubator kitchen, La Cocina each have a space to showcase cuisine from their diverse backgrounds. I went to campus with some friends and tried food from each spot.
Chef Binita Pradhan runs Bini’s Kitchen specializing in food from Nepal. Fans seek out her fresh made momos or dumplings. We sampled the vegetarian combo which included kwati, jeera rice pulao, and momos. Kwati is a traditional Nepalese soup mixed with nine different beans. It was thick like a stew and very comforting. The jeera rice pulao is a cumin flavored basmati rice that was cooked perfectly. My favorite part of the combination meal were the plump, fresh, and juicy momos topped with a spicy tomato cilantro sauce. Check out the Bini’s Kitchen website for more ways to access those momos.
Mixiote is a style of Mexican cooking where meats and vegetables are traditionally marinated, wrapped, and slow cooked. It’s also the name of Chef Alma Rodriguez’s business. I was lucky to have attended a wedding last year where she and her team catered some delicious food. To see her have a spot in the dining room was a happy sight. Their pop up menu allows for a choice of pork, chicken, or veggies served on hand made tortillas or rice bowls. We had the pork tacos which were topped with a roasted pumpkin seed sauce. These were hearty, tender, and very flavorful. Our luck was upon us because they specially made taquitos that day. These fried tacos were stuffed with potatoes and were delicious. Stay tuned and follow @MixioteSF on Instagram because word on the street is she’s raising funds for her first brick and mortar.
I have been following Chef Aileen Suzara’s journey for awhile, since she was a Public Health student at UC Berkeley. Sariwa means fresh in Tagalog and Chef Suzara’s mission is to bring healthy Filipino food to the forefront. 

We tried a variety of food at Sariwa including the amazing homemade vegetarian lumpias filled with sweet potato and vegetables. The lunch bowls allow for a choice of mains including chicken adobo and coconut tofu and pumpkin and choice of vegetable side dishes. I was bummed the coconut tofu and pumpkin entree was sold out as it is the menu item that characterizes Sariwa most. At the same time, it’s proving that Chef Suzara is making a difference in the way people perceive Filipino food and it’s all coming full circle. Read more about her story in a recent interview by Bon Appetit.
This month’s What’s Poppin’ is not only a great opportunity for rising female and minority chefs, but it’s a great way for students to explore new, diverse, and healthy cuisines. These three pop-ups are serving lunch M-F. Contact the MLK Jr Student Union for more information and their hours. Address: 2495 Bancroft Way Berkeley, CA. Phone: 510-664-7976.  


Hike, Lunch, Hike, Ice Cream: My Kind of Day

One of my favorite things to do is hike and I feel fortunate to live where I do and have access to the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD). EBRPD operates 65 parks that cover more than 120K acres and includes over 1,250 miles of trails that run through Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.  

courtesy of EBRPD

On Saturday, my friend and I hiked a portion of the 7.65 mile one way Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail. Starting from Moraga Commons, a local park, we hiked northeast toward Downtown Lafayette which was about 5.5 miles. It was a warm and beautiful day and we were ready to have lunch. With lots of restaurants with outdoor seating in Lafayette, we agreed on Chow.  

My vegetable platter was a beautiful vibrant hodgepodge of a plate. It came with sautéed mushrooms, grilled zucchini and tomato, corn salad, avocado, tomato purée, and tzatziki sauce. I made it even more of a hodgepodge by substituting polenta for mashed potatoes. I consumed all of this delicious summer plate, except for most of the mashed potatoes. I didn’t want to consume so many Weight Watcher points. It was my bad to have made the substitution.  

After lunch we had to return to the trail and hike back the 5.5 miles to return to the car. I am not intending to make this sound like it is a difficult hike at all. It is completely flat, but long. The only reason to call it a hike is because it’s on a trail. It is more like a walk. I did it in tennis shoes. Actually, this is a better trail for biking or running.  

So after our eleven mile walk on the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail in the heat, we needed to get a snack to cool us off.

Thanks to Yelp, I discovered Guanatos Ice Cream in Walnut Creek. This family owned business makes fresh ice cream and other treats with a Latin flare. They have traditional ice cream flavors, but I was more excited about the unique flavors like rose petals, Mexican hot chocolate, and chongos zamoranos. I got a scoop of tequila ice cream on a waffle cone. It was super creamy and had a light hint of tequila flavor. Mentally, I was thinking I was enjoying tequila. It was a novel idea.

My friend ordered a scoop of horchata in a cup. The ingredients of rice, cinnamon, and milk make for a good flavored ice cream.

Guanatos was an awesome find and I look forward to trying the other flavors that they offer. They have shops in Bay Point, Concord, and Oakley as well.  

Aztecali: My Latest Addiction

It was Chef Dominica Rice of Cosecha posting a picture of three tacos on Instagram that brought me to Aztecali, a new Mexican restaurant in Oakland. If it’s good enough for Chez Panisse trained Chef Dominica, it’s definitely good enough for me. The owners Juana and Claudia opened up this small neighborhood establishment close to Adam’s Point in January.  

My first visit there was technically a pre-visit. I had already made a plan to go the next day, but was checking out the location on my way home from work. Driving up north on Oakland Avenue from Lake Merritt is a usual route I take and I never noticed a business on the left, let alone a restaurant. With a parking spot in front, I pulled over and walked into Aztecali.  

Claudia greeted me and went through their menu printed on brown paper on the wall. It was too early for dinner, but I could use a late afternoon snack. I ordered the chicken tinga tostada and ate it there. It was love at first bite. The sweet, bold aromatics of the chicken tinga braised in a chipotle sauce was a match to the creamy black beans, the fresh cabbage, and the crispy delicious tortilla that held it all together.   

 I had let Claudia and Juana know that I would be back the next day when they opened at 10:30am. Chef Juana asked me if I liked eggs. I answered yes. She asked me if I liked chilaquiles. I answered that I loved chilaquiles. Chef Juana said if I came back tomorrow, she would make me some.

As promised I returned for a late breakfast the next morning with a friend. We hadn’t had our coffee yet, so we ordered the iced High Wire coffee with horchata. It was a refreshing beverage and a nice treat.  

The chilaquiles that were specially being made for me were cooked in a lovely green sauce and came with a side of black beans, avocado, crema, and topped with a runny egg. Using both my fingers and my fork, I thoroughly enjoyed each and every crisp and delicious chip on the plate. 

My friend ordered the three tacos so she could try each of the three meats – beef, chicken, and pork. She especially enjoyed the barbacoa, beef marinated and braised in an adobo sauce, so much that she ordered a beef burrito “togo” for her lunch she would eat later in the day. 
 About a week later, I convinced another friend to split a barbacoa torta with me. She actually is from Mexico City and was excited to see this style of cooking at Aztecali. Using Acme bread as the vessel to the juicy and flavorful filling of the beef with refried black beans, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, and crema was perfect. 
 The fresh ingredients and homestyle cooking at Aztecali has gotten me hooked. Three visits within a week is evidence enough.  

Celebrating La Borinquena Mex-icatessen

When I first heard that La Borinquena Mex-icatessen was closing after 71 years of business in Oakland, I felt a kind of sadness. La Borinquena is a Mexican restaurant with a cafeteria style setting. Tucked in the back of the restaurant, they have a little shop selling supplies such as spices and tortillas. In general, it’s usually not good news when a business has to close down in Oakland. I view it as a retirement and became happy and excited for them. Four generations of a family have operated the business for seven decades and have earned this awesome status. I call it success.  Friday, July 31, 2015 was their final day of operation. I went over for lunch the day before with a couple of colleagues to be one of the last patrons to enjoy the food of La Borinquena. There may have been about 25 customers ahead of us. I observed a family leaving with two huge buckets of masa. Others were leaving with bags of goodies. The party ahead of us have been regulars at La Borinquena all their lives. There was definitely a sense of history and celebration as I awaited.
 After about a thirty minute wait and changing my order in my head a few times, I made a last minute decision to order what one of the people ahead of me ordered. I got the carnitas plate which came with rice, beans, and tortillas. I enjoyed it very much. It probably tasted exactly like it tasted 71 years ago. There is something to be said about good tasting, classic food with no frills.

A friend of mine who grew up in Oakland and now living in the South Bay was sad about this closure. She requested some tamales from La Borinquena, so I ended up with half a dozen tamales to go.  
I froze my tamale. In the weeks to come when I crave a “Tina Tamale”, I can pull mine out and celebrate again. Congratulations La Borinquena Mex-icatessen on your retirement! 

Yee-Haw, Good Food in Texas!

I just got back from a work trip to Grapevine, Texas which is close to Dallas. My last trip there was about seven years ago and I didn’t have any meals worth mentioning. However, this time around there was surprisingly a lot to highlight.

There is a small historical district in Grapevine that runs on North Main Street. This street is cute with lots of restaurants and shops. If you go South about a mile past the railroad track on South Main Street, you will find two really good restaurants.
I went to Mi Dia From Scratch for dinner twice because it was that good. The menu is pretty broad serving regional Mexican cuisine, Santa Fe inspired dishes, and Tex-Mex. After eating a ton of addictive chips and salsa, my colleagues and I shared the queso fundido, which is melted cheese topped with chorizo & roasted poblano and baked in a cast iron pan. This delicious cheese is eaten with fresh tortillas. I was in love at first bite.
I chose duck two ways as my entree. The first serving of duck was a breast cooked with a guajillo chili. It came with thinly fried chayote, whipped potatoes, and a pineapple mole. The second serving of duck was a duck carnitas sope. The two preparations of duck were very different which made me feel like I was having not one, but two dishes. The duck breast was cooked to a beautiful medium rare and offered a tender and slightly fruity flavor. The sope topped with the duck carnitas was full of deep smokey flavors. I enjoyed my dish.
When we came back to Mi Dia two evenings later, I ordered another game bird. The codorniz, grilled quail was served with guajillo rice & charro beans. The butterflied quails were perfectly cooked with crispy skin and tender meat. This dish exceeded my expectations.
Right next door to Mi Dia is The Winewood Grill which is where we also dined. I felt the need to order barbecue so I got the BBQ pork ribs. The ribs were smothered with a sweet BBQ sauce so I was glad it came with crispy French fries to balance out the sweetness.
I had a taste of my colleagues Bourbon glazed pork chop. It was really nice and the potatoes au gratin that it came with were super yummy.
On my last evening, some of us decided to drive out to Dallas for BBQ. Off the Bone is a small BBQ joint in a somewhat industrial part of Dallas. After a forty-five minute drive to get there, I was both hungry and excited. The dining area was reserved for a private party, so we were going to have to eat in the car.

After reviewing the menu, I decided to get two meats and two sides. I picked the smoked pecan baby back ribs and the sliced beef brisket. I chose honey spiced baked beans and southern potato salad as my sides. The sides were good, but the meats are really something to talk about. I picked up a rib first. They were tender and easily fell “off the bone.” The BBQ flavor was so wonderful you really didn’t have to use the sauce. Off the Bones’s sauce is tangy and delightful so I alternated between using the sauce and not. I was very happy after eating my first rib. It was time to move on to the beef brisket. This melt in your mouth brisket was simply amazing. Best brisket ever! I am salivating just thinking about it.
Surprisingly, there is some good food to be found in Grapevine/Dallas!

Come All to Comal

A comal defined by Wikipedia is a smooth, flat griddle typically used in Mexico and Central America to cook tortillas, toast spices, sear meat, and generally prepare food. Comal is also the name of a Mexican restaurant located in downtown Berkeley. I met some friends at Comal for dinner last week. The space is beautiful with two dining areas that lead to a third space for drinks.

We started with some house margaritas while we perused the menu. There were four of us and although we had a few different things in mind, we easily agreed to share a bunch of items. The appetizers and sides were much more appealing to us which is great for sharing.

If I see chicharrones on the menu, I gotta have them. I just love the lightness and crispiness of pork rinds. These house-made ones met my expectations as I added hot sauce and salsa to them. And yes, I did share.
The “chips” we ordered came guacamole and three different salsas and they all had great flavor. The freshly made tortilla chips were also crisp and light and disappeared pretty quickly.
Originally I thought it was a mistake to order the chips and salsa when we also ordered the sikil pak because it also came with chips and salsa. This was my first time having sikil pak which is a dip made of toasted pumpkin seeds, grilled eggplant, and habanero. I enjoyed this especially with more delicious chips. It didn’t seem to be a mistake after all, since we ate up all the chips. Let’s just say one order of chips feeds no more than two.
We ordered a salad made of bitter greens, persimmons, pomegranates, spiced pepitas, and Manchego cheese. Welcome Fall! I’m always thinking of what could go into a Fall salad so now I have some ideas.
We got an order of beef & pork albóndigas en adobo. This was pretty amazing with the tenderness of the meatball and the smokiness of the adobo sauce. The meatballs come with fresh hand made tortillas made on-site. Reminds me of Old Town San Diego. This was my favorite plate.
The enchiladas of the day were duck. The plate comes with two enchiladas so we had two orders. We also got a side of black beans de olla. I enjoyed these as well and they were perfect for sharing.
Another side we ordered were the Brussels sprouts and autumn squash with pequin chiles and pepitas. This side was good, but my least favorite item. The flavors just couldn’t match up to everything else.
Comal also does family style plates of meats and vegetables cooked in their wood fired oven and comes with traditional sides of beans, rice, and tortillas. We didn’t try it this time, but I am pretty sure I would enjoy it.

We shared two desserts. The first was arroz con leche or rice pudding with plums and toasted pistachios. I really liked it especially with the additional texture that the pistachios added.
Our second dessert was flan with raspberries. It was really creamy and tasted more like a creme brûlée. Still delicious, but if you are looking for more density and caramelization in a traditional flan, that wasn’t there.
Overall, Comal was a great dining experience. Living in California especially the Bay Area, I feel fortunate to have access to such amazing Mexican cuisine.

Nido: Adding Color and Flavor to Jack London Square

I love Mexican food. I love sustainable food. There aren’t too many restaurants that do both. My favorites for both have been Tamarindo and Cosecha in Oakland and Nopalito in San Francisco. I now have another to add to the list. Nido opened the latter part of 2012 in Jack London Square.

Nido in Spanish means nest. With a cute logo and a neon painted building, I have been anxious to try this newcomer. A group of four of us had dinner there on Friday. We started with some $5 margaritas before sharing a couple of appetizers.

The chicken taquitos were a perfect starter. The meat filling fried in the rolled tortillas were tasty, but was extra tasty thanks to all the goodies that topped it.

The salad we shared included many fresh vegetables including butter lettuce, blood oranges, avocado, cucumber, and jicama. The salad was tossed with a light vinaigrette and pepitos.

One of my friends ordered the ollita de pobre. A cute tin pot arrived filled with rice, beans, salsa, avocado, and braised beef. It came with house made tortillas. Although it may have ranked least favorite of the evening, it was still very good.

Two of my friends ordered the special of the evening which was al pastor (marinated pork). This is one of my favorite meats, so I was looking forward to a taste. I have never had it cooked on a skewer. It seems like everyone knew how tasty this dish would be because this special sold out before 7pm. Nido hit it out of the ballpark with the al pastor. I would definitely look out for this item again. One reason I “liked” Nido on Facebook is so that I can keep track of this special as it is not on their permanent menu.

Based on a recommendation, I ordered the pork chop. It lay on a toasted almond & chile mole and diced squash. I have never ordered a pork chop at a Mexican restaurant, but trusted the referral. The grilled chop had perfect sear marks and was delicious. It’s nice to be able to count on a place to serve a great pork chop.

Dessert was going to be pie. Sharing the space at Nido is a business called the Pietisserie. I love the name.

With only beet pie and spiced apple pie left, we decided to try a slice of each. The beet pie was interesting and tasted a little like pumpkin pie. The apple had a nice flavor and crumble. It was a bit of a disappointment after such an amazing meal. I would have probably enjoyed them a lot more if it came with a scoop of ice cream. They sold out of many of their other pies so it may be worth another try.

Nido is definitely adding a lot of color and flavor to Jack London Square.