Within minutes of arriving in Temescal, Oakland, I ran into two people: one I hadn’t met before but she knew my girlfriend, and the other was avoiding me since getting fired from a job I had suggested she apply for. All confirming the idea that the East Bay is a sort of Brooklyn West, and that people self-select certain neighborhoods and communities.
I had an iced coffee at Arbor Cafe, a nice spot with vertical bike racks lining one of the walls. Unfortunately, I saw a roach crawl across the counter as I reached for my drink. The cashier and I gave each other a blank stare, neither of us confirming what we had both just witnessed.
I had dinner with a new friend at her apartment just off Lake Merritt. Devika remembered that I love beans, and we had black beans, purple cabbage and potatoes cooked with garam masala and coriander, a pickled garlic spread, and yogurt on injera. She told me hilarious stories about crashing weddings in her native India.
I stayed with fun Airbnb hosts in a spacious room in North Berkeley, walking distance from the Berkeley Rose Garden, restaurants and shops, and the Berkeley campus. I’ve been to Berkeley a few times since graduating and moving away, but this was the first time I’ve had a full extra day to walk around and reminisce.
I was all set to splurge at Chez Panisse, an inspiration to my career in countless ways and the (often uncredited) force behind the farm to table movement in the US. But an electrical fire in March left it temporarily closed. And I was dismayed to learn that Cafe Fanny, another Alice Waters’ venture and home to some of the best pastries I’ve ever had, had closed last year. So, I relied instead on some fresh, affordable standbys from my college days. First, Cancun for a tasty nopales en asada burrito and their amazing salsa bar (the pumpkin seed remains my favorite). I also went to Long Life Veggie House for their incredible lunch special: tea, a cup of hot and sour soup, a spring roll, kung pao veggie ham with perfectly cooked zucchini and brown rice for $5 before tip. This is a family owned restaurant where you’d often see a table of women seated snapping green beans and chatting. This time, a waiter’s toddler son was running around with a huge grin and a pinwheel.
I sampled cheeses, strawberries, oranges, dried nectarines, radishes, and purple asparagus at the Berkeley Farmers Market. If I wasn’t flying out that evening, I would have purchased some of the delicious and crisp Bavarian lettuce. I had a refreshing Blue Bottle New Orleans style iced coffee and bought some fresh corn tortillas that were made that morning– hard to find in New York.
Then I wandered through the campus, through the grove of eucalyptus and redwood trees along Strawberry Creek, and basked in happy memories. Go Bears!
Before heading out, I stopped by another Berkeley institution, the Cheese Board, a worker-owned cooperative pizzeria, cheese shop, and bakery. I had a nice chat with the woman who helped me, and she recommended local cheeses that I might not be able to find in NYC: the potent Point Reyes blue, St. George (modeled after a Portuguese style), and Cowabunga from Bohemian Creamery, with caramelized cheese in the middle.
There are plenty of other places I’d visit if I had more time, but I’m glad to know that the East Bay still makes my heart sing.