Ethnic eats in Berkeley from A to Z: Part 1

Read on to to find out where to eat Bibimbap in Berkeley

Berkeley is an ethnically diverse town. Anyone whose child attends public school here doesn’t need census tract data to know this for a fact. That cultural diversity is also reflected in the range of restaurant choices here. Global grub — from gourmet to grab ‘n’ go — can readily be found in many of our neighborhoods.

But who doesn’t reflexively head to their local curry shop or Thai takeout without giving a moment’s thought to the international offerings all over town?

What follows is the first in an A to Z guide to the many ethnic restaurants in Berkeley, with favorite dish recommendations and tidbits gleaned from local food critics, Berkeleyside interviews, and the restaurant guide by new Berkeleyside partners Lucille and Art Poskanzer.

It’s by no means an exhaustive list. Feel free to add your own global picks in the comments section that follows. Or weigh in with what world cuisine is missing in the mix. Bon Appetit.

A is for: Ajanta, the white tablecloth Indian restaurant on Solano Avenue favored by Alice Waters and other Berkeleyside subjects, which is lauded for freshness, organic produce, free-range meats, sustainable seafood, and a seasonal menu. Ajanta earned best Bay Area Indian restaurant from the Zagat guide the past three years. Of note: Tandoori Chicken Chaat, Vegetable Kofta, and Kerala Lamb Masala. Read a review on Tablehopper.

Alborz, the only Persian place in town, according to the guide Restaurants in the Berkeley Area, is close to campus and best for lunch, writes Poskanzer, who notes the quality has slipped recently. Yelpers give a shout out to portion size, Koobideh (ground beef kabob), and Gormeh Sabzi (aromatic greens, beans, and meat stew).

Crèpes from Anh Hong earn high marks from Anna Mindess. Photo: Anna Mindess

Anchalee Thai, on Dwight Way in west Berkeley, serves standard Thai fare in an inviting setting. Regulars give the thumbs-up to curries, fish specials, and organic vegetarian offerings, though some, like this Chronicle reviewer, find dishes a tad too sweet. Excellent service and a warm vibe makes this a popular neighborhood spot.

Anh Hong, on University Avenue: this Vietnamese restaurant gets high marks from Anna Mindess of East Bay Ethnic Eats, who calls it a good choice for groups, with its round tables and dishes made for sharing. Her picks: The crèpes and DIY rice paper wraps, in particular BBQ chicken or beef in piper leaf. Other signature dish: Bo 7 mon or beef done seven ways.

Athineon, a Greek gyros joint on University Avenue, serves cuisine classics including spanakopita, avgolemono, and tzatziki, along with fries flavored with feta and oregano. An East Bay Express writer gives the family-run, no-frills place points for authenticity.

The Brazil Café on University Avenue, a shack really, is hard to miss

B is for: Bangkok Jam (in the former Boran Thai space) on Solano Avenue, which has its fans and critics, as does Bangkok Thai on University Avenue.

Be Bop: The Korean eatery in the Elmwood gets the nod from a Korean-American writer for KQED for sheer variety (17 versions of the comfort food known as Bibimbap) and other sinus-clearing cuisine specialties, such as spicy, sizzling soup.

Brasa, the just-opened, Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken joint, is the brainchild of the couple behind the recently shuttered eVe, and occupies the same spot on University. Grubstreet shares the menu here, which includes shrimp, as well as salchipapas, or pan-fried sausages with sweet potato fries and sauce.

Brazil Café: A colorful fixture at the top end of University, the sandwich and salad shack’s signature taste is its tri tip steak and mango smoothie with fresh fruit. Owner Pedro Robin blares Brazilian beats and there’s a street eats feel at this place which long precedes the food truck scene. Find a mobile trailer parked on Telegraph and Bancroft too.

Breads of India: Here’s a surprise, this Sacramento Street restaurant features naan, stuffed paratha, and roti basan (a chickpea pancake), along with curry options to please the palates of omnivores and vegans.

A signature chicken dish from Corso

C is for: Cactus, a family-friendly taqueria serving up familiar Mexican food — and fast — on Solano.

Cafe Tibet on University Avenue, serves souped-up versions of traditional dishes, says the East Bay Express, like momos with mushrooms and mascarpone. The Express also notes that in a town where it seems as if every third car has a “Save Tibet” bumper sticker, this is the only restaurant spotlighting that troubled culture’s cuisine (among other admirable acts).

Cancun the casual Mexican café favored by the campus and downtown set. Think generous, inexpensive eats, with a nod to organic offerings from the restaurant owner’s farm. Fish burritos get the thumbs up from Poskanzer, as does the serve yourself salsa bar which caters to all levels of spiciness.

Cha-Ya: Vegans do a happy dance when they discover the Japanese and Zen-inspired fare — sushi, soups, salads, and noodles — at this Gourmet Ghetto restaurant. The filling and flavorful veg-only food won’t leave meat eaters wanting either, according to a Chronicle review.

Cha-Am: Small Thai restaurant in the heart of North Berkeley that features a separate dining room for large parties. Gets a best Thai in Berkeley shout-out from the blog The Berkeley Diet. Though others beg to differ in the blogosphere, it gets points for loads of veggie options.

Corso Tratttoria: Rustic Tuscan fare on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley. Makes Michael Bauer’s Top 100 Restaurant List for its tagliatelle with a robust ragu, Florentine steak, and chicken breast in bubbling brown butter. Earns praise from Molly Katzen and other Berkeley Bites subjects for its simple, accessible, and satisfying dishes.

C U: Well-priced sushi and sushi rolls spot favored by the student crowd on Center Street. Offers salads, bowls, and other hot food items but Poskanzer’s tip: stick to the sushi.

D is for: Da Lian: Chinese food on Shattuck in North Berkeley features a big menu and large servings, says Poskanzer. Worth a visit for its Northern Chinese specialties like cabbage and lamb, adds the East Bay Express, a sentiment seconded by others.

Divino: Just opened this week Italian restaurant with a Ligurian focus in the space that formerly housed Fellini. Find their dinner menu on Facebook. Who’s tried it?

E is for: Everest Café, a Nepalese-inspired restaurant on Solano. The East Bay Express gives high grades to the restaurant’s Himalayan specialties like momo (dumplings) and goat curry, as does Poskanzer, who calls it delicately spiced and modestly priced.

F is for: FinFine, a rare find in Berkeley (unlike Oakland) an Ethiopian restaurant on Telegraph Avenue, which gets the nod from one Berkeley Bites subject for its organic offerings.

Fondue Fred has served up that signature Swiss dish on Telegraph Avenue since 1958. When Kim Severson still wrote for the Chronicle she cautioned that this kitschy space isn’t for food snobs, cheese aficionados, or those who like to eat in stylish surroundings.

Simple breakfast fare a staple at Gaumenkitzel. Photo: Anna Mindess

G is for: Gaumenkitzel, a recent addition to the international restaurant row on San Pablo Avenue in west Berkeley. The bright, airy space serves traditional Northern German fare (less meat-and-potatoes than the south), according to an Anna Mindess review on Berkeleyside.

Gecko Gecko: A Thai-California, family-run restaurant with a modern vibe near Berkeley Rep, features cross-over flavors such as feta with Pad Thai. Hearty portions, moderate prices, and mildly spiced flavors, says Poskanzer, who calls it a welcome addition to downtown.

Genki, located next to a modest motel on San Pablo Avenue at Cedar, this Japanese restaurant and sushi bar is popular, notes Poskanzer, for its large selection of sushi, generous servings, and moderate prices.

Great China, is a small Chinese restaurant on Kittredge Street downtown, temporarily shut due to a fire. Popular among students and restauranteurs, the Peking Duck, banquet offerings, and specials are singled out.

Gordo, this local taqueria chain, with a store on College and on Telegraph too, has its devotees — including plenty of Cal kids — who swing by for burritos and tacos.

H is for: Holy Lands, which serves up falafel, shewarma, and other Middle Eastern favorites in a casual café setting in the Elmwood.

House of Curries, a local chain with two Berkeley locations (College and Durant), qualifies as a cheap and cheerful place to pick up or take out well-known Indian and Pakistani dishes like Chicken Tikka Masala, Saag Paneer, and Rogan Josh, a lamb stew. House of Curries has a website that lets customers order online from their desktop or smartphone.

I is for: Imperial Tea Court, which serves up mostly tea, natch, given its name, but also a short menu of organic and/or sustainable dim sum items, such as dumplings, potstickers, and noodles. Bonus outdoor seating are for this restaurant in the Epicurious Garden on Shattuck.

Indus Village, not your typical curry and naan joint, notes the Chronicle, which commends this San Pablo Avenue restaurant for its bold flavors that suggest Pakistani street food. Inexpensive, informal eats, dubbed the soul of Berkeley’s curry holes by one scribe.

Ippuku, Berkeley’s first izakaya or Japanese gathering place for drinking, snacking on small plates, and chilling out. This Center Street spot offers diners a unique experience (chicken in many forms) and an extensive range of Japanese liquor beyond sake and beer; its specialty is Shochu. Makes Bauer’s Top 100 List and is praised by Waters and other locals too.

To be continued…

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Revealed: A Berkeley restaurant guide and labor of love
The culinary couple behind Berkeley’s Corso and Rivoli [05.27.11]
Behind the scenes at new German eatery Gaumenkitzel [03.23.11]
Berkeley Bites: Anchalee Natasiri [05.07.10]

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  • Arlene

    Is Chaat and Curries still in business? They’ve been looking closed up. 

  • Pdweiler

    I don’t want to initiate an avalanche of “don’t forgets”, but don’t forget Dara and it’s wonderful Laotian specialties!

  • Sarah Henry

     Thanks for heads up. They were up and running last I wrote about them but will do a swing by to double check.

  • resident

    Thank you for featuring Ajanta. I think it’s the best Indian food in the Bay Area and it bothers me that it doesn’t get more recognition. The rotating menu and the divine seasonal appetizers (tandoori scallops, tandoori asparagus, CRAB CAKES) keep me coming back again and again. And their cookbook is wonderful. Now if I could just get them to do crab masala, South Indian style, during Dungeness season, I could die completely fulfilled! I keep asking…

  • John Holland

    While not exhaustive, it’s approaching canonical for the alphabet range! What a great list! 

    Years ago, I hosted The Berkeley Delivery Guide, so I know how difficult it is to maintain lists of restaurants.Welcome and good luck to Lucille and Art!

  • Salope

    They closed to renovate what was a really dirty, funky space. It’s much nicer now, and the food is still great! 

  • Sarah Henry

     Are you sure, Salope? I did just swing by and the place does, indeed, look like it’s closed (tables still there with white tablecloths but nothing else). And confirmed with shopkeepers next door that the place is shuttered. Will remove from this list unless someone knows something we don’t.

  • Alexandra

    Alborz is not at all the only Persian in town, and it’s not even the best — it’s just the fanciest/priciest. Cyprus, on Shattuck across from Half Price Books, is a homey family-run place with very good Persian khoreshts and kabobs. Unfortunately their name makes them sound Mediterranean, while in fact Iran is quite distant from the Mediterranean! There’s also Middle East Market on San Pablo just south of University, which is mainly an Iranian market but also serves up a few specials (stews, kabob, and delicious aash, a hearty lentil & herb soup) in the back every day.

  • Jane1010

    I agree! I like Alborz a lot but I can’t afford to eat there often. Cyprus is great and less expensive.

  • Salope

    I think the Middle East Market (Indus?) is Afghani. 

  • Andrew

     Ajanta is one of my all-time favorites. Consistently wonderful. We mostly order out, but it’s fun to eat in every now and then. My wife and I had our first date there and we still go often.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Holy Land has been open on Saturdays for a while now.

    You forgot Gather.

  • Sarah Henry

    Thanks Bryan, it is indeed, despite what the Holy Land website and menu says (I stopped by yesterday.)
    Will correct. But I think few would put Gather in the category of an “ethnic” restaurant, though I suspect we might find a wide-ranging definition for the term “ethnic eats” if we polled people.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Whoops, I forgot the list was exclusively ethnic food! You were right to leave it off then.

  • Jhtp

    You left out Gregoire on Cedar (in Berkeley) and Piedmont (in Oakland) serving amazing potato puffs and continental French high end take out!

  • Salope

    Well I haven’t gone there for awhile. I didn’t realize the white table clothes and updated space were just a ghost… too bad. The food was good. 

  • Salope

    Jhtp, Gregoire is hardly ethnic.

  • Berkeleyfarm

    That bi bim bap looks amazing!

    Also, yay Gaumenkitzel.  

  • Adam_85

    To add to the “you left off list” is De Afghanan Kabob House on university.

  • Berkeleyfarm

    Sarah, forgot to say in the excitement after the shooting on our block, but my friend and I had dinner at Divino on Friday night and found it really, really tasty.  We’ll be back.  The pizza is now my second favorite in town after Gioia.  I also really loved the cheesy polenta.  Much better food than Fellini, IMO.  

  • Sarah Henry

    Thanks for heads up, Berkeleyfarm. Heading back home myself when stumbled upon the police presence, a tip off that something was amiss in the neighborhood, so I know what you mean about the vibe in that part of west Berkeley on Friday night.

  • Mom

    Also Bangkok Noodles on Shattuck @  Berkeley Way.  Mostly a student scene, but open late, cheap, and tasty.  Not to be confused with Thai Noodle (aka Bug-Zapper Thai (crazy purple neon sign)) a few doors North.

  • J Jeung

    What! No Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen? American Southern certainly should count for a foray into food representative of a various cultures.