Author Archives: Anna Mindess

Kobani Kurdish restaurant: Defiant and delicious

Kobani's owner Emin Tekin
photo: Anna Mindess
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Kobani’s succulent chunks of chicken kebab, creamy hummus, moist dolmas, richly flavored lentil soup and generous gyros are a welcome addition to the corner of University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley.

But there is more to this new casual dining spot than meets the mouth.

The name of the restaurant may be familiar if you follow the news. Kobani, a city in northern Syria, was the site of the biggest defeat dealt to ISIS by Kurdish soldiers. But the four-month-long battle that raged from September 2014 until ISIS militants were driven out in January resulted in the widespread destruction of the 100-year-old city that was famous for its olive-oil and cultural diversity. And in a recent, disheartening reversal in June, Islamic State militants re-entered Kobani, killing dozens of civilians. … Continue reading »

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Mother–daughter duo makes Vanessa’s Bistro soar

Vanessa's duo
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Vanessa Dang briskly chops a pile of red and yellow peppers, speedily stir-fries chicken slices in a steaming wok, and tosses a tangle of rice noodles into a bowl in the compact kitchen of her Berkeley restaurant, Vanessa’s Bistro. Meanwhile, her daughter, Vi Nguyen, greets and seats customers, takes orders and shakes up a mojito while chatting with the regulars sitting at the bar. Both mother and daughter operate in a blur of continual motion, like two speeding comets whose orbits occasionally intersect. … Continue reading »

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Café Colucci: Flying flag for authentic Ethiopian food

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At Café Colucci on Telegraph Avenue, when you dip injera, a sourdough-risen flatbread, into pungent, deftly seasoned creamy lentils, collard greens or chopped beef, you are dipping into thousands of years of Ethiopian culinary history.

“Sheltered in isolation, Ethiopian culinary art flourished autonomously for centuries,” writes restaurant owner Fetlework Tefferi in her book Ethiopian Pepper and Spice. “Farmer families have entrusted the seeds of their crops as well as ancient cultivation processes from father to son, while family spice blending from mother to daughter for generations on end.”

In order to ensure that the dozens of indigenous spices and herbs used in her beloved Oakland restaurant retain their authentic flavor, Tefferi has been passionately supporting the local farmers and dairywomen of Modjo, Ethiopia since 2009. … Continue reading »

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Cherished Zaki restaurant is at a crossroads

Fayza and Ramzy Ayyad. Photo: Anna Mindess
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Adversity is no stranger to the Ayyads.

The Palestinian family has weathered personal, financial and medical crises in their pursuit of the American dream. But the whole family’s hard work helped them turn a corner five years ago, when they rented a seemingly jinxed spot at 1101 San Pablo Ave. in Albany and turned it into a beloved neighborhood restaurant.

Zaki Kabob House is cherished by the locals for its warm welcoming spirit, its succulently spiced, organic rotisserie chicken, and a slew of Palestinian specialties not found at every other falafel and hummus spot — such as spheeha, mini-pizzas topped with lamb or spinach, mashweeya, a grilled vegetable salad with smoky eggplant, and mudamus, creamy poached fava beans with stewed tomatoes.

The Ayyads now find themselves at a crossroads. Their original landlord, who supported them in making many improvements to the modest green building, recently passed away. His heirs plan to sell the building and are offering the family first option to buy — with a price tag of $700,000. … Continue reading »

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Zatar nurtures diners with homegrown produce

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Do you hunger for that delicious feeling of being well cared for, dining with friends who cook up flavorful dishes incorporating fruit and vegetables from their own gardens?

Then invite yourself over for lunch or dinner at tiny Zatar restaurant, tucked away on Shattuck Avenue near University in Berkeley, where meals featuring organic produce and naturally raised meats have been lovingly prepared since 2002 by Waiel and Kelly Majid.

Zatar’s cuisine can be hard to pigeonhole. Kelly Majid describes it as “eclectic Mediterranean, with dishes inspired from the region, including Syria, Lebanon and Morocco.” She adds, “We are not trying to be authentic to any one country, but rather enjoy the freedom to adjust our recipes. Our food is always Mediterranean in essence, employing ingredients like olive oil, lamb, fresh seafood, sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses, homemade yogurt, lots of fresh herbs, and other common elements used in Mediterranean cooking across the area.” … Continue reading »

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Sushi California: Beloved Berkeley spot for 27 years

Chef Ryoji Arakaki prepares sushi rice
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Have you ever felt at home in a café or restaurant the moment you walked in? My husband and I have been frequenting Sushi California for less than a year, but the night we discovered this cozy Japanese dining spot on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley, we already felt like welcomed regulars.

We had just returned from a two-week trip to Kyoto, where I took cooking classes while my husband taught at a university. At night, we would wander into little family-run neighborhood restaurants. That immediate sense of shared intimacy with strangers at Sushi California resonated with our best Kyoto memories.

Chef Ryoji Arakaki has been serving sushi and other Japanese dishes to an international crowd of Berkeleyites (including students, professors and Lawrence Berkeley Lab employees) since 1986. You have probably driven past Sushi Cal (as the Chef calls it) on MLK between University and Addison hundreds of times, but with its unassuming name and façade, and its position just below street-level, like a sunken treasure, it is easily overlooked. … Continue reading »

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Jump the cleansing bonfires in Berkeley on Tuesday

kids fire jumping
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For more than 3,000 years, people have been leaping over fires to bid farewell to winter, burn away negativity and welcome with an open heart the New Year that begins on the first day of Spring. The ancient festival of fire, called Chahar Shanbeh Suri, has its roots in Zoroastrianism and is a warm-up to Nowruz, or Persian New Year. Crossing religious and national boundaries, it is observed across the globe by Persian Jews, Christians, Baha’is and Muslims.

Berkeley may hold the distinction, however, as the only city in the U.S. to close off a public street for the annual fire jumping festivities that will take place Tuesday March 12, from 6-10pm on Durant Avenue (between Milvia and Shattuck) with food, music and guaranteed hordes of gleeful fire jumpers of all ages.

The kid-friendly, alcohol-free street party, now in its 14th year, is sponsored by the Persian Center with the full support of the City, whose police and fire departments are happy to lend a hand. The Mayor often attends.
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Sunhui Chang’s Korean cooking makes sparks fly

Chef-Chang cropped
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Sunhui Chang “fell in love” when he first tasted green mango pickles. At FuseBOX, his pickles and new take on Korean cooking are drawing rave notices. Continue reading »

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Raj Raja creates community, great food at Café Raj

Raj Raja
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Café Raj’s open kitchen belongs to one man, whose commitment and concentration are evident as he shakes, stirs and tosses spices into a half dozen pans filled with aromatic curries, simultaneously bubbling on the range-top. He is Raj Raja, owner and chef of the Albany restaurant. Depending on the time of day, five to ten women complement his cooking crew by grinding spices, mixing chutneys and raita, slapping circles of naan dough onto the scorching sides of the tandoor ovens, and plating and serving dishes to eager diners.

During a momentary lull, I approach Raja with questions for our arranged interview, but find him soft-spoken, seemingly more comfortable cooking than talking. He defers my inquiries to his wife, Rosemarie Eichner-Raja, who tells me “My husband is shy.” But he’s also obviously busy, overseeing every single plate that comes out of his kitchen. “He does 200 or more curries a day, Rosemarie explains, “and every dish is made fresh to order, tailored specially for each guest.” … Continue reading »

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Persian community celebrates longest night of year

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I am slicing up watermelon cubes to bring to a party — not the usual dish for a December celebration, but this is a special event, the Persian fête for the longest night of the year, called Yalda.

Knowing my interest in food and culture, my new friend, Monier Attar, owner of  Zand’s Market on Albany’s Solano Avenue, invited me to accompany her to a party at The Golestan Center, her granddaughter’s Persian-immersion pre-school on Berkeley’s Fifth Street.

I first met Monier last spring when I noticed an intriguing display table in her shop for another Persian secular holiday, Norooz, which honors the first day of spring. Monier kindly answered all my questions about this ancient celebration and I wrote an article about it. … Continue reading »

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UC Berkeley’s Edible Education: Stories, revelations

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Last week brought to a close the 15-week Edible Education class at UC Berkeley taught by Michael Pollan and a slate of luminaries in the food and food justice world. This year’s course, again sponsored by the Edible Schoolyard Project, carried the subtitle: “Telling Stories about Food and Agriculture.” As a community member who took advantage of the free seats for at least half the lectures (all are available for viewing on YouTube), I found the storytelling focus to be the most powerful ingredient in the mix.

Pollan opened the first evening saying, “This is a course about how we grow and eat food in America…and storytelling. Stories organize our experience and the stories we tell ourselves as a culture about food are in the process of changing dramatically.” … Continue reading »


In Berkeley, slide the door for homey Japanese food

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In a regular feature for NOSH, food writer Anna Mindess sets out to explore the journeys of East Bay immigrants through the lens of  food.

I first met Noriko Taniguchi as I was examining a package of gray speckled noodles at Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market. The pixieish grandmother leaned over her shopping cart and whispered, “Yam noodles — very good for the digestion.” As we chatted, I learned she owns a Telegraph Avenue restaurant that features home-style Japanese cooking and promised to visit.

Two weeks later I arrived at Norikonoko at 2556 Telegraph Ave. for lunch. Once I figured out how to slide open the restaurant’s traditional wooden door, I was charmed by the cozy interior that resembles a typical Japanese countryside inn, adorned with innumerable tiny treasures, like miniature tea sets and teensy origami cranes.

The menu also intrigued me with unusual items such as a daikon salad with chirimenjako (tiny dried fish that Noriko sautés in butter to make them crispy). … Continue reading »

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‘Food makes friends’: Cooking Turkish in Berkeley

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Hatice Seflek plunges her right hand into the bowl of raw ground beef, pepper sauce, rice, chopped tomatoes and onions and squishes the ingredients together. She smiles, shrugging, “This is the best way to mix it.”

I am playing sous-chef in her aroma–filled kitchen because Hatice, whose daughter and mine were good friends all through Berkeley High, graciously agreed to teach me to cook something from her homeland, Turkey.

We’re making dolmas, (meaning “filled things” in Turkish). Turkish cuisine features many stuffed vegetables: peppers, okra, squash and eggplant. We chat as we prepare the meat filling that will cook inside hollowed out zucchini tubes and special small eggplants that you can’t get here. Every time she visits her family in Turkey, Hatice brings back bunches of hard, dried eggplant halves, strung like necklaces, whose gourd-like skins produce a pleasant clacking sound – to the consternation of U.S. customs officials. We put them in a pot of boiling water to soften. … Continue reading »

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