Likely one of the best white-tablecloth Indian restaurants in the East Bay, Ajanta is lauded for its fresh fare, organic produce, sustainable protein and very affordable tasting menu ($18.50-21.50). Vegetarian options like the Baadal Jaam eggplant are just as tasty as opening chef Lachu Moorjani’s lamb korma or chicken tikka masala. Even better for chile-heads, Moorjani actuallymakes his spicy dishes hot, hot, hot. In summer 2015, Moorjani announced his retirement; a year later he could still be seen in the kitchen training the new staff. We hope the food stays just as delicious once he moves on. Ajanta is at 1888 Solano Ave. (at The Alameda), Berkeley.
A discussion of Berkeley’s best restaurants would (obviously) be incomplete without a mention of the restaurant that started it all, Chez Panisse. Alice Waters’ temple of seasonal California cooking has been going strong since 1971, even after two fires, most recently in 2013, threatened to close its doors. Chez Panisse may not be the most innovative restaurant on the block, but it has certainly given rise to a formidable array of East Bay cooks, and it continues to serve up solid, delicious meals at both the café and prix-fixe restaurant. Chez Panisse is at 1517 Shattuck Ave. (near Vine Street), Berkeley. Wheelchair accessible downstairs; upstairs menu can be served upon request. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook and Twitter.
Comal arrived in downtown Berkeley in 2012 like a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t that there weren’t decent restaurants on that strip of Shattuck — although the choice then was limited — but there wasn’t anything quite as buzzy and urban as Comal. With its airy, contemporary design, its theatrical open-plan kitchen, state-of-the-art Meyer Sound system to allow for normal-volume conversation, and — best of all — its glorious landscaped patio with its own bar and fire pits, this didn’t feel like the Berkeley dining scene we knew. And that was a good thing. The best way to enjoy Comal is to head there with friends for after-show drinks and small bites, preferably enjoyed on said patio. The chips and salsa are on point. If you’re staying for dinner, try one of executive Chef Matt Gandin’s creative Mexican dishes like beef lengua tacos with pickled turnip-kohlrabi slaw and salsa verde ($13) or white shrimp ceviche with aguachile verde, red onion and jicama ($14). Pair the food with a margarita with orange-scented agave or an El Chavo (Cimarron Blanco, cacao, cardamom, lime, bitters) from the appealing craft cocktail list. Or enjoy a tequila or mezcal flight — a Comal speciality. Comal is at 2020 Shattuck Ave. (at University), Berkeley.
Is a place like Emilia’s worth the schedule-bending effort? Given its strict ordering system and standoffish website, it threatens to fall into an annoying, pretentious trap. Yes, we can’t count the number of times we’ve re-dialed the phone waiting for a non-busy ringtone for close to 30 minutes so we can order a pizza for pick-up three hours later. But we don’t really mind. Owner Keith Freilich’s pedigree — stints at Grimaldi’s in Hoboken and Pizzaiolo in Oakland pepper his resumé — has certainly influenced his pies, but the excellent New York-Neapolitan hybrid pizzas coming out of his hand-me-down gas oven are all his own. The pies are large, with a thin crust reminiscent of New York slice joints. Freilich sprinkles his blend of fresh and aged mozzarella cheese first, followed by a spiral of fresh tomato sauce and a jolt of grated Parm when the pizza comes out of the oven. Toppings are sparse, but well-chosen, and the final result is the best whole pie you can find in the East Bay. Emilia’s Pizzeria is at 2995 Shattuck Ave. (at Ashby), Berkeley.
Sho Kamio’s “Ocean Umami” dish at Iyasare is indicative of his stellar, intricate Japanese-American cuisine. Its appearance alone is stunning — each colorful element comes together to form a bold, oceanic painting. Ocean Umami, like the rest of Kamio’s menu, is artistic “tweezer food” at its best: a single bite brings forth the scent of the ocean and the rich, lingering flavor of seaweed. Other, heartier dishes, like an earthy, haunting uni risotto and a tamari-braised pork belly with tonkotsu-like pork broth, have also been standouts. Iyasare is at 1830 Fourth St. (at Delaware), Berkeley.
“My favorite place of all is La Marcha Tapas Bar. Love the food, drinks and dessert.” — Nosh reader
The small dining room at the corner of San Pablo and University avenues is a love letter to Spain, a celebration of the casual, exuberant cuisine that we fell for a decade ago when tapas were last trending. As with any brand-new restaurant, La Marcha is a work in progress, and dinner there can be filled with highs and lows. Thankfully, those highs are not only technically well-executed, but also peppered with thoughtful touches — chef-owners Emily Sarlatte and Sergio Emilio Monleón clearly know what they’re doing. Take, for example, the wild boar albóndigas, ethereally light meatballs perched atop a creamy, cheesy tomato sauce. A scoop of the sauce alone evokes the nostalgia of Campbell’s tomato soup with the flavor dialed up to 11. And don’t miss the creative, seasonal paellas, perfectly crisp churros, and late-night happy hour. La Marcha is at 2026 San Pablo Ave. (near University), Berkeley.
Lemat Ethiopian Restaurant and Café in Berkeley
Named after the traditional woven baskets that hold injera bread, Lemat Ethiopian Restaurant and Café is a family endeavor. Owner Gezu Mengistu runs Lemat with his wife Ejigayehu, and her sister Tigist Gelan is the head chef. The family’s tried-and-true recipes from Ethiopia’s Gurage region are at the core of Lemat’s popularity. They pride themselves on serving traditional dishes and authentic flavors. Their homemade injera — the springy fermented bread that is a centerpiece of Ethiopian cuisine — is made, in accordance with tradition, entirely with teff, a grain native to Ethiopia that is naturally gluten-free. Lemat offers a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Guests who call ahead can experience the ceremony, which lasts about 45 minutes. All aspects of coffee making, from roasting to pouring, are done table-side. Lemat Ethiopian Restaurant and Café, 3212 Adeline St. (between Fairview and Harmon streets), Berkeley
Burma Superstar is not the only Burmese game in town. Instead of waiting in its never-ending line, wander up Telegraph to Royal Rangoon. (The restaurant changed its name from Rangoon Super Stars to Royal Rangoon in January 2016.) Start with the palata — buttery, flaky triangles of pan-fried bread served alongside a sweet, coconut curry sauce with a whisper of heat in each bite. The tea leaf salad is also a delight. Chef Win Aye keeps the delightfully musty leaves intact so that their flavor is predominant. Variegated crunch from yellow lentils, fried garlic chips, sesame seeds and peanuts contrast the slippery soft tea leaves. A dusting of shrimp powder adds an undercurrent of briny umami. Monk hingar, a pureed catfish and rice noodle soup, is another favorite number, as is the magnificently tender basil chili lamb. Royal Rangoon is at 2826 Telegraph Ave. (at Stuart), Berkeley.
The best way to eat at China Village is to gather a large enough group of friends to take up a huge round table in the back of the restaurant. If you’re lucky, you’ll snag one with a lazy Susan for optimum sharing efficiency. Start with spicy and chewy beef tendon, a palate (and sinus) cleanser to prime your tongue for the meal to come. Or else munch on the cucumber with drizzled with spicy, nutty garlic gravy. Don’t ignore the gratis pickled cabbage, a crisp and funky Chinese kimchi. The spicy Szechuan boiled fish fillet is a perfect introduction to Chef John Yao’s deft hand with chilies. Another famous dish, Yao’s five-spice hot and spicy pork shoulder, is equally great, succulent and soft enough to cut with a spoon. The warm spice blend penetrates the meat to the bone for subtly fragrant contrast to the bold flavors in the fish. China Village is at 1335 Solano Ave. (at Ramona), Albany.
Juanita & Maude
Juanita & Maude chef and co-owner Scott Eastman told Nosh that his restaurant is “still becoming what [it’ll] be” as he discovers what his guests enjoy. The menu changes daily depending on what’s freshest and in season, and as Eastman did spend six years in the kitchen at North Berkeley Italian restaurant, Corso, it’s no surprise to see a heavy Northern Italian influence, including several freshly made pastas. Juanita & Maude aims to be a neighborhood spot, but with its offering of creative and nearly flawless dishes, it’ll likely to become a destination restaurant. Hopefully Albany doesn’t mind sharing this neighborhood gem. Juanita & Maude, 825 San Pablo Ave. (between Solano & Washington), Albany
Tacos El Autlense
“The taco truck in the [Hotsy Totsy] parking lot is outstanding. Not to be missed.” — Nosh reader
Our favorite carnitas taco doesn’t come from the Mission or even Fruitvale. Instead, we head to the Albany stretch of San Pablo Avenue and visit the Tacos El Autlense truck, which sits in the Hotsy Totsy parking lot until midnight seven days a week. Tacos El Autlense does, of course, sell other tacos, but its crisp, tender pork is true carnitas perfection. The double stack of corn tortillas get a trip on the well-seasoned (and greased) flat-top, so even a meat-less bite is packed with flavor — just be sure to grab a fat stack of napkins before carrying your tacos back into the bar to eat. Yes, that’s right, the best way to enjoy El Autlense is to bring it into the Hotsy Totsy and wash down the tacos with a cold draft PBR. Follow that with a cocktail if it’s Friday. (We recommend the smoky, complex Everett and Jones or the tangy-sweet Bottle Bitter Rivers.) Just be prepared for a significant wait for your dinner, especially Thursdays through Sundays. Tacos El Autlense is at 601 San Pablo Ave. (at Garfield), Albany.
Set back in a cacophonous corner of Swan’s Marketplace is AS B-Dama and its steaming bowls of udon soup, crisp karaage, picturesque sushi and, if you’re lucky, a special bowl of uni chawanmushi. The savory steamed egg custard comes adorned with a generous portion of briny, rich uni and earthy maitake mushrooms. (It’s not on the regular menu, so you’ll want to make sure to look out for it on the specials board or just ask the kitchen.) Other must-tries? The agedashi tomatoes, tempura-fried and served in a subtle yet delicious dashi broth; tori karaage, seemingly weightless fried chicken; and anything else on the specials menu. Pro-tip: The afternoon lunch “sets” offer the best value in all of Swan’s — for $10 or less, you can get a main like katsu curry or sushi rolls with miso soup, salad, rice and often a bowl of sautéed vegetables as well. AS B-Dama is at 907 Washington St. (at Ninth), Oakland.
Belotti Ristorante e Bottega
Rockridge hasn’t historically wanted for pasta, or simple Italian food for that matter. The neighborhood has managed to support two stalwart pasta-serving restaurants located within a few blocks of each other. So when Belotti Ristorante e Bottega announced its arrival to the neighborhood early this year, it seemed superfluous. Did we really need another Italian restaurant on this stretch of College Avenue? Yes. Yes, we did. Belotti serves the best pasta we’ve ever had. Supple, tender and vibrant with an abundance of egg yolks, it is a wondrous vehicle for the six sauces and fillings on the menu. But Belotti Ristorante is more than just its pasta menu; we think it was the best new East Bay restaurant of 2016. The restaurant is unequivocally Italian — there are very few nods to California localism on the menu and the vast majority of the restaurant’s wines are Italian — and it is all the better for it. This singular focus on tradition makes for a more transportive dining experience and regional specialties, like Belotti’s pork-stuffed casoncelli pasta shine. Other can’t miss dishes are the battuta (dry-aged ribeye tartare), agnolotti di Lidia (another meaty stuffed pasta served in a beef reduction) and simple, perfect spaghetti in tomato sauce. In October 2017, Belotti Bottega opened on Piedmont Avenue, where Belotti fans can pick up fresh pasta, sauces and other foods to prepare or enjoy at home. Belotti Ristorante e Bottega is at 5403 College Ave. (at Hudson), Oakland; Belotti Bottega is at 4001-B Piedmont Ave. (at 40th), Oakland.
Telegraph Avenue has an abundance of Ethiopian restaurants, but the crowning gem is Café Colucci. The restaurant’s allegiance to traditional spices and preparations shines through its often slow service. While a few of the stewed meat dishes, like the minchet abish wot (simmered ground beef), are consistently good, the real winners at Café Colucci are the vegetarian stews. The gomen (collard greens) and atakit (cabbage and carrots) are perfectly seasoned and still manage to taste rich, especially when eaten wrapped in the restaurant’s excellent injera bread. Slightly more adventurous eaters would also be remiss not to try the kitfo beef, which is traditionally served raw. Owner Fetlework Tefferi also owns the spice shop next door, where you can purchase the goods to try and make your own versions of her food at home. Café Colucci is at 6427 Telegraph Ave. (at Alcatraz), Oakland.
With the opening of Calavera in Uptown in summer 2015, Oakland officially entered the regional Mexican game. The giant, beautifully designed restaurant is Oaxacan to its core; bottles upon bottles of mezcal and tequila dominate the bar space and moles, grasshoppers and house-nixtamalized tortillas take center stage on the shared-plates menu. Those grasshoppers can come as a crunchy, salty addition to the guacamole; another stand-out option is the queso flameado, a molten cheese dip studded with huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn and tastes like mild shiitake mushrooms). We’ve been most impressed with the complex birria de chivo (slow-cooked goat laced with chiles and chocolate), nopales (cactus) served with spicy salsa Mexicana, and the truly fantastic house-made tortillas. Calavera is at 2337 Broadway (between 23rd and 24th streets), Oakland.
East Oakland’s Champa Garden is an excellent choice for anyone in the mood for Laotian cuisine, and is home to a salad with perhaps one of the biggest cult followings in Oakland — Nam Khao, or fried rice salad. In it, a fried ball of rice and coconut gets smashed and mixed with chewy, savory preserved pork, crunchy peanuts, green onions and a generous squeeze of lime juice. Alongside come herbs and lettuce leaves for wrap-making, but the salad is just as good eaten with a fork. Order it as part of the sampler platter, and you’ll also get Lao sausages and spring rolls. Afterwards, order any one of the restaurant’s Lao specialities and you won’t be disappointed. Champa Garden, 2102 8th Ave. (at East 21st), Oakland
Another great place to get your American comfort food fix is Communitē Table, a casual café of sorts serving homestyle classics for lunch and dinner. All of the soups and salads — especially the kitchen’s kale and feta combo — are popular to eat in or take to-go, and dinner specials like fried chicken and vegan chili are deeply satisfying. Communitē Table also has a freezer case filled with an extensive line-up of easy-to-heat dishes (chicken pot pie, ftw) to help solve that mid-week “what’s for dinner?” question. Communitē Table, 4171 MacArthur Blvd. (at Maybelle), Oakland
From the former Sassafrass Seagrass food truck purveyors, Copper Spoon is on Broadway in the former home of Art’s Crab Shak. In fact, it still has the old sign out front. Andre Hall is executive chef as well as a co-owner, and he puts out an eclectic, but strong menu for carnivores and vegetarians, alike, with seasonal offerings with influences from all over the globe. There are hand rolls with raw fish, lamb merguez burgers, pickled vegetables and ceviche. The menu sounds a bit all over the place, but it works. Copper Spoon is open until 1 a.m., and the late-night menu is limited but is significantly cheaper after 10:30 p.m. There is also beer and wine, but the craft cocktails — created by co-owner Vita Simone — are the star of the show here. Copper Spoon, 4031 Broadway (at 40th St.), Oakland
“Homestead is the best! Seriously!” — Nosh reader
Homestead on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue effortlessly melds California cuisine with Southern comfort and a scrappy, DIY ethos. The menu is short, but offers a fairly wide range of dishes for such a seasonally focused spot. Their baked house-made ricotta is truly a cheese transformed. The soft tenderness of the fresh cheese concentrates and blisters in the oven, grabbing ahold of the wisps of smoke from the wood to carry through the rich milk. Homestead’s slow roasted pork is an exquisitely prepared belly-on pork loin, thinly sliced and laid out atop a bed of sweet creamed corn. Equally smart is the bone marrow butter-topped grilled ribeye. Its pairing of charred bitter escarole and sweet roasted carrots anchor and lift the rich beef. Homestead is at 4029 Piedmont Ave. (at 40th), Oakland.
Uptown Oakland’s Kingston 11 is the perfect place for a party. Take one step into the Jamaican restaurant’s friendly dining room, and you’ll feel the warmth, the friendliness and the smiles emanating from both diners and servers. And the food that graces the tables is fun and deeply satisfying. Drinks are generous, and cheap to boot. Salt fish fritters are a fine place to start: a golden and crisp exterior surrounds a fluffy, expertly seasoned fish mousse within. Dip them in the bright, tangy chimichurri alongside for the perfect bite. Follow with the restaurant’s signature jerk chicken. The bone-in Mary’s organic chicken is marinated for two days in a classic blend of allspice, cloves, thyme, proprietary spices and fiery Scotch bonnet peppers before being smoked. A first bite reveals warm spice and hearty smokiness, but then the Scotch bonnets creep up, slowly but surely, igniting a fierce, lingering burn. A few more bites in, and the spice becomes one with the smoke, a dish transformed — robust, brash, and impossible to put down. Kingston 11 is at 2270 Telegraph Ave. (at 23rd), Oakland.
It may not look it from the outside, but Masala Cuisine is one of the best Indian restaurants in the East Bay. Much of the menu is vegetarian, but owners Rooplal and Sushil Masih do offer a few chicken and lamb curries as well (the chicken tikka masala is particularly popular). The tiny, family run restaurant is basically only a kitchen — seating is on folding tables right inside the pantry area — and the only staff are the Masihs, but it’s all the better to watch them at work, chopping vegetables and assembling curries to order. Of course, this process takes time, so come to eat with patience in mind. It’s worth the wait. Masala Cuisine, 7912 International Blvd. (at 79th), Oakland
We’ll go ahead and say it: Miss Ollie’s makes some of the best fried chicken in the Bay Area. Injected with a mysterious and delicious herb and spice blend, breaded, and carefully skillet-fried by chef-owner Sarah Kirnon, this chicken is the stuff of magic. The thin, crackling and just-salty-enough skin is worthy of a trip all on its own. The fact that the meat is consistently juicy to the bone, no matter if you’re noshing on a drumstick or a breast quarter, is just icing on the cake. Find it as a lunch special on Tuesdays and Saturdays or as part of a daily family-style platter with potato salad and stewed collards at dinner. Of course, it would be a shame to ignore the rest of Miss Ollie’s Caribbean-inspired soul food menu; we’re particularly big fans of the salt fish and ackee, phoularie fritters and whatever curry the kitchen is currently dishing out. Miss Ollie’s is at 901 Washington St. (at Ninth), Oakland. Wheelchair accessible.
Since Ramen Shop opened in late 2012, the Rockridge spot been consistently packed. While Ramen Shop relies on classic ramen cooking techniques and house-made noodles as the backbone for its soups, the restaurant is far from traditional. All of the ramen soups have a California slant; there are more seasonal veggies adorning the bowl than meat, and most have a lightness that you won’t find in a traditional bowl of tonkotsu. One of the three rotating ramen soups on the menu is always vegetarian, with a hauntingly lovely shoyu and Meyer lemon base. The butter corn miso ramen with ground pork belly is also a stand-out; don’t miss it when it shows up. To drink, Ramen Shop serves a solid mix of local craft beer and Japanese bottles. Whiskey lovers should appreciate the Japanese scotch selection, available in highball cocktails or straight up. Ramen Shop is at 5812 College Ave. (at Birch), Oakland.
Our Readers’ Picks listing is compiled from our reader survey conducted in early 2016. We’ve listed the top five reader choices in Berkeley, Oakland and Beyond for both weeknight dinners and special occasion dinners.
“Picante has such a friendly feel to it that it is hard to resist.” — Nosh reader