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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May Food Excursion: Best of the East Bay – Volume 1

Cheddar Cheese Grits with Tomatoes, Chiles and Onions

When my fellow foodie friend, Stacie Tamaki, and I started discussing an East Bay Day I thought it might be a stretch. But after just a few hours on what amounted to just a couple of streets I realized we had truly hit a goldmine on the Oakland/Berkeley border not far from the U.C. campus.

So we set off to arrive early enough for some of the morning specialties upon which Aunt Mary's Cafe is making a name for itself. This food is breakfast centric and was featured on The Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins Dives. It was their signature dish called Southern Bubble and Squeak that had me from hello. The menu lists four dishes under the heading of Designer Eggs and they are not kidding. Bubble and Squeak features two perfectly poached (or anyway you want them cooked) eggs perched on top of mashed potato pancakes and smothered in pot likker gravy which is made from the drippings of the spicy collard greens. If that isn't enough flavor overload already, it is served with a giant fresh scratch made biscuit. This photo really speaks for itself.

The more I ate, the better it looked (and tasted!) as this closer in shot reveals below.

Southern Bubble and Squeak with Poached Eggs, Spicy Collard Greens and Biscuit
We also tried the cheesy grits with roma tomatoes you saw in my first photo above. We thought this dish was going to be a small side but we were completely wrong. It could have stood alone as a main entree for any breakfast, brunch or lunch. Oddly enough we just had some of the biscuit left over to go dipping into the cheese-a-licious grits. Just tasting a bite of this breakfast is not an option. It took a lot of will power not to finish every delicious bite to save room for all of the food ahead.

Casual and comfortable is the word in this college town and Aunt Mary's Cafe is no exception. Milk bottles and Mason jars are on every table for hydration. They are open only for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday and offer brunch specials on the weekends.

One of many spots here that have a kind of cool college vibe.

A MUST try for breakfast, lunch or brunch.

Our next stop was right up the street at Bake Sale Betty. This place is so popular that it defies common sense advertising, marketing and promotion practices like having a sign on the building. But when you have a line down the block of people waiting to grab your lunch special who needs a sign? Do you get the feeling that outside-the-box might be the method of operation here? Just for starters they have a line of festive colored ironing boards for dining outside. Very Berkeley but also very cool. And then there's the food. Many of these folks are lined up for one incredible chicken sandwich. Inside I took a few photos of the assembly line cranking them out to meet the huge lunch rush.

It all begins with this crispy slaw of cabbage, jalapenos, red onion and parsley.
An assembly line makes for quick order filling of these popular sandwiches.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken and the slaw fill a fresh soft roll...That's all.

We opted for the vegetarian version of the sandwich. They took a generous portion of tofu and fried it in the same buttermilk batter as the chicken. It was superb and the closest thing to an actual fried chicken breast I have ever eaten. It had no mayo, mustard or secret sauce of any type but the flavors exploded.

This bite was my favorite of the entire East Bay Food Day.

Oh yeah, and what about the bake sale? Obviously, everything was made from scratch like this chocolate chip cookie we felt obligated to taste. After all, it is first and foremost a bakery even though they are cranking out some really tasty lunch food too.

Next on our agenda was called Gather. Gather sits on the ground floor of a rather tall modern building
so your first impression looking up is rather grand. It's not the type of setting where you'd expect to find an organic natural foods restaurant.

However, inside the vibe and food is just as earthy as you would expect with warm colors and an inviting open kitchen. The pizza oven is central to the action and cranks out their very popular pies.

We had heard that the Kale "Caesar" Salad was one of their specialties. It had roasted carrots, crispy capers, breadcrumbs, a faux "parmesan" cheese made with almonds and nori. It was both vegan and gluten free but full of flavor.

Kale "Caesar" Salad

We also shared an open faced sandwich which topped a slice of toasted bread with a spicy chick pea spread, sauteed Hen of the Woods mushrooms and melted cheese. It was spicy, rich and satisfying. We simply could not finish it all but Stacie always comes prepared with to-go containers and I packed an ice chest in the car.

Our final destination was Alice Waters' world famous Chez Panisse for dessert in their upstairs cafe.
This stop was our very first monthly food tour destination that required a reservation. Although completely understated everything about this place is right from the very first impression you get at the entrance. Their reputation that precedes them is completely deserved.

We ordered our own desserts and I chose the Walnut-ricotta cake with orange honey coulis and vanilla cream. Stacie honed right in on the Crimson rhubarb tart with ginger ice cream. To see her choice and hear all about her version of our day in the East Bay click here.

Walnut-Ricotta Cake with Orange Honey Coulis and Vanilla Cream

Our server was named Colleen who was super friendly and engaging. Forget the fact that we just ordered dessert. She was giving us the kind of experience you would expect at a restaurant of this caliber. She took lots of time to explain the desserts and made all kinds of suggestions. When we did not opt for her favorite, the Stracciatella Ice Cream with chocolate streaks, caramel sauce and candied pecans she even brought us a complimentary sample to taste. That's Chez Panisse for you. When she found out that we were bloggers, she invited us for a kitchen tour. I have been in my fair share of commercial kitchens but I have never seen one like Chez Pannise and their cafe. I got an instant sense of calmness, competence and confidence from the chefs at work. Both the decor and demeanor fit the reputation of this culinary icon.

Chez Panisse chefs prep for this evening's dinner.

Colleen gave us a tour of the entire Chez Panisse facility which was originally a residence. This next photo is of the employee's break room which is not really a room but a beautiful outdoor patio. Even their break area is in keeping with the very cool vibe there. Exceptional is really the best way to describe the whole Chez Panisse experience.

Employee Break Area

Feeling more than satisfied we headed home but felt compelled to visit one more East Bay famous food spot called The Berkeley Bowl.

Famous For Food...A Local Legend of a Grocery Store

It might not be the largest grocery store in the world but it is certainly the best stocked especially when it comes to produce. I have never seen selection like this anywhere. My first two photos are of just the apples alone.

One side of the apple section.

Turning 180 degrees for the other side of the apple section.
Stacie was amazed at the selection of eggplant. She counted the twelve different varieties. I couldn't even name them all but managed to capture them in this one photo.

A different eggplant for each of The Twelve Days of Christmas

In produce heaven it was impossible to pick my favorite section but these exotic Asian and Hispanic fruits were right up there near the top. Having all of these unique ingredients in one place is really a rarity. It's like putting every ethnic grocery store under one roof.

This food excursion far exceeded my expectations. In just a short distance we not only enjoyed exceptional food but we also passed by dozens of likely places for next time. I expected to cover the East Bay in a day but we only covered the tip of the iceberg. There will be a next time because this area is loaded with unique food destinations of all kinds and I am already eager for our return engagement. Stay tuned for Volume 2.

More Food Adventures:

January - The Eats of San Francisco:
February - A Tasty Tour of Santa Cruz
March - The Cowgirl Creamery
April - Confessions of a Sushi Virgin
May - Best of the East Bay
June - Palo Alto Eateries
July - Cheap Eats & Secret Menus


  1. Your Berkeley Bowl pictures came out great! I may have to borrow that eggplant image for my blog :D

    That was such a great day. I still feel as if I'm basking in the afterglow of everything we ordered and it's already been 5 days.

  2. We definitely got more than we bargained for but what a pleasure to have our expectations exceeded.

    Anytime I get a picture that you miss is a really a fluke probably caused by some magnetic field or misalignment of the stars. :-)