Best of Berkeley: Best Dishes

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Simone Anne Lang/Staff

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Best Pizza, Best Meal Under $5 and Best Bakery: Cheese Board Collective

It’s a Saturday afternoon. You’re hungry. You have little to no cash and you love cheese. Where do you go? You know the answer. It’s known by two glorious syllables: Cheese Board (formally, The Cheese Board Collective). Every weekend, I pass the vibrant scene at this gem of a restaurant on Berkeley’s Northside. Every weekend, after I purchase my boring groceries, I look over at the many youths sitting on the grass in front of Cheese Board — laughing, joking, listening to the wonderful live bands and eating finely-crafted pizza. I couldn’t be more jealous.

By any standard, Cheese Board should be a luxury. Just like their restaurant neighbor across the street, Chez Panisse, Cheese Board offers freshly-made food that varies from day to day. But despite their proximity, there couldn’t be a bigger difference between the $2.50-a-slice pricings at the cooperatively-owned pizza eatery and the high-priced dining of Chez Panisse. With a diverse selection of pizzas (with cheese and baked goods right next door), a carefree attitude and a democratic spirit, the Cheese Board Collective is the ethos of Berkeley — pizzafied.

— Jessica Pena

Best Late Night Food: La Burrita

Love it:

La Burrita is my favorite late-night snack. With its fair prices, coupled with the glory that is the Wet Burrito, La Burrita has taken my heart. Although, as a vegetarian I can’t comment on the quality of the meat, I feel like La Burrita is the most consistent and enjoyable place near the Berkeley campus that’s open past 9 p.m.

Their chips are warm at all hours, and their salsa bar caresses the mouth’s senses with spice and flavor that represents all my love of salsa.

Outside of their food, La Burrita is also a great pick because of their speedy service, comfortable atmosphere and secret back patio in their Southside spot.

Another awesome thing about La Burrita is its convenient locations, one on Euclid for those that live on Northside, as well as across the street from the Asian Ghetto on Durant.

If you’re new to La Burrita, try their Super Burrito, or if burritos aren’t your dish of choice, La Burrita offers a variety of other things, from tostadas to quesadillas and even salads.

  — Carli Baker

Hate it:

Oh, La Burrita, the canonical late night food spot. With all the numerous after-hours food locations on Durant, it’s a miracle that La Burrita manages to attract an audience. Perhaps it’s because most people who go there late are too intoxicated to notice the salsa has more water than spice, or maybe their munchies craving covers up the fact that their burrito lacks the usual enticing Mexican spices like cumin or hot peppers. It doesn’t matter though, because there is no justification powerful enough to masquerade La Burrita as a satisfactory restaurant.

A customer can expect the joys of flavorless ingredients and bland produce from any of the menu items. Their rice and beans taste like cylindrical nothings, merely there to give the tortilla shape. Even the flavored tortillas can’t save the dishes from their banal existence. As a last resort, perhaps you can douse your dish with the various salsas. Unfortunately, the result is a soggy, wet burrito, sans the delectable seasoning.

But hey, at least they can’t screw up the chips. Right?

Ian Birnam

Best Sandwhich: Brazil Cafe

I’ve never been to the world-famous Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. I’ve never worn a feather headdress and I’ve never danced the samba with a tanned, exotic man. But I have eaten the tri-tip sandwich at Berkeley’s own Brazil Cafe, and that, my friends, is a festival for the taste buds. Their succulent slabs of meat, rich arrays of fresh vegetables, refreshing mango smoothies and tangy cilantro garlic sauce are all reasons why the BraCaf (as nobody calls it) is the best around. But that’s not all.

So, they have the best sandwich. What of it? Cafe Milano has some good sandwiches. Subway has some cheap sandwiches. I bet even if the Earl of Sandwich himself slapped some slices of ham between bread, it wouldn’t be half bad. The point is, the sandwich is an easy food item to perfect. But what Brazil Cafe does so well, beyond its unique palette of flavors, is its atmosphere. At their University Avenue location, you can often hear the soothing   sounds of local musicians. At their indoor restaurant on Shattuck, you can sit among the warm and vivid paintings of South American landscapes. Whatever food option you choose at whichever location, Brazil Cafe is sure to bring a party.

— Jessica Pena

Best Coffee: Caffe Strada

With its cash-only service and medieval Wi-Fi, it’s a wonder Caffe Strada survives at all in a wired, Bay Area university town.

But take yourself down to Bancroft and College on a sunny Friday afternoon, and it’s clear what keeps the crowds coming. The best outdoor seating in Berkeley, friendly staff, rich espresso coffee and a fine range of cabinet food — in the dining department, there’s little that Strada leaves wanting.

Strada is the perfect place to read the paper, maybe even this paper — there’s a stack of Daily Californians conveniently placed beside the counter. Should you want to study, you might find yourself cursing at the 2006 Best of Berkeley Wi-Fi award that stares mockingly down from the back wall as you point your laptop towards the Anthropology Library, hoping to catch just a single bar of AirBears.

But with coffee served until midnight and toasty gas heaters wheeled out after sunset to keep you warm, what Strada lacks in technological comforts it makes up for in charm and good conversation. Just be sure to bring cash.

— Thomas Coughlan

Best Boba: Sweetheart Cafe

Sweetheart Cafe, located in the Durant Food Court (colloquially, of course, the Asian Ghetto), is unobtrusive to say the least, the kind of place you might not notice when in a hurry. Make no mistake, however: Sweetheart’s boba will stop you in your tracks if given the chance.

Boba, the round, jellylike pearls at the bottom of a cup of refreshing tea, are thick orbs of tapioca starch. The chewy bubbles are the perfect complement to the cafe’s menu of teas.

With an impressive — even intimidating — plethora of offerings, Sweetheart Cafe will undoubtedly keep the intrepid beverage adventurer from hitting a wall in the never-ending quest towards the perfect refreshment.

The sweethearts at Sweetheart will put boba in pretty much anything — almond milk, green tea, red bean tea, grass jelly or chrysanthemum drinks, and even in a selection of coffee drinks.

If boba isn’t your cup of tea (no pun intended), the Sweetheart cafe will graciously serve you anything without the chewy bubbles — just ask.

Certainly, for price, location and flavor, Sweetheart Cafe wins for best boba.

— Natalie Reyes

Best Ice Cream and Best Place to Take a Date: Ici

Ici’s minimalist, single perfect sphere of ice cream nestled on top of a slender homemade waffle cone doesn’t look like a traditional ice cream cone, and that’s because it’s not.

Owner Mary Canales, a former pastry chef at Chez Panisse, has found her niche in exploring flavors, such as pistachio sour cherry, nutmeg candied orange or cardamom rose. She also practices the same open kitchen as Chez Panisse and employees can be seen in the back, zesting lemons or preparing other local and fresh ingredients. With daily rotating flavors, the unexpected yet spot-on combinations never get old. Each scoop’s freshness stands apart from sugared-down ice creams, making it a just-right indulgence.

It’s a great place to bring friends, family, or a date, because the flavors are complex enough for the foodie, but chocolate and vanilla are always available. In fact, the line often leads out of the shop and past neighboring stores. But once the wait’s over, its location on College Avenue makes it the perfect place to stroll and enjoy a cone to the last chocolate-filled bite.

— A.J. Kiyoizumi

Best Burger: Bongo Burger

Since 1968, Bongo Burger has enthused local taste buds. Its menu which, though centered on its quality burgers and sandwiches, offers a variety of options from Mediterranean dishes to breakfast staples.But Bongo Burger is foremost a burger place, and it’s easy to see why. A sizzling Niman Ranch patty guarantees antibiotic and hormone-free beef. The grilled meat is juicy and complemented by easy-to-bite-into shredded iceberg lettuce, slices of fresh tomato, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard, mayo and customizable by virtue of mushrooms, smokey bacon or cheese. A toasted sesame seed bun rounds off the sandwich nicely and crinkle-cut fries serve as a classic side to the meaty masterpiece.Add ranch dressing or Sriracha (yes, Bongo Burger supplies the tangy, spicy Thai hot sauce) for a savory kick. Bite in and relish the harmonious union of ingredients — how the meat juices combine with the browned onions, the condiments adding just the right amount of familiarity to your beef and bread. It’s a delicious example of the burger done right. Affordable charbroiled tastiness at three different locations near campus? We’re in.
— Natalie Reyes

Best Breakfast: La Note

In order to have breakfast at La Note, you will almost always have to wait in line. Regardless of the weather, day or menu specials, hungry customers will be huddled in the cozy waiting area, and lingering on the sidewalk outside. These lines are only a testament to the delectableness of what’s offered inside. If lemon gingerbread pancakes with poached pears aren’t worth the wait for you, the potato and caramelized onion omelette served with Provencales tomatoes probably is.
For any breakfast enthusiast, waiting in line and fumbling over the adamantly French dish names are only feeble deterrents from deliciousness. And the creme fraiche tastes even sweeter in the restaurant’s homey setting: wooden furniture, mini pitchers of water and heavy, porcelain plates rimmed with flowers or stripes. Opt for outside seating on a sunny day and you’ll discover a secret garden waiting in the back, complete with roses and a vine-covered terrace. Although the eatery is easy to miss, tucked between Durant and Channing on Shattuck, just follow the scent of lavender honey on toast, or just look for the line.
Sarah Burke

Best Burrito: Gordo Taqueria

A burrito is something so simple, yet so perfect when it’s done right  — and Gordo Taqueria does it right, and has for over 30 years. They’ve even inspired homesick ex-Berkeleyans to open up their own version in New York.When Chipotle skimps and La Burrita just doesn’t cut it, Gordo is there for you with a balance of flavor, portion size and price. They are not afraid to fill that tortilla to maximum capacity. The lovely burrito purveyor keeps it simple but customizable, offering fresh ingredients and a vegetarian option. As you hold the warm bundle in your hands, you bite through the freshly steamed tortilla into layers of tender meat (or veggies), beans, rice and melty cheese. Freshly diced pico de gallo adds crunch to your bite, and with the addition of hot sauce, the flavors pop. Did we mention that it’s an excellent deal? If you’re hungry, get the super burrito— Your stomach and your wallet won’t regret it.
Fiona Hannigan