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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Where to Eat on Fourth Street • Berkeley, CA

If you've never been to Fourth Street in Berkeley it may be time for you to go. From San Jose it's a one hour drive north on Interstate 880, then you take the Interstate 980 east interchange, it turns into CA-24, you head west on Interstate 580 then take the interchange off to Interstate 80 east, go three exits then take the University Street exit. Go straight along the frontage road, take a right on Hearst and you're there! LOL

Trust me, it's worth it :)

This month my foodie friend Carl Mindling and I decided to make an early trek up to the East Bay dining at Bette's Oceanview Diner, The Pasta Shop, O Chamé and Tacubaya.

Bette's Oceanview Diner is probably the most famous eatery on Fourth Street, and that was before it was featured on Guy Fieri's Diners Drive-ins and Dives.

Owner Bette Kroening gave me a lovely smile when she spotted me taking this picture of the "PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED" sign. The thing is, even though we left San Jose at 8:00 AM we knew we'd have to wait for a table when we got there at 9:00. That's how it goes when you dine at one of the most popular restaurants in town. There's always a line. Our wait was around 40 minutes long which we happily spent across the street at the Sur la Table kitchen store so waiting was, literally, our pleasure!

When my name was called we walked in the front door hung a left at the jukebox, made a quick righthand turn and were seated at a cozy booth along the wall. YAY! We were in!

To my right was a classic diner counter with the requisite chrome based bar stools covered in red Naugahyde where diners can watch the kitchen prepare everyone's food. I'd like to add the staff was fantastic offering great customer service.

Carl commented the interior and feel of Bette's is really retro, not like restaurants that try to be retro but don't quite pull it off. There's definitely an authenticity about Bette's which is just a bit surprising because the restaurant opened 29 years ago in 1982. Sitting at our booth it was easy to believe the diner had been there twice as long!

The decor is colorful and whimsical! Hanging high above, behind the counter, near the register is a giant slice of pie with an even larger Bette's Oceanview Diner sign filling what would otherwise be a big empty space.

Mimosa Cocktail ($5.95)

This month I was wild right off the top by ordering a breakfast cocktail. With alcohol! Since I don't drink alcohol this was going all out. But when I saw the Pomegranate, Champagne, Lime and Grenadine Mimosa on the menu it called my name. I drank the whole thing but truthfully I think I would have preferred a virgin cocktail instead :) There's just something about the flavor of alcohol that I just don't get.

I did get a bit of a kick posting on Facebook that I was getting schnockered before 10:00 AM. That status update drew a few comments and my friend Kathleen issued an online sobriety test asking me how many fingers was she holding up. It was ok though. Carl was the designated driver that day. LOL

Spicy Scrambled Eggs ($7.95)

We tried two dishes. First up were the Spicy Scrambled Eggs. The eggs were mixed with salsa then very softly scrambled and were served with the most delicious home fries and, that day, an even more delicious pumpkin spice muffin. I'd definitely order this again but think I'd ask for the eggs to be spicier. They were flavorful but I couldn't quite taste the "spice."

See the fresh bananas peeking out of the Soufflé Pancake ($12.95)?

This is what I really wanted to try... The Soufflé Pancake. I'd seen it on Diners Drive-ins and Dives. There are several choices for fillings and I let Carl choose. He chose the Bananas and Rum. Hmmmm first a champagne Mimosa then a huge pancake with rum, what a boozy breakfast I had :D

The rum infused pancake batter is mixed with fluffy egg whites and poured into a pan. It's first cooked on the stove top and after a minute or so the fresh banana slices are dropped on top allowing them to sink into the souffle mixture without settling to the bottom. The pan then moves to brown under a salamander before being finished in an oven. It was so good I had to get Bette's cook book so I can learn to make them at home!

Here's the funny part. I don't like pancakes, souffles or maple syrup. But I loved the Soufflé Pancake with maple syrup over the top! It was so light, both in texture and flavor. Even with the maple syrup it wasn't too sweet, melted in our mouths and was definitely a winner!

I also loved that along the underside of the counter are purse hooks! Brilliant!

Right next door is Bette's To Go.

It's a small deli and bakery filled with salads, cookies, cakes, tarts, muffins, pies, cup cakes, bread pudding, etc. etc. etc.

Our next stop is one of my most favorite places in Berkeley... The Pasta Shop (ETA: btw they ship nationwide). It's a gourmet grocery with a great cheese department, lots of fresh and dried pastas, imported everything and an impressive deli and pastry case.

Noteworthy is that it is also one of the friendliest stores I've ever shopped in. Both the employees and other shoppers were chatting us up, so much so that we spent longer in The Pasta Shop than we did at any other restaurant that day! Carl did a nice recap on his blog about a great guy we met there named Beaver. He works at the store and shared such cool stories about his time living abroad in Europe that we felt as if we'd actually been to Spain and Italy after talking to him!

When I've visited Fourth Street in the past there were only two places I loved to eat. One is The Pasta Market. It's great for a quick bite and a real treat.

The only drawback is there is no indoor seating but there is a public patio right outside the shop where you can usually find an available chair or bench so you can enjoy your lunch and get some fresh air too!

Brussels Sprout Salad (1 pint $2.95)

Carl let me choose what we'd eat that day. My eye immediately zoomed in on this shredded Brussels sprout salad with a honey vinaigrette. I loved it. It was light, fresh, healthy and affordable.

Cheese Bread ($2.50)

The perfect foil to what I felt was a super healthy salad was this cheese bread that one of the employees recommended we try. This isn't an ordinary cheese bread. It is the epitome of cheese bread. It is the cheese bread lesser cheese breads wish they could be. I asked what kind of cheese was used and was told it's a combination of Mozzarella and Parmesan but their website says Fontina and Asiago. I'm not sure which is right but don't really care because it tastes awesome no matter what the cheeses are. There's soft strands of once gooey melted cheese kind of swirled in the middle on the inside and toasted brown puddles of cheese on the outside. I had to buy a second one to take home for later.

Apple and Pear Galette ($4.50)

In the pastry case I was tempted by this gorgeous Apple and Pear Galette. See those crunchy crystals of sugar baked all around the edge of the buttery pastry crust? I am happy to report that the galette didn't disappoint. In fact I'm rather thankful that The Pasta Market is an hour away because almost everything in it is quite impossible to resist.

Our next stop was at my personal favorite restaurant in Berkeley. Over the years I've eaten at quite a few places and no other has ever out-shined O Chamé's Japanese cuisine. Tucked away behind a low stucco wall with a single arched entryway into their courtyard with just a small sign out front, it would be easy to walk by and fail to notice the restaurant if you're not paying attention. I shopped in Berkeley for years before I noticed it and ventured in for my first bowl of their delicious ramen noodles.

I always feel charmed when I walk into through O Chamé's door. The walls are a soft, pastel buttercup yellow and the warm, rich wood tables create a cozy ambiance. Small details like the artfully folded napkin and the smooth, stone hashioki (pronounced Ha-she-oh-key which translates to chopstick rest in Japanese) really set a tranquil tone where one can't help but to slow down, take notice and enjoy your meal. Dining at O Chamé you shouldn't ever feel rushed. Dining there is an experience to savor.

The Wild Arugula Salad ($9.50)

Carl chose two dishes I'd never had before. The first was this beautiful Arugula Salad with Golden Beets and Salted Eggs with a light vinaigrette. The dish was perfection. The flavors were distinct and pure. The eggs were perfectly hard boiled to the exact moment when the yolks became solid but not opaque creating yolks that matched the beets in both color and translucency.

O Chamé's Signature Pancakes with Seasonal Vegetables ($8.00)

And the White Corn and Green Onion Pancakes were OUT OF THIS WORLD. The funny thing is I don't even like pancakes and now in one day I'd tried two new kinds of pancakes and loved both! The Soufflé Pancake for breakfast and these savory pancakes for lunch.

Part of the magic was the sesame (and I think) miso dipping sauce. I was tempted to drench each bite in the sauce but that might have overpowered the sweet crisp corn and fresh slivers of green onion. The texture of the pancake was more dense than a breakfast pancake so as a meal it was hearty and so very satisfying.

Wagashi for dessert ($6.00)

For dessert we ordered the "Wagashi" a Japanese word that describes different types of confections. The manju served at O Chamé is always wonderful and, like the pancakes, also changes with the seasons. Manju consists of cooked sweet rice pounded into a sticky mass that is then torn off into small sections rolled into a flattened disc, filled with sweetened red and white bean pastes, pinched closed and rolled into a sometimes roundish or flattened patty shape.

On a previous visit to O Chamé in January 2010 I had the Sweet Potato, Lotus Root and Radichio Tempura and Wagashi for dessert. One of the Wagashi was shaped like a little peach and the other (while not as beautiful) was mugwort, my favorite flavor.

Our final stop was at a Mexican restaurant I'd never tried before. Tacubaya is right next door to The Pasta Market but I'd never wandered over in all the years I've visited Fourth Street. What's up with that? I suspect it might have been the not so exciting exterior had never caught my eye.

There is a small, brightly colored menu in one of the front window but I really had no idea what to expect as we entered the restaurant.

The interior colors of Tacubaya were fun and flirty!

Wow! Inside we found brightly colored walls and throngs of people. Tacubaya was packed! I'm sure part of the reason for their success is that they are a locavore style Mexican restaurant who uses not only locally produced foods, they also focus on organic, sustainably produced ingredients from their meats to their produce to their agua frescas. Everything about their menu screams quality, is fresh and made from scratch daily.

Chili Rellenos ($7.75)

We were pretty full by then but Carl thought the Chili Rellenos sounded good. Um, not only did they sound good, the looked good and tasted reeeeeeally good! A short wait and the next thing we knew a server dropped off this very large, golden, battered and fried poblano chile stuffed with potatoes, cranberries, leaks and mixed cheeses served in a red sauce that was garnished with crema and fresh cilantro. A side of fresh tortillas was included.

I'm not a huge tortilla fan myself but Carl said they were the best he's ever had.

Now that I've been to Tacubaya I definitely want to go again. I saw several super tasty looking dishes on the menu like the Tamal de Calabaza, a tamale filled with butternut squash, pureed black beans and mixed cheeses topped with salsa verde, creama and cilantro. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

They also had a surprisingly large coffee menu with everything from dripped-to-order Blue Bottle Coffee from Chiapas, Mexico to classic Italian cafe favorites like Espresso, Cappuccinos and Lattes to my favorite, the Mocha and something to try another time, their Mexican coffee "Cafe de Olla" a drip coffee sweetened with piloncillo, an unrefined Mexican sugar, and served with a cinnamon stick in a bowl. (Hmm, that should probably have been at least two sentences LOL)

Along with great food Fourth Street is also home to lots of unique shops and popular brands. Some of my favorites are Thousand Cranes, The Gardener, The Stained Glass Garden, and a Japanese paper store named Miki's Paper. There are many more as well as larger brands like Sur la Table, Anthropolgie, Kiehl's, Apple and the Crate and Barrel Outlet.

You can easily spend an entire day on Fourth Street and now you'll know where to eat!

Bette's Oceanview Diner
1807 Fourth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 644-3932

The Pasta Shop
1786 Fourth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 250-6004

O Chamé
1830 Fourth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 841-8783

1788 Fourth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 525-5160

If you enjoyed this post you'll probably enjoy our previous adventures this year:

Where to Eat: A Willow Glen Food Tour

A Surprisingly Delicious Pleasanton Food Tour

A Pescadero Food Tour: Where and What to Eat Off HWY 1

A Bay Area Cheap Eats and Secret Menu Food Adventure

• A Palo Alto, Epicurean Food Tour

• Our May, East Bay, Berkeley and Oakland Food Adventure

• Meet the Kids on The Harley Farms Goat Dairy Tour

• Beyond Sushi: A South Bay Japanese Food Adventure

• Beyond the Beach: A Santa Cruz Food Adventure

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