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Restaurant Guide

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Oakland’s Vientian Cafe makes one of the best Lao-style crispy rice salads in the region. - FILE PHOTO BY CHRIS DUFFEY
  • File Photo by Chris Duffey
  • Oakland’s Vientian Cafe makes one of the best Lao-style crispy rice salads in the region.


American

Grinders Submarine Sandwiches 2069 Antioch Ct., Oakland, 510-339-3721. Study the menu well before you belly up to the counter at Grinders, a tiny sandwich shop in Montclair Village: The owner will fire a barrage of questions at you about every conceivable topping you could put on your sandwich. You'd better have a strong opinion about your choices, because he does, too, and he'll let you know when you've committed a delicatess-sin. The payoff for the high-speed, high-stress grilling: Your favorite sandwich gets saved in the database, to be called up onscreen when you return. $

The Hobnob 1313 Park St., Alameda, 510-769-1011. With its stacks of board games and slat-backed benches built by one of the owners, this is a bar with a bring-the-kids vibe, perfect for Park Street. With sugary additions such as 7UP in the mojitos, the house cocktails are wholesome, too. But chef and co-owner Amy Voisenat's small-plates menu balances fancy with Alameda's tropical-shirt sensibility, like skinny fries turned subtly sophisticated with a side of fantastic truffle-oil aioli. Execution doesn't match intention in every dish, but things like crab cakes and garlicky sautéed prawns have an unfussy polish. $-$$

Hotel Mac 50 Washington Ave., Richmond, 510-233-0576. Retro American specialties like Cobb salad, pot roast, rack of lamb, and pineapple upside-down cake share menu space with spring rolls, jerk chicken, and chai crème brûlée at this unfocused, albeit affable eatery housed within a venerable Point Richmond B&B. Although the bill of fare is littered with perfunctory, uninspired land mines, there are enough delectable dishes to inspire a memorable meal or two: bright, sparkly oysters Rockefeller; creamy shrimp tostadas touched with wasabi and cilantro; a chewy yet richly flavored prime rib; an irresistible Snickers-laden candy bar pie. The ambience is generic yet pleasantly timeworn. $$$

Meal Ticket 1235 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-526-6325. The fiercely antipretentious couple who owns Meal Ticket want to make sure you get your bang for your buck. The Carters make everything in-house from fresh, high-quality ingredients, and while the food is simple it's always good, especially the cornmeal pancakes and the omelets. Order at the counter and get your own coffee; after that, the service (friendly when it's slow, brusque when it's not) takes over. $-$$

Sam's Log Cabin 945 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 510-558-0502. Sam's really is a log cabin, one that has endured dozens of tenants since it was built in the WPA era. These days the superstrong coffee, like the eggs, is organic, and the pulpy orange juice is so fresh it's almost still warm from the sun. At breakfast time a crowd gathers for nicely done egg dishes, pancakes thick and thin, and Hobbs applewood-smoked bacon. $$

Smokehouse 3115 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, 510-845-3640. If you don't know where the Smokehouse is, you must be a vegetarian recluse. It's a shack. You eat outside. The fries are fresh. The burgers are skinny — you'll want a double. The reason everyone goes to the Smokehouse is that the meat tastes as if it was actually cooked on a real grill instead of a griddle. $

top dog 2160 Center St., Berkeley, 510-849-0176. 2534 Durant Ave., Berkeley, 510-843-5967. 2503 Hearst Ave., Berkeley, 510-843-1241. top dog will make you remember why the all-beef frank made America great. The "top" is a slightly smoky, firm, meaty sausage, not a scarily overprocessed weenie. Sausage lovers will find everything from bratwurst to soy dogs to hot links; skip the bland turkey sausage, though. A late-night favorite with Cal students — especially since everything costs less than $4. $

The Vault Cafe & Restaurant 3250 Adeline St., Berkeley, 510-595-9600. Enormous, sunny restaurant dishing up healthy, hearty breakfast and lunch fare that's a cut above. The chef gives only a few nods to contemporary California cuisine — garlic-basil spread on the burgers, an eggplant and zucchini sandwich, a selection of fruit smoothies. But the West Coast influence shines through in the clean flavors, fresh ingredients, and food that's light on grease. $-$$

Z Cafe and Bar 2735 Broadway, Oakland, 510-451-2905. Oakland's Auto Row may be a daft place to open a neighborhood bistro — after hours, there are more shiny new cars around here than neighbors. But it's precisely the chummy neighborhood vibe that makes Sheila and Mehdi Zarekari's cafe an easygoing place to grab a Caesar, a burger, and a drink (the bar stocks more than one hundred vodkas). The rest of the menu can be clunky, but the grand-looking 1920s-era building communicates its own sense of grace. $$

Barbecue

Everett & Jones Barbeque 126 Broadway, Oakland, 510-663-2350. 1955 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-8261. 296 A St., Hayward, 510-581-3222. 4245 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, 510-698-4340. This chain of family-owned barbecue establishments serves up traditionally smoked and grilled ribs, chicken, brisket, and beef links for both takeout and onsite dining. Although the ribs aren't up to the high standards of Memphis, Chicago, and Kansas City, they're luscious, spicy, and satisfying, and the chicken and the brisket are marvelously tender and smoky. (The tough, oddly textured beef links are safely avoidable, however.) Sides include rich, earthy pinto beans; silky, pungent greens; unexciting candied yams; and a crisp, spiky coleslaw. Get the sweet potato pie for dessert. $$

Uncle Willie's Original BBQ and Fish 614 14th St., Oakland, 510-465-9200. Uncle Willie Thomas produces mega-smoky Texas-style barbecue in barrel grills he fashioned himself, slathering on a marinade he calls "bugga juice." With a mesquite-and-hickory aura that sticks in your nose like creosote, the chicken is mandatory. Ribs and links are equally smokalicious, but the brisket is a letdown for those who like their barbecue tender enough to shred with a plastic fork. The made-from-scratch sides are nice, but skip the so-so fried fish. $-$$

Brazilian

Rio California Cafe 1233 Preservation Park Way, Oakland, 415-235-4746. This Brazilian lunch spot, located on the first floor of a restored Victorian that sits within spitting distance of I-980, is one of Oakland's best-kept secrets. Ney Araujo, the Rio California's gregarious chef-owner, opened the cafe in the late Nineties, offering an affordable lunch option for employees of the dozens of nonprofits in Preservation Park — and for whoever else cares to come. Araujo's mayo-heavy salad-based sandwiches are classic Rio de Janeiro beach fare, while his impeccably grilled jerk chicken offers an unexpected taste of Jamaica. Don't miss out on the feijoada, a black-bean stew that is Brazil's national dish — for good reason, you'll conclude, after tasting Araujo's complex, savory version. Meanwhile, the sprawling, shady outdoor patio makes for as peaceful a lunch spot as you'll find in Downtown Oakland. $-$$

Cajun/Creole

Angeline's Louisiana Kitchen 2261 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-6900. Modeled after the neighborhood places founder Robert Volberg researched in New Orleans just before Katrina hit, Angeline's feels small-parish authentic. Chef Brandon Dubea, a native of Baton Rouge, offers surprisingly manicured versions of dishes too often blown up into caricature. The jambalaya is restrained, and Dubea's gumbo (thin, swampy-black from long-cooked roux, a weedy undercurrent of filé) is nice and homey. Order anything cornmeal-crusted — the kitchen's sauté skills are solid. $-$$

California Cuisine

Chez Panisse 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-5525 downstairs or 510-548-5049 cafe. The little house in Berkeley where Alice Waters served her first French prix fixe back in 1971 is still the epicenter of Northern California's local foods movement. The nominally more formal downstairs dining room serves a nightly menu that, as always, is like a GPS locator for the current season. Meanwhile, the upstairs cafe feels a bit like a museum devoted to California Cuisine. Wood-fired pizzas still wear unorthodox toppings (sorrel and anchovies, say). Then again, baked goat cheese with garden lettuces has been around so long it feels familiar in the way the best things are — the way that constantly delights. $$$-$$$$

Flora 1900 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-286-0100. Situated across the street from the Fox Theater in the ornate cobalt-blue Floral Depot building, Flora lures in a happy-hour and dinner crowd with its long glowing bar and ample menu. The cuisine is standard Californian, more predictable than revolutionary — which might surprise fans of its owners' other establishments, Doña Tomás and Tacubaya. Still, Flora has nailed the classics — particularly the grilled strip steak (dinner). (California Cuisine, New American) $$-$$$

Lalime's 1329 Gilman St., Berkeley, 510-527-9838. One of Berkeley's most Berkeley spots. Each month's menu highlights what local farmers have on hand. The building, a converted house, is a little cozy and a little tony, while the attentive service shows just why Lalime's has lasted 25 years. The predominantly older clientele looks to have been visiting since the restaurant opened; one senses the appeal is in the familiarity. $$$

Nomad Cafe 6500 Shattuck Ave., Oakland, 510-595-5344. A sunny cafe filled with laptop-surfers, all tuned to free wireless Net access. Nomad serves a small menu of enlightened cafe food: Cal-Med sandwiches, hummus plates, and freshly whizzed smoothies. Perfect for those days when a stale bagel or reheated piroshki won't do. $

Pappo 2320 Central Ave., Alameda, 510-337-9100. Pappo's simple, true California cuisine may lack for surprises but is full of delights. The long brick-walled room has felt like a neighborhood favorite from its first month. Chef-owner John Thiel tailors the menu to the moment, such as a pumpkin-apple soup with sage crème fraîche and pecan dust that tastes like a love note to autumn. If you spot roast duck, don't pass it up, and end the meal with a Pappogato, a root beer float with class. $$$

Westside Bakery Cafe 2570 Ninth St., Berkeley, 510-845-4852. This longtime West Berkeley cafe/bakery/hangout is now open for dinner with a full bar, an upscale (yet affordable) California-cuisine bill of fare, and a kitchen that often lives up to the menu's aspirations. Begin with the extra-comforting Aztec hominy-avocado soup, try the tender leg of lamb or the marvelous spicy-creamy pulled pork with polenta at entrée time, and finish things off with the simple yet satisfying fruit oatmeal crisp. Brief wine list; perfunctory surroundings. $$$

Wood Tavern 6317 College Ave., Oakland, 510-654-6607. Wood Tavern aspires to be the perfect little neighborhood bistro and, in a part of town that can afford entrées in the twenty-dollar-plus range, it works. The handsome storefront embraces the woodsy semiotics of masculine comfort — the perfect setting for the food, which packs hunky flavors into dishes revealing solid technical chops. Wicked Good Seafood Stew is a sprawling, cioppino-like concoction with the salty wallop of linguiça, and the pan-roasted chicken is tasty enough to make you want to make this place a weekly habit. $$-$$$

Caribbean

Sweet Fingers Jamaican Restaurant 464 E. 14th St., San Leandro, 510-553-9869. Several delectable examples of Jamaica's spicy, supple cookery are prepared and served at this unprepossessing San Leandro hole in the wall. The jerk chicken is juicy and jazzy; the fried plantains are creamy; the escovitch-style snapper, curry goat, brown stew chicken, and braised oxtail are uniformly rich, spiky, and tantalizing. The curry shrimp and the rice and beans are nothing special, but save room for a slice of navy bean pie. Friendly, helpful service; lively bar scene; live music Fridays and Saturdays. $$


Central American

Fonda Restaurant and Bar 1501A Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-559-9006. This stylish restaurant serves small plates of rustic pan-Latin food. All its antojitos are both novel to the uninitiated and superbly prepared, as are stews such as the tinga poblana (pork, potato, and chipotle). These dishes are meant to soak up the booze, which includes tasty — and expensive — cocktails, hundreds of spirits, and North American, European and South American wines. $$-$$$

Platano 2042 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-704-0325. The Salvadoran dishes here glow with accomplishment, from unusually delicate pupusas to casamiento, rice and black beans sautéed together until they're crispy and almost fluffy-light. Irma Mischler's handsome, earth-toned dining room is a spinoff of Kaliente, her mom Maria's impeccable Salvadoran cafe in El Sobrante. Like Kaliente, Platano is a good place to get acquainted with the cuisine, through friendly service and clean-tasting versions of El Salvador's rustic, homey cooking. $-$$

Pupuseria Lupita 3340 Foothill Blvd., Oakland, 510-436-3851. Comb the menu to separate the Mexican and American chaff from Salvadoran gold at this family-run place that shares seating with a cybercafe. The pupusas are straight-up tasty — opt for the chicharron filling, which has a moist and mashy richness reminiscent of French pork rillettes. Chicken-filled pastelitos have well-made masa crusts and the dark resonance of toasted chiles. Don't forget to check out the lush Salvadoran goodies at the restaurant's tamale wagon in the adjacent parking lot. $

Taqueria La Bamba 12345 San Pablo Ave., Richmond, 510-235-2288. Taqueria La Bamba dishes up the real thing: homestyle Salvadoran food and respectable Mexican antojitos. Salt can be a problem with the Mexican-style meats. Come here for pupusas, Salvadoran tamales, creamy refried beans, and heartbreakingly good tortillas, patted out and grilled to order.$

Chinese

Bay Fung Tong Seafood Tea House 1916 Franklin St., Oakland, 510-832-3298. Amid the sea of modern-looking cafes and upscale boutiques that populate today's Uptown Oakland, Bay Fung Tong Seafood Tea House sticks out — for its weathered, Chinese-style facade and its affordable, old-school Cantonese cooking. Your best bets are the seafood dishes, including the restaurant's signature "Bay Fung Tong style" (aka typhoon shelter style) crab — a Hong Kong specialty that features a whole batter-fried crab buried under a mound of crispy fried garlic, sliced chilies, fermented black beans, and, most surprisingly, some kind of pork that's vaguely reminiscent of bulk Italian sausage. Deep-fried sand dab is another winner from the seafood section, and you'd be wise to round out your meal with an order of tong choy (water spinach) sautéed with fermented bean curd. $$

Ben's Restaurant 398 3rd St., Oakland, 510-763-8336. There are many reasons you might not have heard of Ben's Restaurant — because it's a Chinese restaurant that caters, in large part, to non-Chinese; because of its location, tucked away in the Jack London produce district; because it's a cash-only place that closes at 2 p.m. and isn't open on the weekend. Here's what you need to know: For 25 years, chef-owner Ben Fung has served tasty, inexpensive Chinese food to a diverse, loyal customer base. The restaurant's crowning glories are its crunchy, surprisingly grease-free batter-fried chicken (an off-menu special available on Wednesdays only) and its house-made black-bean hot sauce. But really, much of the menu is great: luxurious, comforting shrimp and scrambled eggs over rice; chow mein and fried rice dishes that feature fresh, wok-charred vegetables; and more. Best of all, an entire meal will only run you about six bucks. $

China Village 1335 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-525-2285. Long the East Bay's foremost purveyor of authentic Sichuan fare — a cuisine of fiery chilies and tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns — China Village returned from a 2012 fire with an attractively remodeled dining room and the same great food. Highlights from chef-owner John Yao's menu include wok-charred cabbage, mapo tofu with a whole Dungeness crab, and the restaurant's signature West-style 1,000 chili-pepper fish fillet soup. Expect a long wait if you haven't made a reservation, especially during peak weekend dinner hours. $$-$$$

Da Lian 1674 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-883-1883. Chef/owner Benli Zou grew up in Dalian, a megacity in the north of China fueled by lamb, wok-baked sesame bread, and serious garlic. Those things spark Zou's menu, too, especially lamb with Chinese pickled cabbage, an enormous soup that balances the yin of house-made pickles with the musky yang of lamb fat. Order carefully: While the chef's northern Chinese fare catches fire, the bulk of his menu is neighborhood-takeout-grade Cantonese. $-$$

Golden Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant 1301 Franklin St., Oakland, 510-893-0383. Though you'll find a lot of meat on the menu at Golden Lotus, every nugget of flesh is actually a skillful gluten facsimile. This Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant serves brightly flavored, fresh, inexpensive vegetarian fare. Many order the grilled "chicken," the Vietnamese noodle dishes, and the hot pot, or come at lunch for quick to-go combo plates. Golden Lotus is run by followers of Supreme Master Chiang Hai, a Buddhist spiritual master and fashion designer. $

Great China 2190 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, 510-843-7996. After suffering a fire, this titan of regional Chinese cookery has reopened in a new, modern-looking space located around the corner from its previous location. Now, the creaky charm of the original dining room has been supplanted by sleek minimalism, and an actual host stand has replaced the old front-of-house system (a pad of paper). Most importantly, the food is better than ever. The restaurant is best known for its Peking duck — a showstopper of a dish — but the menu offers an abundance of other, more understated pleasures: delicate fish dumplings; tiny, tempura-battered fried oysters; steamed surf clams served on the half-shell topped with oil and scallions; and sautéed Dungeness crab that you spoon into puffy steamed buns, like a Chinese reinterpretation of a crab roll. And although much of its award-winning wine collection was lost in the fire, Great China remains a worthy destination for oenophiles — a rarity among Chinese restaurants. $$-$$$

Kirin 1767 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-524-1677. One of the most elegantly appointed Chinese restaurants in the East Bay, copper-colored Kirin has earthenware tiles, stratospheric ceilings, and a glass-walled open kitchen. It focuses on Northern Chinese and Sichuan cuisine, so diners should too; dumplings and buns, house-made noodles, and rich, spicy stir-fried entrées. $$

Long Life Vegi House 1725 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-845-6072. This no-frills Chinese restaurant is not strictly vegetarian — the menu includes seafood dishes like steamed whole fish and crispy scallops in a chile-garlic sauce — but you'll find plenty of veggies in the house, and the plates are big and cheap. Vegetarian dishes like the house-special green-bean-ball soup and faux meats keep 'em coming. $

Peony Seafood Restaurant 388 9th St., Ste. 288, Oakland, 510-286-8866. The flavors of Hong Kong are served with panache at this Oakland Chinatown purveyor of abalone soup, Muslim lamb with scallions and cardamom, chicken with double-fried vermicelli, tableside-skinned duck, steamed seafood fresh from the fish tank, and other delicacies. Lunchtime dim sum is on the perfunctory side, but it's very popular. Large, elegant setting; service ranges from overbearing to nonexistent. $$

Renee's Place 1477 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-525-2330. Renee's Place is as Westerner-friendly as Chinese restaurants get. The room, chic and romantically lit with silk lanterns, deserves a Prada-clad clientele (you'll feel comfortable in there, too). The service couldn't be friendlier. Meats and veggies come from eco-friendly sources. Renee's serves Chinese-American cuisine (think sweeter, glossier, familiar dishes), but it's fresh and flavorful. $$

Shanghai Restaurant 930 Webster St., Oakland, 510-465-6878. There's no mystery to the name: This hole-in-the-wall specializes in the cosmopolitan cuisine of this coastal Chinese city. Look over the case in back for a few cold plates to start your meal with, and then try such favorites as xiao long bao (Shanghai-style soup dumplings, which shoot out a burst of broth when you bite into them), unfishy shredded eel, red-cooked meats, and Shanghai-style noodles. $-$$

Yung Kee Restaurant 888 Webster St., Oakland, 510-839-2010. Two-story restaurant with a butcher in front selling roast pork, duck, and top-notch roast chicken. You can buy meat to go or, if you're not bothered by the low-rent decor, sit down and order simple but tasty Cantonese fare: roast meats, congee, stir-fried noodles, noodle soups, or rice plates. $

Deli

The Junket 235 El Cerrito Plaza, El Cerrito, 510-524-4622. An expat magnet for 27 years, this expansive deli and grocery specializes in hearty sandwiches, mainly meats, especially German favorites such as ham and blood sausage. But various cheeses and three vegetarian options are available. German beer is on tap, and gleaming on the neat grocery shelves are hard-to-find packaged candies, condiments, and other imports from Germany and Britain, the owners' home countries. $

Sandwich Board 2412 Webb Ave., Alameda, 510-521-3366. For more than thirty years, this tiny, homespun sandwich shop has been popular with lunching locals. You can get corned beef, liverwurst, or smoked ham on your choice of breads, but the sandwiches with fresh turkey, roasted on the premises daily, prove the biggest draw. $

Sea Breeze Market and Deli 598 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-486-8119. For more than twenty years, this market and deli, patched together out of trailers and shipping crates, has been offering sandwiches, seafood, and produce that far surpasses the promise of its exterior. Get a smoothie from the espresso-blender bar or a fish sandwich from the deli and sit out on the patio watching the cars speed by. The salads in the deli case are also worth a try. $

Diner

Pretty Lady 1733 Peralta St., Oakland, 510-832-1213. At Pretty Lady, every customer receives a fist bump, and anyone who's in the mood can request a complimentary plate of homemade kimchi — even though the place is mainly an old-fashioned greasy spoon, not a Korean restaurant. But part of this West Oakland diner's charm is the fact that teriyaki rice plates seem perfectly comfortable sharing menu space with cheesesteaks and Denver omelets. The cheesesteak is quite good, the omelets are hearty and workmanlike, and the breakfast burrito (available with kimchi inside, if you request it) is one of the better versions in town. $-$$

Rudy's Can't Fail Cafe 4081 Hollis St., Emeryville, 510-594-1221. Like the mod LA coffee shop Swingers, Rudy's dishes up style, snarl, and hangover-stanching diner fare. The name is an homage to the Clash, but the decor mines post-punk kitsch: a glowing blue display case of big-hair Barbies and tabletops whose resin-packed depths reveal plastic tchotchkes like Pez dispensers. It's the perfect vibe for the geeky Pixar workers and tattooed kids with pendulous earlobe plugs digging into burgers or daily specials like meatloaf. Breakfast is served all day, including the mega-toothsome Your Own Private Eyedaho, a plate-spanning chunk of hash browns gilded with Cheddar and fried egg. $-$$

English/Irish

Kensington Circus Pub 389 Colusa Ave., Kensington, 510-524-8814. Mum and da drink and play darts while the bairns mess about with toys provided by the management — just as they do at pubs in England. Most of the menu is British, for better or worse, with faithful renderings of shepherd's pie, sausage dishes, and fish 'n' chips; patrons whose Anglophilia ends at the placemat make merry with burgers, pastas, and salads. The staff's willingness to prepare child-size portions has given this place a reputation as the Chuck E. Cheese of the bar world. Ten taps spout American microbrews and English favorites. $$

Ethiopian/ Eritrean

Cafe Colucci 6427 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-601-7999. Eating Ethiopian food is a highly social activity; it's hands-on and communal, and not for the uptight or spice-shy. You'll enjoy sitting in cozy, dimly lit Cafe Colucci for hours, picking bites of savory stews off the plate with injera-wrapped fingers and chatting with your friends. Red-meat addicts and vegans will find much to satisfy their hunger. Just don't order the pasta, a remnant of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. $-$$

Enssaro Ethiopian Cusine 357A Grand Ave., Oakland, Oakland, 510-238-9050. One of the most popular Ethiopian restaurants in the East Bay now boasts an expanded menu and a much larger dining room. Like most East African dining establishments, Enssaro offers an abundance of solid vegan and vegetarian options. But the highlights of the menu are hard-to-find meat dishes such as bozena shiro (a sloppy joe-like mixture of ground beef and chickpea flour sauce) and lamb derek tibs — a grilled meat dish that's probably the closest thing you'll find to Ethiopian barbecue. For diners who like to wash their injera down with a cold beer, Enssaro probably has the best booze selection among the area's Ethiopian eateries — not just honey wine and local craft beers on draft, but also a number of Ethiopian bottled brews. $$

French

Grégoire 2109 Cedar St., Berkeley, 510-883-1893. 4001 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-547-3444. At Grégoire, Jacquet's minuscule takeout restaurant, the affable Frenchman cooks all the food to order. You'll have trouble making it home with your stack of warm, heavenly smelling cardboard boxes without taking at least one peek. (Don't try to keep your hands off the crispy, cheesy potato puffs, because they're best straight out of the fryer.) Lunch features a bevy of memorable sandwiches; dinners are more expensive, albeit casual, restaurant-style entrées like rack of lamb. $-$$

German

Speisekammer 2424 Lincoln Ave., Alameda, 510-522-1300. From the looks of the menu, you might think that Speisekammer is as Teutonic as could be — red meat and potatoes abound — but once the food arrives, you remember that this is Northern California. The dishes have been lightened up, and there are even a couple of vegetarian options. Things to look for: spaetzle, red cabbage, pickled herring, Nurenburger bratwurst. The decor somehow balances hunting lodge and church basement with stylish aplomb. Speisekammer also boasts one of the best selections of German beer on tap in the East Bay. $$-$$$

Greek/Turkish

Asena 2508 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda, 510-521-4100. Deep, deep in the heart of the island lies a tiny, packed storefront restaurant that dishes up tasty Cal-fusion food at low prices. Asena's cuisine drifts lazily along the northern Mediterranean coast, picking up a pasta from Italy, ground lamb in phyllo from Greece, and spring lamb with rosemary from Provence. $$-$$$

Indian/Pakistani

Ajanta 1888 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-526-4373. With its fancy light fixtures, white tablecloths, and abundant silverware (a big fork and a little fork), Ajanta is one of the East Bay's more elegant Indian restaurants. More importantly, the food is as varied as it is refined, with a focus on creative preparations of harder-to-find regional specialties. The restaurant eschews typical curry-house standards such as chana masala and aloo gobi. Instead, the rotating menu of regional dishes might include things like seyal machi — perfectly cooked fish fillets served over a lush caramelized onion sauce — or dakshini gosht, a South Indian braised lamb dish with all the richness and depth of a good beef bourguignon. Even humble offerings like the mango lassi and the assortment of naan breads are much better than average. Reservations recommended. $$-$$$

Chaat Cafe 1902 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-845-1431. This critic's choice eatery serves up delicious lunch and dinner specials on a rotating basis plus a menu of chaat, curries, and the ever-popular chicken plate. Almost all dishes are accompanied by the best naan you've ever eaten. Tip: Go before 5 p.m. and pay the lunch price. $

Flavors of India 3211 College Ave., Berkeley, 510-658-3461. 3276 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland, 510-268-8957. 1337 Park St., Alameda, 510-522-6821. Neighborhood North Indian with freshness, bite, and tandoori wraps decent enough to serve as off-night alternatives to the megaburrito. The prim dining room may be the blandest thing about this little place. Opt for spicy, and a dish such as veggie masala or chicken saag can deploy the kind of burn that'll keep your water glass in constant play. The lunch menu is limited, but it's packed with bargains. $$

Kabana Restaurant 1025 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-845-3355. This recently relocated Pakistani restaurant serves robust, spicy curries and stir-fries that'll put hair on your chest. The goat curry and the Karachi chicken are real highlights, as are the puffy, crispy tandoor-cooked breads. (Indian/Pakistani, Kosher/Halal) $

Khana Peena 1889 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-528-2519. 5316 College Ave., Oakland, 510-658-2300. Most of us are familiar with Punjabi food — 90 percent of "Indian" restaurants in the US specialize in it — but Khana Peena has a few new tricks up its sleeve. Visitors to the sleekest Indian restaurant in the East Bay will find all the standards on the revolving menu along with new delights. The griddled breads (puris, prothas) top the tandoor-baked naan, and the zingy, fresh curries beat the overroasted meats time after time. $$

Mehak Indian Cuisine 2449 Sacramento St., Berkeley, 510-841-6118. You could recite Mehak's menu in your sleep: lamb, chicken, and seafood curries, along with tandoori meats, a goodly selection of vegetarian entrées, and breads — all respectfully prepared. But on the days when the Punjabi cooks pull out the stops and offer regional specials like Punjabi lamb masala and gobi kastoori, you'll find something special indeed. $

Priya Indian Cuisine 2072 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-644-3977. At dinner time, Priya serves a fairly standard mix of Northern and Southern Indian dishes, from arm-long masala dosas, crepes stuffed with spiced potatoes, to palak paneer. Their deluxe lunch buffet wins the real raves. The double-length steam table starts with veggie pakora and moves through spicy "Indian fried rice" and tandoori chicken legs into uncommon buffet fare like curried goat and rasam, a spicy tamarind soup. $-$$

Taste of the Himalayas 1700 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, 510-849-4983. The East Bay outpost of this popular mini-chain serves up impressive Nepalese, Tibetan, and Indian specialties in a lovely, tranquil setting. Momos (Tibetan steamed dumplings) make a delectable starter; entrée standouts include a lush, soul-stirring chicken vindaloo, tandoor lamb, shrimp and chicken served smoky and sizzling on a wooden platter, and a bountiful, paella-like Himalayan biryani. The salmon curry and rice pudding are best avoided, but don't miss the rich, chewy naan bread and sweet, spicy mango chutney. $$

Udupi Palace 1901 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-843-6600. Vegetarian South Indian restaurants are few and far between in the East Bay, so it's lucky Udupi Palace is so good. This national microchain specializes in dozens of varieties of gigantic, lacy dosas (rice and lentil flour crepes) and wet, nutty curries redolent of coconut and kari leaves. For less than $11 you can order a South Indian thali, two platters covered with tiny bowls of curries, chutneys, starches, and desserts. $

Vik's Chaat & Market 2390 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-644-4432. Vik's serves some of the best Indian

chaat (snacks) on the planet. Lunch specials rate as best buys, and the weekend specials are stellar. $

Italian

Dopo 4293 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-652-3676. After 12 years spent serving reliably excellent rustic Italian cuisine, Dopo reinvented itself as "Palmento a Dopo," adopting an all-Sicilian menu that draws inspiration from chef-owner Jon Smulewitz's family roots in Sicily and his annual trips to explore the island's rich food and wine culture. You see the Sicilian imprint most clearly in the daily-changing cold and hot antipasti section of the menu, which is served as an extended sequence of tiny plates, each one consisting of no more than a couple of bites. These might include airy-light fresh ricotta, chilled cuttlefish tossed with fava beans and little nubs of ricotta salata, and an assortment of deep-fried pasta or risotto balls. Meanwhile, Dopo's pasta dishes remain some of the best in town, and although the entrée selection tends to be somewhat limited, that just gives us more reason never to pass on the decadently rich polpette all'Etna — chicken-and-pancetta meatballs cooked in between citrus leaves. $$-$$$

Oliveto 5655 College Ave., Oakland, 510-547-5356. This airy, earth-toned restaurant and cafe continues to earn national kudos for the simplicity and elegance of its Northern-Italian-based menu. Chef Jonah Rhodehamel has taken over where Paul Canales left off, and meals move gracefully from house-made salumi and feather-light pastas to braised pork belly. Downstairs, the renovated cafe offers a cozy, classy little venue for all-day, everyday snacking, sipping, and dining. $$$-$$$$

Riva Cucina 800 Heinz Ave., Berkeley, 510-841-7482. Chef-owner Massimiliano Boldrini grew up in Emilia-Romagna, the Italian region that invented pasta. Naturally, the many house-made shapes are fantastic, framed with the kind of radical simplicity that makes a dish like tubes with tomato sauce and grilled sardines taste primordial. Boldrini is fussy about his seafood — it's usually local and consistently delicious. The semi-hidden space he's carved out feels casual for a restaurant with such serious chops, but hey, it's all part of the charm. $$-$$$

Trattoria La Siciliana 2993 College Ave., Berkeley, 510-704-1474. Despite the fact that the local food cognoscenti rarely mention it, Trattoria La Siciliana remains wildly popular sixteen years after it first opened. The secret, in part, is garlic — tons of it, nowhere more prominent than in the intense olio della mamma, the complimentary dipping oil that starts your meal. Clearly, this is a restaurant that aims to bowl you over, to sock you in the face with flavor. And if you order wisely — sticking mostly to seafood dishes and Sicilian specialties — it's likely you'll be won over. Highlights include a seasonal heirloom-tomato salad that's amped up with olives, capers, and anchovy fillets; the bucatini chi finucchiede, whose saffron- and currant-based sauce speaks to Sicily's Moorish influence; and, most luxurious of all, the tutto mare linguine with its insanely addictive lobster-infused fresh tomato sauce. $$-$$$

Japanese/Sushi

Cha-Ya 1686 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-981-1213. Zen temple cuisine — shojin to those in the know — is strictly vegetarian, with architectural arrangements of land and sea veggies whose subtlety, sauced and unsauced, blasts any fears you might have about boring blandness. The menu includes shredded-vegetable and soba salads, satisfying noodle soups, and sushi. The pot-sticker-like gyoza positively burst with flavor. $$

Coach Sushi 532 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-834-7866. Owner Hiro Okada was a baseball coach in Tokyo, but chances are he wasn't the kind who kicked dirt at the ump. The smiling Okada is a sweetie of a host, which is what sets his unassuming sushi joint apart from a gazillion others. Plus at $3.50, the masu sake has to be the cheapest buzz in town — your traditional wooden cup never goes empty. Afterwards, if you can still see straight, etch your name on it; the coach will have it ready for you next time you show up. $$

Kirala 2100 Ward St., Berkeley, 510-549-3486. Chic, lively Kirala is a godsend for pickers and grazers. Not only does it serve some of the East Bay's freshest, thickest sushi, but the robata grill puts out close to forty kinds of skewers — from scallops to corn on the cob. And the sake list has been compiled by connoisseurs for connoisseurs. The only downside? The wait: Kirala's already so packed from open to close that they don't take reservations. $$

Koryo Sushi 4390 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-594-0661. Business at Koryo picks up just when other restaurateurs would be clearing up the tables around you and looking pointedly at the door. That's because this jewel box of a restaurant is one of the best of the East Bay's scant late-night eateries. By two in the morning you'd expect the cooks to get a little sloppy with the wakame scattered across the agedashi and start slicing their dwindling fish stocks super-thin, but no: It's still all good. $$

Manpuku 2977 College Ave., Berkeley, 510-848-2536. Skinny little Manpuku is a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll. Locals pack in for inexpensive, homey Japanese standards — noodles, teriyaki dishes, curries, and sushi. Bento boxes with specialties like pork katsu and teriyaki salmon hold enough food to stuff a sumo wrestler. At lunch, the refrigerated case of prepackaged sushi and salads empties out fast. $-$$

Mijori Sushi 3260 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-465-8854. The biggest, thickest, butteriest slabs of fish are to be found at Mijori. And just about everyone in Oakland seems to know it. Since sushi chef Jimmy Kim took over the business from his father, he has introduced a line of bombastic, colorful American-style rolls, but one bite of his uni or hamachi nigiri will show you that his skills — and his tastes — are steeped in classic Japanese technique. $$

Mitama 3201 College Ave., Berkeley, 510-652-6157. If sushi joints were high school students, Mitama would be the shy art geek that all the honors English girls had crushes on. This quietly chic restaurant, with its buttery walls and clear-plastic sculptures, looks more Berkeley than Japan. Some of the dishes, like the mountain vegetable salad and asparagus with sesame, are extensions of Japanese food we're accustomed to, while others, like the colorfully named American sushi rolls and battered strips of nori, are as fusion as they come. $$-$$$

Miyozen 1147 40th St., Emeryville, 510-923-0311. The sleek cousin of the Oakland sushi bars Drunken Fish and Koryo, Miyozen is more about the space than the sushi, which tends to be uneven. Come here for the plush visuals, including mod cherry-blossom wallpaper and a snaking conveyor belt, which circulates plates of sushi and cheesecake around the massive bar. If you're devoted to humongous maki bursting with unagi, imitation crab salad, and avocado, Miyozen just might be the new altar at which you worship. $$

Sushi King 1650 Park St., Alameda, 510-523-9888. It's minuscule and easy to overlook, which may be why this four-seater buried in Park Street's upscale foodie mall seems like such a gem, a bona fide find. Most of the stuff is takeout, either prepacked or rolled to order. And though it might seem that you've seen these unagi-stuffed, tobiko-speckled maki rolls before, the better-than-average quality of Sushi King's seafood can make a Crazy Monkey Roll taste, well, better than average. Great selection of hand rolls, too. $$

Tsuru Sushi 1427 E. 14th St., San Leandro, 510-352-3748. San Leandro's best Japanese restaurant (run by a large, friendly Chinese-American family) carries not just the Old World standards — sushi, tempura, teriyaki — but funky New World interpretations. Tsuru's sushi chefs specialize in elaborate American rolls, like the E. 14th Roll, a mile-long construction with tempura prawns, avocado, spicy mayonnaise, and tobiko, or the Dynamite Roll, which is dipped in batter, deep-fried, and drizzled with hot and spicy sauce. $-$$

Uzen 5415 College Ave., Oakland, 510-654-7753. Minimalist Eighties decor meets rustic pottery at this tiny Japanese restaurant, where solid culinary technique takes the yawn out of good old classics like udon and teriyaki. Dine early if you want a full selection of sushi and daily specials: the chefs buy enough fish fresh for the day, so when they're out, you're out of luck. $$

Yoshi's Oakland 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland, 510-238-9200. Yoshi's champions both Japanese traditions and a style of nouvelle cuisine called "sousaku," adding sizzle to a place that has served as snack bar for the adjacent jazz club. The sushi is just okay, but the sousaku dishes excel. Broiled on sake-soaked cedar (to approximate Japanese charcoal), the Kurobuta pork chop is fierce. And barely smoked scallops splattered with truffle oil have the cool fire of vintage Miles. $$$

Yume Sushi 1428 Park St., Alameda, 510-865-7141. A meal at this tiny, hidden second-story restaurant is like eating in a treehouse: The locals would love to post a "Keep Out Outsiders" sign on the door, but instead they'll content themselves with the fact that you may never find it. Inside, the owner slices generous slabs of fish, and proffers beers and a big menu of small-plates like oshitashi, soy-braised tuna, and potato croquettes. $$$$

Zabu Zabu 1919 Addison St., #102, Berkeley, 510-848-9228. Shabu-shabu, Japan's contribution to communal, convivial tabletop cooking, stars at this sleek, trendy Berkeley hideaway. Diners dunk paper-thin slices of ribeye, lamb, pork, or chicken (or seafood or vegetables) in a burbling broth, re-dip them in a choice of sauces, and devour at will. Although the process becomes work-intensive and the vittles are on the bland side pre-saucing, it's a fun and festive option for a group of friends or a couple on their first date. Excellent selection of small plates includes cloudlike tempura, a spiky seaweed salad, and buttery baked mussels with scallions. Among the luncheon options are a rich, pungent unagi rice bowl and a bountiful bowl of dark-meat chicken soup with udon. $$$

Korean

Dan Sung Sa 2775 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-663-5927. Dan Sung Sa, aka "Porno Palace," is the most well known, and maybe the most raucous, Korean pub (or soju bang) in Oakland. No porn is involved — the restaurant is actually named after an old movie theater in Seoul, hence the (non-pornographic) movie posters plastered everywhere. You can, however, order "Porno Fries," a fusion-y riff on chili cheese fries topped with spicy pork. The menu is heavy on street snacks, but you can also order the same dishes you'd find at more formal Korean restaurants: barbecued meats, tofu stews, and such. Among the several different kinds of fried chicken available, the whole-chicken option (a Cornish game hen) has awesomely crispy skin. Finally, if — and only if — you're feeling daring, try the chrysalis soup: a spicy broth chock-full of maybe a hundred crunchy, peanut-size silkworm pupae. $$

Jong Ga House 372 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-444-7658. It's impossible not to overeat here. You order one entrée and it comes with twelve little dishes filled with pickled vegetables, salads, dried fish, and other delights — and they're all good, too. While the standard grilled meats are fine, let the servers steer you toward more unfamiliar stews, soups, and sautéed dishes, especially those containing fish. Vegetarian choices are limited but tasty. $$

Ohgane Korean Restaurant 3915 Broadway, Oakland, 510-594-8300. Ohgane is the kind of place where you can take your mother. And your grandfather. And your thirteen cousins and their kids, too. This Korean barbecue is big enough for several football teams to grill their own kalbi, chicken, and octopus. The quality of the barbecued meats, stews, and all the little side dishes is quite high. But when fourteen families decide to hold their reunions there, the servers can't keep up. $$-$$$

Oriental B.B.Q. Chicken Town 6101 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-595-5338. Though OB Town (as regulars call this popular Korean pub) looks a bit like a tiki bar inside — picnic tables, paper lanterns, an indoor "roof" — you'll find nary a Mai Tai on the menu. Instead, comically oversize plastic bottles of Korean beer and fruity soju cocktails are the drinks of choice. As for food, it's no surprise that chicken is the star — thirteen different versions, including several takes on the über-crisp double-fried chicken that Koreans are famous for. For maximal crunch, order the standard batter-fried chicken; for a saucier experience, go for the deliciously goopy soy-and-garlic marinated Gan Jang. Other crowd-pleasers include extremely garlicky garlic fries and ramen dduk bok ki, a street dish that consists of rice cake sticks, instant ramen, tofu triangles, and a hard-boiled egg — all swimming in a bright-red sweet-and-spicy sauce. $$

Pyeongchang Tofu House 4701 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-658-9040. Looking a little like a Bavarian lodge, Pyung Chang specializes in rustic soon dubu jjigae, spicy soft-tofu stews. The beef and mixed seafood stews are particularly good, and vegetarians will find dishes to suit their needs. If you're not sure how to eat your stew, don't worry; the waiters will be happy to boss you around. $$

Sahn Maru Korean BBQ 4315 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-653-3366. Though the menu lists barbecue, you won't find charcoal grills spewing essence de campfire at Sahn Maru. The restaurant specializes in Korean soups and stews, such as a kimchi soft tofu soup and a show-stopping, unique goat stew with sesame leaves and scallion. Some of the other grilled and steamed meats can vary in quality, but the pan-fried fish, pancakes, and myriad side dishes hit their marks. Prices are high, but so is the quality of the service. $-$$

Seoul Gomtang 3801 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-597-9989. You may have trouble finding Seoul Gom Tang II, since the sign is in Korean — look for the LCD sign in the window of a tiny building on the corner of MacArthur and Telegraph. Almost everyone in the restaurant is Korean, too, and they're all sitting in front of mammoth bowls of noodles. The steaming bowls are filled with gut-warming beef noodle soup, and the shallow ones with condensation around the rim hold iced buckwheat noodles in chilled beef broth, a summer favorite. Plus the kimchi is top-notch. $

Kosher/Halal

Holy Land 677 Rand Ave., Oakland, 510-272-0535. This well-worn, well-loved cafe serves Israeli fare as well as the diaspora's best hits. Everybody's here for a taste of home, be they from Tel Aviv, Manhattan, or St. Petersburg. Start with matzo ball soup, the big sinkers enriched with schmaltz, continue with chicken-filled kreplach, and then dive in to a platter of Israeli salads, freshly made falafel, and lamb shawarma. If you order Holy Land's halvah for dessert, you may find yourself loving the stuff for the very first time. $

Mexican

Best Burritos 10390 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, 510-525-8355. A certified chef in her native Korea, owner Won Eon bought a burrito shop after arriving in America and immediately began to experiment. Asian and Asian-American customers craved Asian flavors in convenient comfort-food shapes: Eon followed their advice. Thus the menu includes tofu burritos and teriyaki/bulgoki burritos along with standard Mexican varieties. All burritos here start with a large tortilla, onto which are spooned rice, boiled beans, chunky house-made salsa, and julienned lettuce and onion. The other fillings are sautéed to order and poured atop the rest to create a gigantic, satisfying surprise. $

Doña Tomás 5004 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-450-0522. Temescal's venerable nouveau-Mexican/California cuisine hotspot is as fun and festive as ever, especially on the inviting back patio, where the artisan margaritas taste especially delicious. The upscale menu offerings tend to lack the zest and deep-down satisfaction one associates with classic and casual Mexican cookery, but for the most part they're perfectly tasty nonetheless. Get the lime pie for dessert. Impressive tequila list. $$$

El Huarache Azteca 3842 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-533-2395. On a strip of phenomenal taco trucks, sit-down El Huarache Azteca stands out for its ultratraditional, carefully crafted Mexico City-style masa snacks. Try the gorditas with chicharrón, the pizza-like sopes, and the huaraches (named after the sandal they resemble) with refried beans, stewed meats, or sautéed fresh huitlacoche (a jet-black corn fungus). If you know what's best for you, you'll return on the weekend for posole and barbacoa, succulent pit-smoked lamb, with hand-patted tortillas and bowls of delicate consomé de barbacoa. $

Jalisco Restaurant 1721 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-436-8696. Jalisco is the OG of the local carnitas game: a family-owned institution dating back to the late Sixties. Open weekends only, the restaurant is the definition of a hole in the wall: little decor to speak of and long tables not so different from the kind used for church-basement potlucks. But oh, those carnitas: whole pork legs slow-braised in lard for eight to ten hours, resulting in meat that's exceedingly tender. If you're even moderately daring, order the "mixed" plate, which comes with a little of everything that gets cooked with the leg: extra-juicy rib meat, little flecks of skin, chewy-fatty slices of the pig's stomach, and gelatinous bits from the tendon and hoof. Also noteworthy: the zingy salsa verde and the chicharrones (fried pork rind). Go early if you can; otherwise, the best cuts of pork could be gone. $-$$

Juan's Place 941 Carleton St., Berkeley, 510-845-6904. Folks go to this family-owned spot for a down-home good time. Huge parties gather at huge tables for huge food (of the refried beans and melted cheese variety). Hey, the chips are good, the wine margaritas surprisingly tasty, and the waiters, like the decor, haven't changed in years. $-$$

La Calaca Loca 5199 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-601-8226. The name means "crazy skeleton," and while this Temescal taqueria has all the trappings of gringo Mexican — Niman meats, soju margaritas, and sponge-painted walls — there's more than a little authentic charm here. The crispy tacos rule (especially those filled with moist, stewed carnitas) and fresh-tasting salsas bite back. But what's really crazy about Calaca is its house-made flan, which is fantastic — certainly a first for any taco joint anywhere. $

La Estrellita Cafe 446 E. 12th St., Oakland, 510-465-7188. The friendliest taqueria this side of Lake Merritt, La Estrellita offers tons of space to sprawl in a room you're happy to spend time in. Come for the food — which is pleasant and abundant, if not sublime — but stay for the margaritas. $$

La Penca Azul 1440 Park St., Alameda, 510-769-9110. It's Mexican food for the fearless — those who don't quail at the sight of huge portions, lakes of melted cheese, and mounds of refried beans tasting of real lard. Peruse the Brobdingnagian menu while you sip a massive margarita and make headway on the mountain of chips. Soups, enchiladas, and the steak ranchero are big hits. $$

La Torta Loca 3419 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-532-7105. Tortas are Mexican sandwiches, and La Torta Loca's sandwiches are crazy good: huge griddled breads stuffed with top-notch grilled meats or vegetables, sour cream, avocado, lettuce, and tomato. You'll find this tiny food stand (with no seats) by the spicy smell of frying chorizo and the crowd around the window. La Torta Loca's tacos, sopes, and tostadas are just as good as the sandwiches, but for a decadent treat order a pombaso, a torta dipped in chile sauce and then fried. $

Mariscos La Costa 3625 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-533-9566. The standard taqueria fare at La Costa isn't bad, but this open-air restaurant's specialty is fresh seafood. You can get a half-dozen oysters on the shell, or more refined fare: The ceviche tostadas sparkle with lime, cucumber, and tomato, and the tomatoey broth in which the seafood coctel (shrimp, crab, or octopus) floats is good enough to sip once you've speared the last piece of meat. $

Otaez Restaurant 3872 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-536-0909. Long-running Otaez — newly redecorated with colorful murals — offers a menu of classic dishes from enchiladas to goat-meat birria on the weekends. But it's the daily and seasonal specials that are worth tasting, such as milanesa, breaded fried steak, or tortas de camarón, fried shrimp-flour patties served with nopales (cactus) in a red chile broth. Start your meal off with shrimp soup and end it with a bowl of capirotada bread pudding, chasing down everything with sweet mango agua fresca. $-$$

Picante 1328 Sixth St., Berkeley, 510-525-3121. Popular spot for delicious soft tacos, empanadas with poblano chiles and Oaxacan cheese, and excellent chicken soup. An outdoor patio gives extended families — and work parties — plenty of room to dine in the sun. $

Santo Coyote 4806 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-261-8696. Formerly called La Cenaduria de Ana Rosa, this Jaliscan-style restaurant's stock-in-trade is homey flavors and fresh meats. Make sure to get the quarter-inch-thick corn tortillas that are made-to-order, and arrive scorching hot to the table. The birria en su jugo — a stew spiked with lime and bright-red with chile — is rich and delicious, with tender pieces of goat that has been grilled and then braised. Homemade chips and salsa, plus a side of refried beans, come gratis and go well with the enduringly popular queso fundido con chorizo, a bowl of melted cheese topped with crispy-chewy-salty bits of sausage. And with Santo Coyote's modest prices, you may as well order a little extra — a plate of caramelized plantains for dessert, perhaps. $

Tacubaya 1788 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-525-5160. Owned by the same folks who made Doña Tomás a success, Tacubaya brings the authentic taqueria experience to yupscale Fourth Street. Well, not quite authentic — there's no grease on the tables, and the plates are too pretty (and pricey). The chef's subtlety is lost on the tacos and tortas, which could pack more heat. But as dishes such as kabocha squash tamales with salsa rojo and feather-light chile relleno demonstrate, the more showy Tacubaya's food gets, the better it is. $-$$

Tamarindo Antojeria Mexicana 468 8th St., Oakland, 510-444-1944. An antojeria is a restaurant specializing in antojitos, those "little whims" that all of Mexico noshes on throughout the day. Chef Gloria Dominguez has traveled around the country, gathering regional specialties and treating them like alta cocina. Her tostaditas, sopecitos, mulitas, and even flan are delicate and soulful, reverent of tradition but internationally chic. So is the room, all exposed brick and windows. $$$

Taqueria San José 3433 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-533-5748. You'll find better taco fillings a block away, but this sprawling institution midway on Oakland's milagro mile is accessible and super-friendly. Cheap, too: You can fill up at the self-serve chips-and-salsa bar, and the big tacos bristle with enough meat to stuff a regular burrito. Filled with plump specimens griddled with chunks of tomato, the shrimp burritos are tasty. And some fresh-squeezed carrot juice tastes healthy enough to make up for all the chips you've scarfed. $

Taqueria Sinaloa 2138 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-535-1206. One of the best taqueria trucks, Sinaloa is easily identifiable by the crowd blocking the window. The menu painted on the side of the truck doesn't list much more than tacos, burritos, and tortas (Mexican sandwiches on massive French-style rolls). Get one of each — they're all good and you can definitely afford it. The full complement of taqueria meats is on offer; the tongue and carnitas are superb. If you don't drive away with your food, you can sit at one of the picnic benches in the back. $

Taqueria Talavera 1561 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-558-8565. You'd think just about any decent burrito joint on carnitas-loving Solano would thrive, and yet this space (covered in relentlessly flowery Talavera tiles, natch) has struggled. Now, as part of the Monteros restaurant group, its prospects look as shiny as ceramic glaze. Many of the kitchen's moves come from the middling-burrito-joint playbook — perfectly fine if you just want to fill up — but the signature Monteros dishes rise above. Don't miss the supertasty barbacoa, long-cooked lamb leg massaged with a cloves-heavy spice rub. $

Middle Eastern

Jerusalem Organic Kitchen 1897 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-525-7888. At this sunny little cafe, Israel-born chef Auny Abaya shoots for 100-percent organic vegetables and free-range meats. You can taste the depth of his earnestness when you scoop up his velvety hummus and baba ghanoush on triangles of whole-wheat pita, crunch into his citrusy Jerusalem salad, or try tender nuggets of spice-rubbed lamb or chicken shawarma. $

Razan's Organic Kitchen 2119 Kittredge St., Berkeley, 510-486-0449. Patrons leaving the movie house a few doors down pack this teensy 100-percent organic Mediterranean restaurant. Salads, smoothies, and combination plates including spinach-y garden burritos, free-range chicken shawerma, and Middle Eastern wraps. Razan's is hardly big enough to swing a steak in, though, so takeout is strongly recommended. $

Wally's Cafe 3900 San Pablo Ave., Emeryville, 510-597-1303. Wally's Cafe is perfectly aligned to attract 90 percent of the East Bay's iPhone picture-snapping food blogosphere, with its obscure location tucked behind an Emeryville roadhouse-style dive bar and its free baklava and lentil soup with every order. But the best reason to visit Wally's is simple: solidly prepared, reasonably priced Lebanese and Greek cuisine, with a little American stuff thrown in for the barflies. $$

New American

Luka's Taproom & Lounge 2221 Broadway, Oakland, 510-451-4677. From lunch until last call, Luka's has it going on. Suited-up professionals, club kids, retirees, and moms comfortably mix it up at this stylish bar, restaurant, and club. Claiming a California brasserie theme, the menu showcases Belgian beers, mussels, and frites — some of the best in Oakland. The creatively conceived entrées sometimes read better than they taste, but the cooks deliver on the basics. $$-$$$

Venus 2327 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-540-5950. This popular neighborhood hangout serves abundant platters of inventive seasonal comfort food made from locally raised organic protein and produce. Highlights might include pan-seared scallops with apple matchsticks, roasted squash salad with spinach, goat cheese and pumpkin seeds, a big juicy roasted chicken with pear-cranberry chutney, and skirt steak with seared polenta and a delectable chimichurri sauce. Get the pumpkin cheesecake for dessert, if it's available. The wine list features several biodynamic and organically raised vintages. Affable, attentive service. $$-$$$

Pizza

Jupiter 2181 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-843-8277. Just a stone's throw from UC Berkeley, the local talent checks itself out at this upstairs-downstairs-and-outdoors pub, washing down wood-fired pizza, focaccia sandwiches, and salads with the outpourings of 30 taps, including twelve house brews. A crackling open fire on the patio out back perfumes the air for a city block, helping make this a first-date fave. $$

Zachary's Chicago Pizza 1853 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-525-5950. 5801 College Ave., Oakland, 510-655-6385. 3110 Crow Canyon Pl., Suite D, San Ramon, 925-244-1222. Winning nearly every popularity poll, Zachary's three locations have been packed at dinnertime for more than twenty years. Chicago-style "stuffed" pizza, with fillings between two dough layers, are the main draw, accompanied by Berkeley-style salads and good cheap wine. If you can't handle the hour-long wait, pick up a half-baked pie to finish in your oven. Despite — or maybe because of — the ruckus, Zachary's is a family and first-date favorite. $-$$

Seafood

Gourmet Delight Seafood Restaurant 701 Webster St., Oakland, 510-832-7661. Some nights, it seems as if all of Chinatown has descended on Gourmet Delight. The bustling restaurant specializes in inexpensive, fresh seafood, much of it swimming around in tanks until the Great Net from the Sky comes to collect it. Order the fancy stuff and you may be disappointed. The best of Gourmet Delight's food is homey and simple: clams and black-bean sauce, stir-fried crab or lobster with garlic and scallions, platters of bright-green vegetables, and clay pots. $-$$

Marica 5301 College Ave., Oakland, 510-985-8388. This comfortable Rockridge restaurant has transitioned away from its Asian-tinged seafood focus toward that of a more general neighborhood bistro. Like the funky décor, some overwrought items are a hodge-podge, but chef Christopher Cheung has a deft hand with his mesquite-fired grill. All fish is wild-caught and sustainable, but meats are a mixed bag. Six-dollar all-night happy hour brings in a younger crowd after 7 p.m. $$$

Skates on the Bay 100 Seawall Dr., Berkeley, 510-549-1900. This large, Podunk-friendly eatery in the Berkeley Marina isn't a place to visit for the food, but it's worth a try if you're looking for a unique and pleasantly surreal dining experience. The to-die-for view, cheerful waitstaff, and great happy-hour specials could all make it worth your while. Try a flight from the extensive wine list, or sample the sublime clam chowder or chocolate cake. Just remember that if you go to celebrate your birthday, you won't be the only one. $$

Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto 1919 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-845-7771. This venerable century-old fish house, now part of the McCormick & Schmick's chain, serves up seafood from around the globe in a variety of unchallenging preparations reminiscent of a bygone era. Everything's perfectly filling and nutritious, but aside from a few exceptions — the lush, spicy barbecued shrimp, for instance — it just isn't very tasty or exciting. Best bets: the perfectly crafted cocktails and the sublime desserts — try the chocolate bag filled with lemon mousse and fresh berries. Undeniably impressive ambience features several acres of vintage seadog memorabilia. $$$

Southeast Asian

Battambang Restaurant 850 Broadway, Oakland, 510-839-8815. Battambang is not just the best Cambodian restaurant in the East Bay, it competes for best Southeast Asian. Don't measure the restaurant by the curries, which may be too mild and sweet for diners weaned on Thai food. Instead focus on the grilled meats, wide array of Buddhist vegetarian dishes, and the house specials listed near the back of the menu. $-$$

Champa Garden 2102 8th Ave., Oakland, 510-238-8819. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, Champa Garden's menu resembles a set of Russian nesting dolls. Hidden among its hundred-plus Thai dishes — all the old familiars — are a few Lao and Vietnamese specialties, as well as one or two dishes from the Lue and Mien peoples. Go Lao, ordering things like the unique rice ball salad, larb (ground meat salad), and Lao and Lue noodle soups. For the specials board, the cooks also get creative with fish, tropical fruits, and curry pastes. $

Jayakarta 2026 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-841-0884. Concentrated and meaty is how you'd describe Betawi cooking, Jakarta's original food. Owner and chef Irianti Jin grew up in Indonesia's capital, and her beautifully layered Betawi dishes eat like love letters home. Candlenut sauce on the lamb sate skewers is as rich as a pat of butter melting onto a steak, while tripe-studded soto babat, a galangal-flavored soup, practically glows. The dining room is bare, bland, and pink, but it only makes Jin's food shine all the brighter. $-$$

Lao-Thai Kitchen 1406 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-559-3276. Earl and Kham Daniel started up Lao-Thai Kitchen as a retirement project. Some retirement! This seven-day-a-week place is the ne plus ultra of mom-and-pop shops, with Kham in the kitchen and Earl charming the pants off the customers. The Daniels mostly serve your basic neighborhood Thai restaurant standards, but look out for Lao dishes like the larb, papaya salad, and barbecued pork with a sauce that'll take your breath away. Oh, yeah: Earl's contribution to the menu is Southern-style barbecued ribs, greens, cornbread, and the mysteriously tasty white-potato pie. $

Vientian Cafe 3801 Allendale Ave., Oakland, 510-535-2218. File this one under "worth a detour": Vientian Cafe, a Laotian restaurant situated on a completely residential stretch of East Oakland, turns out to be one of best places around for down-home Lao food. The restaurant offers a broad range of Southeast Asian cuisines, but the key to a stellar meal is to ask for the separate "Lao Specialties" menu. Highlights include the best nam kao (crispy rice ball salad) in town, the super-crunchy baked sai oo (fermented sausage), and the mok pa — chunks of catfish that are covered in aromatics, then steamed inside a banana leaf until the whole thing coheres together like a terrine: tender, succulent, and incredibly fragrant. Round out your meal with an order of sticky rice, the staple of Lao cuisine. $-$$

Southern/ Soul Food

Blackberry Bistro 4240 Park Blvd., Oakland, 510-336-1088. The original chef-owner has moved on, but hungry crowds continue to pack the sidewalk on weekends, proof that this compact Glenview spot still has legs. The menu, Deep South meets North Oakland, is pretty much unchanged, and dishes like shrimp and grits, frittatas, and cheesy omelets are just as rib-sticking as ever. Some signature dishes have lost a bit of their former flourish, such as stodgy banana-bread pudding that needed a bit more nuking and a clammy potato pancake. Stick to the eggy basics and you won't go wrong. $-$$

Home of Chicken and Waffles 444 Embarcadero W, Oakland, 510-836-4446. The popular soul food restaurant's interior is tricked out with sparkly blue upholstery and shiny starburst lights. The menu lists every possible combination of chicken (fried or fried and smothered), waffles, greens, yams, cornbread, and black-eyed peas you can think of, each named after a family member (highlights: all the sides and the mile-high coconut cake). And yes, you're supposed to eat the chicken and waffles with syrup. $

Souley Vegan 301 Broadway, Oakland, 510-922-1615. At this oasis in the Jack London district, Tamearra Dyson's barbecued tofu, garlic-and-pickle-spiked potato salad, cheeseless cheesecake, cheeseless macaroni and cheese, tender corn on the cob, and fresh fruit blends exude a sophisticated richness that flesh-eaters and even old-school vegetarians would say have no business being this far from bacon and Crisco. A lifelong vegetarian and a vegan since age sixteen, Oakland native Dyson started with a catering company and a booth in local farmers' markets before opening this small storefront restaurant in June 2008. Inside a wrinkly, peppery cornmeal-batter blanket half an inch thick and fried in olive oil — the only type Dyson uses — the crispy tofu served here as a side dish or in a burger brings back fond memories of fried fish. Without the fish. Remember those funky oh-so-local holes-in-the-wall where, when you were a carnivore, you walked right in (no scouring the menu for the single dish your diet might allow) and just chowed down? Well, this is one of those. $$

Thai/Burmese

Bangkok Thai Cuisine 1459 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-848-6483. Bangkok Thai isn't fancy, just a reliable, casual, affordable Berkeley favorite. Standards such as the roasted duck and crispy basil chicken are consistently good, as are the green, red, and Panang curries. $

Bua Luang 1166 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-527-8288. A little slot of a place, but far nicer than a proper hole in the wall, this Thai restaurant exudes an earnest honesty that gives diners the feeling they've been invited home for a meal. And, as happens at a home-cooked meal, surprising ingredients such as avocado and pumpkin tend to pop up. Curried salmon is a definite success. $

Old Weang Ping Village 6217 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, 510-430-8771. This funky, thatched-roof restaurant, which looks like a cross between a beachside hut and a 1950s diner, offers rustic, forthright food that's far more appealing than the sugar- and coconut-drowned fare you'll find at most Thai restaurants. Mix and match your favorite meats, veggies, and sauces from the menu, or order off the specials board. $$

Thai Delight Cuisine 1700 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-549-0611. Organic Thai food? Only in North Berkeley. Thai Delight's chef-owner has created a small organic menu — with slightly higher prices — to supplement her reasonably priced regular menu of familiar Thai entrées. The food tends toward the sugary but it's fresh and well prepared, and the service is friendly and competent. A plus: The tables are spread far enough apart for you to hear your conversation, not everyone else's. $-$$

Tuk Tuk Thai Cafe 2468 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-540-6360. A tuk tuk is a tiny, rickety Bangkok cab, and you'll find one smack-dab in the middle of this large and brightly lit restaurant. Not too sweet, not dumbed-down for an American audience, the curries here are oily and obviously made from scratch, not from the can. Also great are the lime-blasted salads and the grilled meats. Wash it all down with young coconut water sipped straight from the fruit. Plus it's open long after everyone else in downtown Berkeley closes. $-$$

Vietnamese

Cam Huong Deli 920 Webster St., Oakland, 510-444-8800. Depart from your normal turkey and Swiss with a banh mi. You may have to brave the crowds to shout out your order in this microscopic, bustling cafe, but one taste of these Vietnamese sandwiches on crispy, heated French rolls — each for a couple of crisp sawbills — will help you shoulder your way in. The meatball and curry chicken are particularly good, but vegetarians won't leave unsatisfied. $

Pho Ga Huong Que Cafe 1228 7th Ave., Oakland, 510-835-8488. Pho Ga Huong Que's specialty is chicken. More specifically, chicken pho, poached chicken with a pungent ginger-scallion sauce, and rice porridge with — you guessed it. The chicken noodle soup's so good, the chef-owner doesn't waste his time on the better-known beef version. If you're not content with what the restaurant does best, you can order anise-tinged curries of oxtail, duck, or chicken. $

Pho Hoa Lao 720 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-451-6888. Pho Hoa Lao specializes in 200 variations on about six different dishes — several noodle soups, cold bun noodle dishes, and barbecued meats over rice — so you know it's doing them right. Make friends with the ten other people at your table. Steer right around the oily appetizers and head straight for the dirt-cheap entrées. (Only the prices are dirty; the room is sparklingly clean.) If you leave without ordering one of the fruity cold drinks, you've really missed out. $

Pho Thai Hung 12860 San Pablo Ave., Richmond, 510-235-1223. Despite the name, the pho is just okay at this neighborhood Vietnamese, a scuffed, rambling space with the faint outlines of a 1950s dinner lounge. Focus instead on the cháo, bowls of rice porridge similar to Cantonese jook. It's Saigon street food at its most basic, comforting slurries of long-cooked rice. Cháo ca gio heo is studded with soft hunks of sweet-tasting white fish, canned straw mushrooms, and garlic chives. If you're really brave, try cháo huyet, swirled with metallic-tasting pork blood. $-$$

Rang Dong 724 Webster St., Oakland, 510-835-8375. The pho here is some of the best around, with a color like diluted caramel and a big flowery whiff of cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. All the soups — known collectively as mon nuoc, "watery dishes" — are fantastic at this comfortably rangy Chinatown spot. With its custardy blocks of congealed pork blood, bun rieu (tomato-noodle soup with ground shrimp) isn't for everybody, but pho ga, chicken pho, is a watery dish even the faint of heart can dip into. $

Tay Ho 344B 12th St., Oakland, 510-836-6388. Oakland's first branch of this California chain specializes in banh cuon, soft rice noodles made to order. The warm, chewy noodles come with pickled vegetables and slices of lunchmeat-like steamed pork or shrimp and yam fritters, all to be dipped in fish sauce. Less adventurous eaters can stick to old favorites such as pho and cold vermicelli salads, but you'll have best luck ordering soups with thick homemade rice noodles. First-timers can expect an exhaustive description of the menu. $

Vanessa's Bistro 1715 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-525-8300. Vanessa Dang's contemporary Vietnamese cooking is precise and confident, and her dishes seem rigorously thought out even as they're easy-to-love delicious. Dang and daughter Vi Nguyen have opened a beauty of a neighborhood bistro that's half bar, with an easygoing small-plates format that serves the food's bright flavors well. Ethereal filet mignon carpaccio shows off fusion's unrealized potential, and sautéed prawns and scallops in coconut curry (Dang's signature dish) teeters on the knife's edge of delicate and gutsy. $$


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