The intersection of San Pablo and University in Berkeley has got to be one of the diverse street corners in all the East Bay. It was first settled by Indian and Pakistani immigrants in the Sixties and Seventies, but over the following several decades, an entire panoply of other cuisines and cultures have found a home here. In recent years, it's become a retail, recreation, and dining hub for those living and working in West Berkeley's newly gentrified warehouse district. Today, it's got sari shops nestled alongside Caribbean, Mexican, and South Asian restaurants and mixed in with newer, hipper bars and cafes. Fittingly, Berkeley's International Food Festival makes its home here every summer.
Indus Food Center (1920 San Pablo Ave., 510-549-3663) was one of the first shops to move into the neighborhood, and it still stands today, popular as ever. Come here for hard-to-find South Asian teas and spices, the cheapest and highest-quality halal goat, chicken, and lamb in Berkeley, and mom-and-pop style service — this is the kind of place where they'll hand-carve your meat right in front of you, to your exact specifications.
The Albatross (1822 San Pablo Ave., 510-843-2473, AlbatrossPub.com) may proudly be the oldest bar in Berkeley, and the vibe may be that of an authentic English pub, with antique light fixtures, heavy wooden tables, and fourteen beers on tap, but it's anything but stodgy. There's live music several nights a week, a rotating art display, several dartboards, and an expansive collection of board games. Recent Friday and Saturday nights have seen the place packed to the gills with a cross-section of graduate students, young professionals, and old-timers, and the bar's infamously difficult weekly pub quiz draws huge crowds.
The attention to customer service, brick-sized burritos, and high quality meats at Casa Latina (1805 San Pablo Ave., 510-558-7177) make for a more than passable hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint, but the best part is the baked goods, piled high in classic panaderia self-serve display cases: fluffy, lightly sweet pan dulce; fat, custard-filled empanadas; crumbly butter-yellow sugar cookies; tres leches cake still dripping with sweetened milk. If your mouth isn't watering, you're not paying attention.
If a chalkboard full of whiskeys isn't enough to bring you into Acme Bar (2155 San Pablo Ave., 510-644-2226), here's two words that will: Meat Shake. Yup, you read that right: Acme's Sunday special drink manages to combine two of life's greatest pleasures — vodka and beef — into a super-strong, super-spicy, super-briney Bloody Mary that comes garnished with pickled olives and a generous slice of carne asada. Indeed, this is a place that takes consumption of all kinds seriously: Its scotch selection is legendary, and its widely known for offering the stiffest drinks in the East Bay, at entirely reasonable prices.
Until recently, damn near the only thing San Pablo was missing was a coffee shop. Not anymore, thanks to Local 123 (2049 San Pablo Ave., 510-647-5270, Local123Gallery.com), a cafe-bar-art gallery-music venue that opened last year and has already carved out quite the niche for itself as both a food and drink destination and as a cultural center. The coffee — organic, locally grown, lovingly prepared by the individual cup — is the main draw, but there's also beer and wine in the evenings, an art gallery, live music, and a small menu of salads and sandwiches.
And, as the latest addition to the area, Gaumenkitzel (2121 San Pablo Ave., 510-647-5016, Gaumenkitzel.net) adds yet another region to the world map's worth of culture present here, with its menu of hearty North German sandwiches, pastries, teas, coffees, meat entrées, and — liquor license pending — beer and wine.