Food

Interested in tasty dining options only? You have come to the right place.

Why Smart Alec’s?

When I first came to Berkeley, one of the first places I heard my fellow students rave about was Smart Alec’s.  Close to campus and ever popular, Smart Alec’s was everyone’s favorite dining option, the destination of choice when one did not want to use meal points.  As my college career progressed, many things changed including my friends’ favorite gastronomic haunts, but Smart Alec’s was always at the top of the list when faced with the question, “Where shall we go to eat?”

And I never understood why.

Smart Alec’s is fine, I guess, if you’re into the sort of thing.  I’m not much of a burger fan, and to be perfectly frank, I’m no health nut either, so Smart Alec’s really isn’t my kind of joint.

I can appreciate a good burger, soup, salad, or sandwich when forced, but to my mind, Smart Alec’s is none of these things.  It may produce a “healthy” burger, but that doesn’t make the burger tasty, and I am quite sure most of my comrades were not eating there for their health.  None of their food groups moved me or even satisfied me no matter how many tries I gave them, and with everyone constantly suggesting we go for dinner, I gave them more than their fair share of chances.

The only thing that ever impressed me about Smart Alec’s was the corn bread.  Rich and flavorful, the cornbread is the only item I enjoyed.  I will say that their veggie burger is good for what it is.  It tastes like a regular burger, and in my opinion, is slightly more flavorful than their standard burger.  However, it really only stands out when compared to a hamburger, and on it’s own just isn’t worth it.

Hate me, spurn me, tell me I’m crazy, but I just cannot imagine why anyone would go to Smart Alec’s when there are so, so many better dining options not only in Berkeley but within a five minute walk.  Good burger joints may be one of the few food genres that Berkeley lacks, but there are still much better options than Smart Alec’s.  Like Barney’s.  Or Manhattan Roast & Grill.  Or any other burger place in Berkeley!

Or you could go have Indian, Chinese, sushi, crepes, or any of the other many, many ethnic food choices Berkeley has to offer that are fantastic!

All right you Berkeley undergrads, now tell us why we should go to Smart Alec’s.

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Categories: Bay Area, Berkeley, Food, Northern California, Restaurants | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Campbell Farmer’s Market of the Gods

Farmer’s markets are one of the greatest of Northern California institutions.  Ever-present, they bring quality fresh, local produce right to the consumer, and it tastes so good!  Though not always cheaper than grocery stores, it is almost always tastier.

The King of Farmer’s Markets in the South Bay has got to be the Campbell Farmer’s Market.  Every Sunday, Downtown Campbell gives it’s main street over to tents, produce, and vendors from 9am to 1pm(ish).  And never have you seen its equal.

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Four long blocks of goodness, the Campbell Farmer’s Market is so big it has to be broken up into sections.  On the west side, you’ll find prepared food vendors.  The east side sports artsy goods, and in between you’ll find mountains of produce.  I could never begin to tell you which produce vendors are the best, cheapest, or best value; there are too many.  But I can tell you about a few gems.

My favorite stop is always the Milk Guy.  His business is not actually so named, but he will always be the Milk Guy to me.  One might think that milk is not a product to get excited about.  One has clearly never met the Milk Guy.

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He sells raw milk, straight from the cow, no preservatives, no pasteurization, just pure milk.  It is beyond compare.  Richer than milk, more refreshing than cream, you can drink this milk in place of a meal and feel completely satisfied.  It’s deliciousness is beyond compare.  Get the true raw milk–that is, the whole milk–and I swear you will be amazed and astounded unless perchance you have had milk straight from the cow.

There is an abundance of scrumptious prepared food as well.  Should you be willing to brave the lines, the Oaxacan Kitchen is amazing AND reasonably priced.  Everything is hand-made in front of you, including the tortillas, and this is one of those rare instances in Northern California where the Mexican food lives up to–or perhaps even eclipses–its southern counterparts.  I always stop by the Indian food booth for a $1 samosa, and Daniel rarely visits the market without buying a Flying Falafel sandwich (even rarer are the times I don’t steal at least one of his falafels).

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Yummy $1 Samosas

 

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Flying Falafel

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Oaxacan Kitchen

Some of the booths straddle the line between prepared food and…not, and they are generally worth a visit if nothing else for the free samples.  The Hummus Guy (and that is actually what he calls himself) is awesome.  All of his hummus is delicious as are the flavored pita chips.  The bolani people are really good too, giving you the perfect combination of sauces and flavored bolanis though alas we cannot afford them.

And indeed that is the most difficult thing for me about the farmer’s market:  not dropping all of the cash in my wallet on their wares.  We pretty much do it every time we go, so we’ve had to keep our visits to a minimum.  Everything tastes so good, it’s hard not to buy the whole market.  And frankly, most of its offerings are a bit pricey anyway.

But totally worth it.  The quality is impossible to find in a grocery store.

Making up for the price is the ease of finding samples at the farmer’s market.  Almost all of the vendors have samples of their wares, and I usually fill up on samples before deciding what to buy.  And it absolutely works in their favor because we have bought way, way more than we ever would have without a taste first.

If you haven’t been to the Campbell Farmer’s Market, you are seriously missing out.  Go now!  Eat and be happy.

Categories: Bay Area, Food, Local Travel, Northern California, San Jose | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Refuge in Carmel

This week, Daniel and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary in the beautiful town of Carmel.  This oceanside gem may well be the most beautiful place I have ever been.  To put that in perspective, I have been to Jamaica and Hawaii, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, the Grand Canyon, Egypt, Paris, Greek Islands, Cinque Terra, and basically everywhere in California.  But Carmel just has something the equal of which I have never seen.  Between the ocean, the cypress trees, and the gorgeous coastline, Carmel exudes natural beauty, and it’s houses and downtown area are adorable without taking away from the beauty that’s already there.  Carmel also has much to offer in the food and wine areas, and I try to visit whenever I head down to the Monterey area.

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We began in Carmel Valley with a fabulous lunch at the Vineyard Bistro.  It was adorable!  We sat outside, surrounded by trees, my skin baking in the sun.  I had the most amazing tortellini in gorgonzola cream sauce.  It was rich and flavorful without being overpowering, and I am quite sure my arteries were in danger of bursting afterward, but I didn’t care because it was SO GOOD.  It was a really nice place to sit and enjoy each other’s company, lazing about in the sun.

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We couldn’t very well visit Carmel Valley without tasting some wine, so we wandered over to Chateau Sinnet‘s tasting room nearby.  Having done very minimal research ahead of time, I had seen their tasting flight contained 7 wines for $7 which is a pretty good deal, so we went for it.

Apparently, we should have looked around a bit more.  The wine was perfectly decent.  The White Merlot was unique and tasty, and if we didn’t already have a ton of wine at home, I might have bought a bottle.  We both enjoyed the Cabernet Franc and the Late Harvest Zinfandel as well, and the prices were really reasonable.

The Tasting Room Manager who was anything but.  We agreed after that he was the worst pourer either of us had ever had.  Usually, pourers are either relatively reserved, giving you the chance to concentrate on the wine, or they try to engage you in conversation, about the wine, your day, or whatever else they can think of.  In my experience, the best pourers are friendly and chatty, know a lot about their wines, and are eager to share the information without pushing it.

This guy was just about the opposite.  He was disengaged, talking super fast but monotone as if he were reading from a script.  And he pushed the hard sale which is just stupid when you’re talking about wine.  No one wants that, and we may actually have bought a bottle if he had just shut up.  As it was, we were both ready to get out of there as quickly as possible to the point of leaving before we had finished our last taste.  We practically ran to the car once we got out the door.  Suffice it to say, I will not be going back.

And then we entered nirvana.

The main event of our trip was Refuge.  It is similar to a spa in that people visit for relaxation and renewal, but the how is unique.  The Refuge Experience consists of cycles of heat, cold, and relaxation.  If you do it according to their plan, you heat up for 5 – 10 minutes in a hot tub, sauna, or steam room, immediately cool down in a cold pool for as long as you can stand it (up to 1 minute….I definitely never made it that long), and then relax for at least 15 minutes before starting the cycle over.  You are primarily outdoors, surrounded by trees and crystalline pools with waterfalls flowing down the rocks.  The setting is idyllic and very conducive to relaxation.

However, the process itself was at times rather rigorous.  Normally, heat and I are good friends, but the sauna and steam room were both much hotter than I was comfortable with, and I couldn’t stand to be in either for long.  The steam room was so steamy that I could not see the back upon entering, and the steam was laced with eucalyptus which made it hard for me to breathe.  I must admit though, I felt a lot better after sitting in that steam…you know, once I got to the relaxing part.

The cold pool was, well, really cold.  Actually, I should say the “cool” pool was really cold as I never could get in the 37 degree “cold” pool past my thighs.  They wanted full submersion, and at 50 degrees, trying to stay in the cool pool for even 30 seconds was difficult.  However, the process did make me feel better after a few rounds, and the relaxing portion was just that.  I almost went to sleep more than once, and coming out of the cold makes you feel a lot warmer than I would have expected while you’re relaxing.

I tried to do the cycles their way, but after the first hour or two, I started spending large amounts of time in the “warm” pool between cycles.  That was truly relaxing.  But I do think there is merit to the cycle system because Daniel and I both felt great after.  Our skin looked amazing, and for both of us, that is not an experience we often get.

Refuge was completely worth the drive and the cost, and I fully intend to go back as frequently as possible.

Carmel is a place where I can always find tranquility wherever I look for it, but if you want the ultimate relaxation experience, Refuge is a good place to look.

Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Food, Local Travel, Monterey, Monterey County Wines, Northern California, Restaurants, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mrs. Delish’s Cupcakes: the Best Cupcakery You’ll Never Visit

As anyone who has been reading this blog for a while can attest, I have a special relationship with cupcakes.  Upon entering a new city, searching out the best cupcakeries is one of my goals.  Whilst driving in a new place, I will often spy a cupcake shop out of the corner of my eye and proceed to slam on the brakes, throw around a u-turn, and sprint from the car, wallet in hand.

Which is why I was so excited to find Mrs. Delish’s Cupcake Boutique.  On one of my first trips to Monterey after moving to San Jose, I spied it squished into a crevice among storefronts and immediately abandoned all other plans to buy a cupcake.

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And I was so glad I did.  As I walked toward Cannery Row, I took a bite of my cupcake and stopped short.  I knew in an instant that this cupcake was special.  This cupcake belonged in the category “made by gods.”

I made my husband wait with me as I sat down on a curb to finish it.  This cupcake was too good for walking and munching.  It needed to be savored.

I vowed to return to Mrs. Delish’s the next time I visited Monterey, and I have been by on every single visit.

And it has never again been open.

I try to get down to Monterey as often as I can.  I have gone about once every two months on average since that first cupcake tasting about two years ago.

The store is clearly still in business.  They’ll have notes on the door explaining why they were closed today or that they had to close early.  Sometimes they’re not open on Sundays or holidays.  Sometimes they’re closed for no reason at all.  Maybe they just dislike for me for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.  Still, they have never once been open for me since that first bite of heaven.

So I am calling you out, Mrs. Delish!  I am going down to Carmel for our anniversary, and you had best be open when I get there!  Or I will…I will…I will be sad.  Really, really sad.

Categories: Dessert, Food, Monterey, Northern California | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Cafe Gratitude: Berkeley’s Most Stereotypical Restaurant

Despite having lived in Berkeley for four years and near it for another three, yesterday was my first visit to the iconic Cafe Gratitude, and it was even more of a Berkeley stereotype than I had expected.

It had it all:  organic, locally grown fresh vegan food with every effort made toward sustainability and raw options, food with titles that made you think about yourself (and your meal) in a positive light while also prompting you to reflect on the deeper questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything (comment if you know the answer), and in true Bay Area tradition absolutely everything was grossly overpriced.

That may not be exactly true.  With the growing practices they require for their food, they would have to pay much more than the average restaurant, even the average healthy restaurant, for their products, and when you consider their claim about caring deeply about their employees, it may actually not be overpriced.  Nonetheless, I could never afford to go there and feel satisfied.

That said, the food is really good.  Daniel and I were both very impressed with the quality of our meals.

I had “I Am Humble” which was an Indian inspired dish sporting a lentil curry and a coconut mint chutney served over quinoa with vegetables.  It was really good and clearly very good for you.  I’ve had more enjoyable curries but never one that made me feel so healthy.  The quinoa paired spectacularly with the curry too which was surprising but awesome.

Daniel had “Yo Soy Bueno,” essentially tacos covered in black beans, salsa, avocado, greens, and a rather amazing sauce.  He took one bite and responded with, “Wow, this is good!”

We were both stuffed long before we finished our meals, but I wish we had saved room for desserts because they looked so intriguing.  I mean, how often do you have good vegan cheesecake or chocolate balls?  Next time perhaps.

After reading the menu, hearing the quote of the day, finding “What are you grateful for?” at the bottom of my bowl, and talking to our uber calm waiter who may or may not have been on drugs, one could only expect the atmosphere at Cafe Gratitude to involve giant hippy dioramas awash with colors that haven’t been seen since the 1960s (and then only when on acid).  Surprisingly, the atmosphere was the one part of this restaurant that wasn’t over-the-top.  The brick walls were sparsely furnished with large paintings that in no way made my eyes burn.  However, I must warn you that instead of having normal tables, we were seated at long benches shared with other customers.  It was kind of awkward.  Not terribly awkward–there was at least space between us–but still kind of awkward.  I don’t love my fellow man that much.

At the end of the day, this was an experience.  I feel I cannot say whether it was a good or bad experience, that is too much left up to what you’re looking for, but it was definitely a very Berkeley experience.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you want to squeeze the essence of living in Berkeley into one dinner, Cafe Gratitude can help you out with that.  But only if you’re grateful afterward.

Categories: Bay Area, Berkeley, Food, Northern California, Restaurants | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Casa de Fruta: The Most Random Place on Earth

Huddled in the hills between the 101 and the 5 in Hollister is one of those off-the-highway places you’d expect to find somewhere like Kansas.  It’s cute, it’s clearly there for tourists, and most importantly, it is super random.

But not in a bad way.  Casa de Fruta has much to offer:  fruit, nuts, fudge, candies, wine, even entertainment.  It’s just hard for me to get over how in the middle of nowhere it is.

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Like any good roadside attraction, Casa de Fruta has a lengthy history.  It began in the 1940s as a cherry stand for the nearby orchard.  As per tradition, fresh and dried fruit can still be found in abundance at Casa de Fruta.  The family expanded into nuts as well, and I must say, their nut collection is varied and delicious.  My husband and I are big fans of the chili lemon almonds.

But these days they have much more to offer than just fruit and nuts.  Along with Casa de Fruta, there is Casa de Restaurant, Casa de Wine, Casa de Sweets, and even Casa de Choo Choo (hehehe).  Everything you need for a roadside stop to get the kids out of your hair for an hour.

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Waterwheel and Panning for Gold (Except Not Really)

 

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Peacocks Were Everywhere

Of these, I’d say Casa de Fruta is still the most impressive.  It has a wide selection of dried fruit and nuts with some offerings that are not so easy to find, like toffee-glazed chocolate-covered pistachios, fruit and nut rolls, and those chili lemon almonds.

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With my unrelenting sweet tooth, I of course had to check out Casa de Sweets.  Much of it was pretty standard candy, but they make their own fudge, chocolates, and chocolate-covered fruit and nuts, and it was all good.  My mind was not blown, but hey, when is homemade fudge not delicious?

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I cannot say I was impressed with the wine, but they did have some unique flavors.  Along with some standard whites and reds, Casa de Wine sports a line of fruity wines which were certainly intriguing.  It’s not every tasting room that will serve you an apricot, blackberry, or pomegranate wine.  I wasn’t a fan of all of them, but the plum was good, and the sparkling pomegranate I actually considered buying.  Alas, it, like all of their wines, was grossly overpriced.  You could basically get the same flavor from sparkling pomegranate juice for a quarter of the price.  BUT the tasting was FREE!!!  You know I love me some free, especially free wine.

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While I did feel like their products on the whole were well-made, they are all on the pricy side, and I just don’t think the quality justifies it.  It’s so easy to find good handmade candies, luxury nuts, and farmstand fruits in this area that are cheaper, higher quality, or both.  And if you’ve read anything else on this blog, you know good wine (read:  better wine) is about as easy to find near Silicon Valley as computer programmers.  But if you’re looking to find all of these things in one place, want a place with variety, or just need somewhere to stop on your drive south, Casa de Fruta is certainly worth a look.

Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Food, Local Travel, Northern California, Santa Clara Valley, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Swimming in a Tub of Garlic at The Stinking Rose

I love garlic.  Garlic is amazing.  In chicken, in potatoes, in pasta, in just about anything savory, I defy anyone who says you can have too much garlic.

Naturally, soon after moving to Northern California, I realized that my life would be incomplete without a visit to the Stinking Rose.

There are two ways to look at this garlic-happy restaurant:  as a consumer of yummy food and as a garlic lover.  Let’s start with the regular consumer.

The Stinking Rose deserves its spot along Columbus Avenue, a street filled with more delicious Italian restaurants than you’re likely to try in a lifetime.  The garlic chicken is tender and juicy, the neon ravioli was served in the most delicious rich, creamy sauce, and I literally stuffed myself to bursting to have another bite of the gnocchetti.  Needless to say, we were all satisfied.

Neon Ravioli
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That said, there are a large number of other fabulous Italian restaurants in North Beach, many of them within walking distance of the Stinking Rose, many of them cheaper.  I would say the food is about on par with what you would expect from this area, but the gimmick does raise the price a bit and so we must view this restaurant as it was intended:  as a garlic restaurant.

And as a garlic lover, I walked away wanting more.

Now, I have only praise for the bagna calda, and if you are a garlic lover and do not order this vat of garlic and oil goodness, I will slap you upside the head.  The focaccia pairs with it wonderfully, and this dish was truly a garlic lover’s paradise.

However, I was expecting a stronger garlic flavor from the rest of the meal and was left wanting.  The food is all good, and you can taste the garlic if you look for it, but it’s more of an undertone in the main dishes while I was looking for a “BAM” moment.  The food is good, but it’s not particularly garlicky, and for a garlic restaurant, you really want there to at least be garlic-smothered options.

I have been trying to try the garlic ice cream ever since discovering this little garlic garden, but alas, I am always too full by the end of the meal to stuff anything else down my throat.  I have to wonder if theirs is better than others I have had.  The version I had at the Garlic Festival was…weird.  Not bad, but weird.  I’m not eager to repeat the experience, but I do wonder if the Stinking Rose’s is different.

Garlic Ice Cream
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Perhaps one day I’ll go for just the bagna calda and the ice cream.

Categories: Bay Area, Food, Local Travel, Northern California, Restaurants, San Francisco | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dolce Bella = Chocolate Heaven

I am a long-time connoisseur of fine chocolates and confectioneries.  Being a sugar addict (acknowledgement is the first step toward recovery!), chocolate and I are good friends.  Besties, in fact.  Apart from cookies and ice cream, chocolate is probably my favorite food…although the combination of all three is actually the best thing ever.  But I digress.

As you may have noticed from my many cupcake adventures and highly-informed opinions of various sugar-based products, I spend a lot of time looking for sweets.  Not just any sweets, the best sweets.  The kind of sweets that cause an orgasmic experience paralleled by none.  Sweets that you know could only be made by the gods.

Few chocolates have lived up to this description.  See’s was my gateway drug.  The port-filled chocolates I had at Pessagno Winery were perfectly balanced.  I had a couple of truffles at Harrod’s in London that are probably the best chocolates I’ve ever had.  And then there’s Dolce Bella.

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Dolce Bella is less than ten minutes away from my house (I really need to stop telling you these things, don’t I?).  How I managed to find such a fabulous chocolate shop so close to me, I will never know.  I will just have to thank the chocolate gods.

Every chocolate I have had at Dolce Bella has been a dream.  I really cannot recommend anything in particular because it is all so good.  Take your pick.  Or pick with your eyes closed.  You won’t be disappointed.

The staff adds to the treat of your visit as well.  They are very knowledgeable, eager to help, and may even let you try a free sample.

Being a cafe, Dolce Bella offers much more than just chocolates from espresso to panini.  While I can attest that the hot chocolate is a thick bowl of awesome, I really couldn’t care less about the rest of their offerings.  If they put the same amount of work into their food and drinks as they do into their chocolates, I’m sure they’re excellent.  A good reviewer would have tried everything and have, like, opinions and stuff.  Sorry, I’m going for the chocolate.

And you should, too.

Categories: Dessert, Food, Northern California, San Jose | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Freebirds: The World’s Only Burrito Diner

Downtown San Jose and its surrounding areas I generally avoid.  Not on principle but merely due to lack of interest.  Why bother with the slightly larger amounts of traffic downtown when you could go, well, anywhere else and have it be just as exciting?

Nonetheless, there are times when venturing near downtown San Jose can be worthwhile.  J. Lohr is one, Schurra’s another, and recently while walking between them I came across Freebirds.

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If Chipotle got together with a 1955 Chevy and had a diner-shaped baby, it would probably resemble Freebirds World Burrito.

Freebirds is populated by old photographs, flying guitars, tin foil creations, and paint left over from the sixties.  It is eclectic, industrial, and groovy all at the same time.

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As you approach the counter, you are transported to a more varied, hipper version of Chipotle.  You pick your burrito (or bowl or taco), your meat (or veggies), and your fillings and salsas.  The choices are daunting yet delicious, and the result is much more personalized than other burriterias (it’s a word now, I’ve decided).

But you should really check this place out for the atmosphere.  It’s not every day that you find a burrito diner, and it’s pretty hilarious.

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You Got to Love the Flying Guitars

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Tin Foil Art

Categories: Food, Northern California, Restaurants, San Jose | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Ici: Ice Cream for the Gods

As you may possibly have figured out from my love of cupcakes, I have a little bit of a sweet tooth.  You know, nothing major, definitely not an addiction I’ve devoted most of my life to.

Yeah, so ice cream is one of my favorite foods.  Actually, it’s a tie for my absolute favorite food between cookies and ice cream, so my absolute #1 top favorite food is homemade ice cream sandwiches.  But we’ll get to that later.

My love of ice cream runs deep, so I am always excited by really good ice cream shops.  Ici is really, really good ice cream.

The Day’s Flavors

It’s hard to describe what separates Ici from other ice creams.  I could talk about the wide variety of interesting flavors.  I could expound on the light yet creamy texture or the amazing homemade sugar cones (I don’t eat cones, but theirs are worth the extra dollar).  I could tell you about how their vanilla is the best vanilla I’ve ever had without contest.

I could try to put into words how delicious this ice cream is, but in the end, it’s pointless.  What Ici does with ice cream is beyond description.  This is one of the rare foods that is best described as “made by God.”

That said, Ici is an extraordinary place for even the tasteless ice cream eater.  They have new, exciting, and crazy flavors every day along with the standard chocolate and vanilla and a few other favorites.  Some of their creations work out better than others.  The rum is divine while the tiramisu is nearly gag-worthy.  Garam masala was surprisingly good while the idea of black pepper made me squirm.  But even the not-so-great flavors make you admire their creativity and perseverance.

Rose Was Excellent

For me, Ici has become a must-visit on my trips up to Berkeley.  One would expect no less from a veteran of Chez Panisse.

Categories: Berkeley, Dessert, Food, Northern California | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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