Tara’s: The Best Weird Ice Cream in Town

I have seen a lot of interesting ice cream flavors over the years but never as many in one place as at Tara’s Organic Ice Cream.  Sesame, avocado, pepper, chai, garam masala…one has to wonder where they come up with these.  But I must say that while Ici is my favorite ice cream shop in Berkeley, no one does interesting flavors better than Tara’s.

Let’s take garam masala.  Never would I have guessed that this Indian spice would work as an ice cream flavor, but it does.  And it’s good.  The creamy texture compliments the spice to bring out both the flavor and the creaminess in the ice cream.  However, lemon blueberry absolutely stole the show for us.  Light yet creamy, the flavors complimented each other perfectly.

I cannot seem to think about ice cream in Berkeley without comparing it to Ici, especially since Tara’s is just down the street.  Ici offers deliciously light ice cream, but Tara’s provides a richness  that leaves you heartily satisfied.  While both shops offer unusual flavors, Ici’s are pretty hit or miss.  When successful, they are fantastic, but I feel the need to try everything before ordering it.  Not doing so has lead to disastrous results (don’t try the tiramisu.  Just don’t).  In contrast, even though Tara’s has even weirder flavors than Ici, they are much more successful in bringing out the best each flavor has to offer and pairing it well with ice cream.

So next time you don’t want to wait in line at Ici, crave something a bit heartier, or really want to try avocado ice cream, head down College Ave. to Tara’s.  You won’t be disappointed.

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

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.

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

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.

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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

Love at First Bite: Berkeley’s Best Cupcake

As you may remember, I love cupcakes.  I love them so much.  So naturally I have searched high and low for the best cupcakes in the Bay Area.

All right, not really, I don’t have that many calories to spare, and for some reason no one wants to go cupcake hunting in San Francisco with me.  Nonetheless, I have spent ample time seeking the orgasmic cupcake experience in Berkeley and San Jose which brings me to the Bay Area’s #1 cupcakery according to my half-assed research.

Love at First Bite is the proud purveyor of one of the best cupcakes I have ever had.  All of their cupcakes are good, but the lemon pistachio is without rival.  For some reason, these flavors just go together perfectly, and this is the only cupcake in my Top Favorite Cupcakes that has no filling.  The balance between frosting and cake is so perfect that filling is unnecessary.  It is light yet rich, fluffy yet solid.  It is as close to the perfect cupcake as you are likely to get.  And that is coming from someone who deals primarily in chocolatey cupcakes.

There are many things about this bakery that place it atop the pyramid of the Bay Area’s best cupcakeries.  It is truly a cupcake shop (meaning cupcakes are their primary product), and you’ve got to respect the commitment and skill you need to make that work.  That they have been successful while surrounded by the unparalleled wares of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto speaks more of their talents than I ever could.  The competition for customers is fierce.  But the thing that impresses me most about Love at First Bite is how reasonably priced their cupcakes are.  Really good cupcakes like this often go for $4 or even higher, but theirs are still below $3 which, again, considering their location is impressive.

So next time you find yourself in the Gourmet Ghetto for lunch, take a leaf out of my book and get a slice at Cheeseboard, then finish off with any of the wonderful choices at Love at First Bite.  These perfectly balances cupcakes are too good to miss.

Categories: Bay Area, Berkeley, Dessert, Food, Local Travel, Northern California | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Cafe Giovanni

You would think that finding great Italian food in the Bay Area would be a piece of cake.  With all of its varied and tasty cuisines, anything should be easy to find, particularly something as universal as pasta.  However, finding good, affordable Italian food outside of North Beach is much like trying to find good fried chicken in the Bay Area.  That is, surprisingly difficult.  This plagued me to no end when I lived in Berkeley.  I basically live on Italian food and yet finding it at a restaurant involved actual effort!

Worry not, I can save you from the terrible fate of having to do a Yelp search.  If you’re in Berkeley, and you want something better than Gypsy’s, go for Cafe Giovanni.

Unlike Ghetto-plagued Gypsy’s (the only Italian place anyone knows in Berkeley), Cafe Giovanni has ambience.  It also lacks hoards of hungry freshman.  Always a plus.

Cafe Giovanni is cute but spacious, allowing for large parties or intimate dates without that hole-in-the-wall Berkeley feel.  It’s a nice place for a nice dinner which considering its location is something of a rarity.  I used to live two blocks from Giovanni.  Drunken bums would regularly scream under my window at night, hardly uncommon for Berkeley but still annoying and a touch disconcerting.  Having a nice restaurant nearby was a blessing and a comfort after a long night of throwing things out my bedroom window.

Also typical of Berkeley, the food is really good.  Not cheap, especially by Berkeley standards, but worth the price when you factor in the ambience.

I am all about the pasta.  I’m sure the pizza is very good as well, but frankly, good pizza is not something the East Bay lacks.  Good pasta is, and Giovanni is doing its best to fill the void.  They used to have an exquisite walnut and cream sauce pasta that changed the way I thought about food.  Alas, it seems to have gone the way of the Dodo, but there are other tasty options available.

The Fettuccine Carbonara is an excellent balance of creaminess and meatiness, and I have it on good authority that the Jambalaya Linguine is uniquely delicious (I don’t eat seafood, so I cannot accurately judge this statement).  Frankly, anything in cream sauce is delicious, their light yet decadent recipes fulfilling all your dreams of creamy goodness.  And the foccacia that accompanies your meal deserves its own spotlight.  Perfectly balanced, its rich flavors may have you filling up on bread before your food arrives.

Cafe Giovanni offers a number of unique experiences for South Side Berkeley:  it’s Italian, it’s nice, and it’s a genuine sit-down restaurant.  Next time you need to take someone on a date in Berkeley, take them to Giovanni, and you are sure to impress.


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