Category Archives: Secrets of the East Bay

Eating Mexican Food in Berlin.

SantaMariaEastside_by_Suzanne_Forbes_July_2015Santa Maria EastSide. That’s where you go. That’s pretty much it, I’ve heard.

Or maybe a few other places. We went to EastSide, in Friedrichshain, with longterm SF residents who’ve lived here for a couple years. There was a lot of ranting about the poor quality of much of the food in Berlin – from them, not us. We have been so insanely broke with the costs of the move since we got here that we have eaten out exactly twice. And we never ate anywhere but taquerias and the occasional splurge on Indian in the Bay Area, so we’re not really up on what a nice meal should be anymore.

My fancy food business days are far behind me, and somewhere along the line, during the second divorce and the recession and the years of poverty and depression, I just stopped caring.

All I wanted was some simple peasant food to keep body and soul together, like a taco or a quesadilla, and a really superb banana cream tartlet, made with chocolate ganache, salted caramel, and Nels’ perfectly executed crème pâtissière and delicate pâte sablée, streets better than Tartine’s, from the bakery at Market Hall. Or a slice of classic American lemon meringue pie, as good as any I’ve ever had, with a four-inch crown of meringue, from Sweet Adeline. Or the unbelievable butterscotch and chocolate pot de crème at Town Hall. Or a scoop of Bi-Rite balsamic strawberry ice cream with the couverture sprinkles and marcona almonds (when they first opened Khris Brown said “this is so good I don’t even have to blog about it!” #bestlineofthenoughties). Or an exquisite yuzu truffle, available only a few weeks a year, from Chocolatier Blue. What? I said I was over food, not dessert.

I haven’t been able to afford dinner anywhere nice in the Bay for a decade, but I could almost always afford a perfect treat from a really good bakery.

Anyway, we don’t have really a lot to say about food in Berlin. We live on De Cecco pasta, which at least you can get at every grocery store, and yogurt. However, the food we tried at Santa Maria Eastside was good. (In the drawing our friend is explaining to my hubby how to make the German “o” sound. ) I had chilaquiles, which are possibly my favorite food on earth, and they were definitely as good as the weekend special chilaquiles at my beloved, cherished, treasured Cactus Taqueria or my equally precious and adored Los Cantaros.

I had tacos or chile rellenos or a quesadilla or chilaquiles at a taqueria at least twice a week for 18 years, and I will miss Bay Area Mexican food forever.

So it goes. At least we have doner kebab and falafel.

*About bakeries: when I first arrived in the East Bay it was as the Santa Rosa-to-San Jose sales rep for Albert Uster, a Swiss baking supply company used, then and now, almost exclusively by top-level professional pastry cooks. I had just spent a year managing the bakery at Dean & Deluca in Georgetown. Bakeries are very important to me, and my SF job was perfect because I drove all over the Bay Area meeting all the bakery managers and pastry chefs.

*About the bakery at Market Hall: I also worked at Market Hall as a cheesemonger my first summer and Fall in the East Bay, in ’97, and it was a great company to work for. Linda, the buyer then and now, and Sara the owner care deeply about food and educating the staff. We had classes where I learned things like how the microscopic texture of hundred-year-old bronze dies give the best Italian extruded pastas their sauce-clutching ability, and how to break a wheel of Reggiano. I tasted forty-year-old Balsamic just uncorked and Cowgirl Creamery farmer’s cheese barely a day old while apprenticed to a cheesemonger from Neal’s Yard. Nels, the bakery manager, left for a time and opened his own place, in one of those cursed restaurant locations on Shattuck. His business was killed by the dot-com bust, and it was heartbreaking, but he returned to Market Hall. His standards are as impeccable as ever, freshness and purity always on lock, and the prices have remained exceedingly fair. His butterscotch pudding is insane.

*About Sweet Adeline: the space Sweet Adeline occupies was for a short time in the late ’90s a goth store, back when there were several goth stores on Telegraph. I bought the dark red blouse I wore for my second wedding there. At some point it became a bakery, and it is a superb bakery. They do American and French basics, perfectly. The chocolate cream pie is, like the lemon meringue, as good as any I’ve ever had. The prices are very fair.

*About Chocolatier Blue: You know that scene in Cryptonomicon where Randy goes to have his wisdom teeth out and he is totally confident in the oral surgeon because the guy is an obsessive socially inept tooth-surgery geek? That’s what the chocolatier/confiseur guy at Chocolatier Blue is like. I went in to see him right after he opened his first East Bay store, because my heart never really leaves the business and I like to keep on an eye on things. He was like, local seasonal single origin I am an awkward maniac. The product is the proof, it’s fucking stellar and the prices are exceptionally fair.

*About the best banana cream pie in the East Bay: Fatapples. The shimmering, barely set custard, the perfectly flaky ( you know it’s lard) crust, the dusting of caramelised walnuts- it is the best in town. They try, over and over, to take it off the menu, because the freshness issue is a nightmare. People always hassle them til they bring it back. Their crisps, custards and eclairs are also very, very good.

*About going to Ici: don’t go to Ici. It’s overrated as fuck. Unless, unless, you get a bitter fruit sorbet with their incredible house-made copper kettle caramel and crystallized orange peel. Otherwise, skip Tara’s too and go to the idiotically named iScream, a fairly new traditional-style ice cream parlour on Solano. Parking on Solano is insane, of course, but I give you my secret: pull into the driveway of the bank next door and park in their lot. I can’t promise you won’t get towed, but I never did. iScream has house-made fudge and caramel sauces, fresh whipped cream, and lots of extremely good fruit flavors like blood orange and Meyer Lemon, plus Burnt Caramel and Salted Caramel.

*Where else to go: Feelgood Bakery in the Food Mall thing in Alameda. Another idiot name, but they do traditional French things very well. I had an oversize macaron filled with Crème Chiboust and fresh strawberries there before we left that was very good. It wasn’t an Ispahan in the garden at Ladurée Soho or the pistachio bavarian at Pierre Hermé, but what is?

*Bonus SF bakery: Pinkie’s in SOMA! Pinkie’s is so good. When Wicked Grounds first opened Pinkie’s did our bread and cakes. Cheryl does terrific work with simple classics.

*Where I never got to go: Craftsmen and Wolves on Valencia. I wanted to go so bad! They have a verrine with elderflower- I love elderflower. I totally wanted to try that $6 muffin! But we were just overloaded the last year or two, I never got around to it. Go there for me!

*About the time I spat up a gob of lavender mousse in front of the White House pastry chef: Weirdly, this is a recovery story, not a drinking story!

Managing a department at Dean & DeLuca was a big deal in 1996, and I was always getting invitations to fancy events held by fancy-food importers in the DC area. I was at a presentation at one of the import companies, and Pierre Hermé, then a celebrated young pastry chef and not yet a global brand, did some demos.

He showed what would called nowadays a “hack” for making lots of croquant quickly, and a lavender mousse with cherries in it. He spoke mostly in French; however most of the French I know is bakery stuff, so I was pretty sure there was no alcohol in the mousse. I was standing and chatting with sugar wizards Ewald and Susan Notter, who I was friendly with, and Roland Mesnier, the legendary White House pastry chef, when samples were handed out.

We were given little plates with a triangle of pale violet mousse, studded with deep burgundy cherries. It was so beautiful. I thoughtlessly spooned a bite into my mouth- and frantically, very thoroughly spat it out into my napkin. The cherries were macerated in liqueur, a product sold by the import company! Awkward.

Secrets of the East Bay, Vol.1: Caldecott Tunnel Free-Fall

Oakland Sunset by Thomas Hawk

Oakland Sunset by Thomas Hawk.

If you come out of the Caldecott Tunnel towards Oakland at the right velocity, about 67mph in freely moving traffic, you can put your right foot flat on the floor and your car will simply drop down out of the hills. At sunset, with the Bay opening up in front of you, framed by the darkness of the eucalyptus-scented hills, the lights of the Bridge coming to life like fireflies and all the cities glittering, it feels like flying.

This is safest if you’ve come through the left-hand bore, as otherwise you may have to cheat and tap your brakes smartly when people exit onto the Warren Freeway towards Berkeley. Caveat: I’ve only tried this with a variety of 4-door Hondas and Corollas, and my friend Tinny’s small pickup. Larger, heavier cars may not have the right combination of wind resistance, momentum and cambering to effortlessly keep up with traffic.

the photo was taken September 25, 2013 by Thomas Hawk, about whom I know nothing except that he has a photo named “Straight to Hell” (after the Clash song) in an album called “Where’s Rothko when I need him?”, so he seems cool. It is cc-licensed.