The food lines of Berkeley: Nosh worth waiting for

The Cheese Board’s loyal fan base is due to the quality of its pizza as well as its history as a community-oriented collective. Photo: Hannah Long

By Hannah Long

Berkeley is famous for its gourmet food, and sometimes the easiest way to track it down is to follow the crowds.

You only have to see the lines that form almost as soon as food truck fest Off the Grid opens at 5:00 pm on Wednesdays in north Berkeley to understand that some of us are prepared to be patient to secure a favorite snack. (And Telegraph Avenue’s new Off the Grid market will likely prove as popular.)

But there are three brick-and-mortar eateries in Berkeley – Ici Ice Cream, Wat Mongkolratanaram (also known as the Thai Temple), and The Cheese Board Collective – that have attracted long lines of customers, sometimes snaking down half a block or more, for as long as we can remember. Berkeleyside decided to ask some of the people who take their places in those lines just why they are prepared to wait so long.

Ici has now become so popular that chalk, drawn on the sidewalk, is necessary to corral customers into an organized line. Photo: Hannah Long

At Ici: Clamoring for a scoop

College Avenue’s Ici Ice Cream, which was voted among the city’s best ice cream shops by Berkeleyside readers last year, is always crowded with fans clamoring for a scoop or two. This swarm grows exponentially on Berkeley’s rare hot summer afternoons and balmy evenings. Ici has now become so popular that chalk, drawn on the sidewalk, is necessary to corral customers into an organized line.

UC Berkeley student Trisha Vaidyanathan, who visited Ici with her brother last week, is never deterred by the long wait: “Sometimes, the line goes all the way down the block, but it’s definitely worth it.  The ice cream is just so good.”

Kristina Koller, who lives in San Diego, is also drawn to Ici whenever she’s in town. “I love the rich and real flavor of this ice cream. It’s unlike most generic ice cream shops.  For instance, the strawberry ice cream at Ici just seems so fresh.”

In addition to the traditional chocolate, vanilla, and fruit flavors, which are made in the store with local and organic ingredients when possible, Ici also offers a variety of unique combinations. On a recent weekday, the flavors included Earl Grey, Honey Lavender, and Chicory Coffee. It’s these distinct and unusual creations that draw Bill Crews to the shop. “The most interesting Ici flavor I’ve tasted is Maple Bacon. My favorite, however, is Burnt Caramel. I love it, and don’t mind waiting in line. I’m only disappointed if they’ve run out by the time I get to the front.”

Authentic Thai tastes at the Temple

Customers praise the authentic flavors of the Thai Temple’s Sunday brunch dishes. Photo: Hannah Long

Unusual and interesting ingredients and flavors are also common at another one of Berkeley’s most popular food spots, the Thai Temple at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Russell Street. The temple serves brunch from outside stalls on Sundays, and its offerings include a variety of meat curries and vegetables, Thai soup, appetizers such as spring rolls, and Thai iced tea.

Kumi Rauf, who lives in Oakland, likes to try something new each time he visits. “I really love the red curry, the soup, and the pumpkin, but I usually just pick something at random. It’s always a surprise, but it’s always really delicious.” Rauf, who has traveled to Thailand twice, also appreciates the authentic taste of the temple’s various dishes.

Although customers line up to try specialties from each stall, two of the most popular items are traditional Thai desserts: sticky rice with slices of fragrant, ripe mango and fried disks of sweet coconut milk custard. These items are the favorite of Debbie Uchida, who visits the temple often with her two children and appreciates every aspect of the Thai Temple experience: “The food is delicious, it’s a lot of fun, and I really like to support the temple.”

Ethan Stan and his mom: “I’ll eat whatever The Cheese Board serves me.” Photo: Hannah Long

If it’s pizza it must be Cheese Board

Meanwhile, at lunch and dinner times, it’s The Cheese Board that has a constant stream of customers, as crowds form long lines, fill the tables in the recently renovated space, and spill out onto the median of Shattuck Avenue.

Each day, the store offers only one flavor; yet the pies, laden with top-quality, fresh produce and mouthwatering cheese, are never boring. On a recent Friday night, the pizza was a Cheese Board classic: a cornmeal-dusted crust topped with thick slices of fresh Roma tomatoes, crumbled Bulgarian feta cheese, zesty lemon juice, and a drizzle of garlic olive oil.

Larry Harris, who lives around the corner from The Cheese Board, says that he loves every single pizza the shop creates, especially the ones with mushroom or corn. Terrie Rowen often makes the trip to The Cheese Board from her home in Oakland because she loves to try the interesting cheeses featured on each pizza. Even amid the many fine pizza shops in Berkeley, Cal student Ethan Stan argues that The Cheeseboard makes the very best pizza, anywhere: “I’ll eat whatever The Cheeseboard serves me. No other pizza place can even compare. When I feel like pizza, I go to The Cheese Board.”

While top-notch ingredients make its pizza superb, much of The Cheese Board Pizza’s loyal fan base is due to its long history as a community-oriented collective (it opened in 1967). “The Cheese Board is a Berkeley icon,” explains Stan. Harris adds, “This is the real Berkeley scene.”

Ici and the Thai Temple, though opened more recently, have also become important contributors to the Berkeley food stage. With fresh, local ingredients and inventive culinary combinations, all three establishments showcase Berkeley at its epicurean best. And this, it’s clear, is worth waiting for.

See a Photo Gallery of folk in line for food at Ici, the Thai Temple and The Cheese Board.

The verdict is in: Berkeley’s best ice cream (and gelato) [07.27.11]
The Cheese Board Collective: 40 years in the Gourmet Ghetto [07.08.11]
The best pizza in Berkeley: Our readers have decided [06.10.11]
Away at college: pining for Thai Temple’s Sunday brunch [01.12.11]