A grilled lechon sandwich, various tacos and the arugula salad from La Capilla in West Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han

Part juice bar, part café and part taqueria, La Capilla opened three months ago in West Berkeley, on University Avenue, close to its intersection with San Pablo Avenue. The café is next door to Alpha Design, the furniture store on the corner with the disconcertingly oversized Snoopy doll that advertises its funky chairs, and across the street from a Subway and Little Caesars. It would be all too easy to overlook La Capilla, to pass by and not see it at all, or maybe think, “I’ll check it out one day” but never visit. But for those who do stop in, they’ll find a solid neighborhood restaurant, and a relaxing place to escape the hustle and bustle outside.

Inside La Capilla at 1106 University Ave. in West Berkeley. Photo: Sara Han
Inside La Capilla at 1106 University Ave. in West Berkeley. Photo: Sara Han

Inside, La Capilla is bright and airy in the way that you want every restaurant or café to be. It’s a fairly small space, with just six tables (three two-tops, two four-tops and one small standing table) inside, but its mostly white walls and high ceiling give a sense of openness that make the room seem larger, open, modern and inviting. An exposed brick wall and small vases set with fresh flowers on each table gives La Capilla a feeling of warmth and homey-ness. And then there’s the decor. You might balk if someone were to suggest that Jesus paintings, angel sculptures and candles were appropriate restaurant decorations, but in La Capilla, it works.

If you’d rather dine alfresco, there are two small tables out front, but the (lacking) view and exhaust fumes do little to entice a recommendation for this option.

The decor of La Capilla in West Berkeley includes artworks depicting Jesus. Photo: Sarah Han

Orders are made at the counter, where customers can choose from freshly squeezed juices and smoothies; a small selection of pastries and breakfast items; coffee, tea and hot chocolate; and Mexican fare, like tacos, grilled sandwiches, salads and plated entrées.

If you’re hungry for the type of sit-down Mexican food that’s a gut bomb of oversized everything, smothered in red or green sauces and melted cheese, you might be disappointed. La Capilla’s offerings and flavors are lighter, fresher and cleaner than you’d find at Juan’s Place in Berkeley or 4 Caminos in East Oakland. Its menu boasts organic greens and tortillas, free-range chicken and grass-fed, hormone-free beef. It also offers several vegetarian options. While I wouldn’t say La Capilla is a “health food restaurant” (there are many fried, starchy, fatty — read: delicious — items to choose from on its menu), its style of food is appropriate for a “raw energy” juice bar.

On a recent visit, I brought a couple of friends to try a sampling of its savory lunchtime menu.

La Capilla offers several “Sangüiches a la Plancha,” or grilled sandwiches, including Cubano (pulled pork and ham), carne asada (grilled steak), pollo picoso (grilled chicken), lechon (pulled pork) and vegetarian (black beans, portobello mushrooms, kale). We chose the lechon ($8.50), which reminded me of pulled pork sandwiches I’ve had at BBQ joints. It comes on a long, buttered and griddled bun, toasted on the outside, but soft and giving to the tooth. The pork was tender and well-sauced with a sweet, tangy chipotle barbecue sauce, topped with thinly sliced red onions and a light smattering of shredded cabbage. It could’ve used a little more cabbage for some texture and crunch, but truth be told, we demolished the sandwich in seconds flat, without a moment for complaints.

Mole 23 tacos from La Capilla. Photo: Sarah Han

One of La Capilla’s specialties is its mole, which you can get in tacos, in a burrito or as an entrée. Colored a deep, ruddy brown, the sauce is made with 23 ingredients over the course of five hours. We decided to try La Capilla’s pride and joy in taco form. (Note: Unlike its other tacos, Mole 23 tacos, priced at $6, must be ordered at a minimum of two.) Diced roast chicken breast that’s been smothered in that dark mole is served atop a double-layer of corn tortillas, then garnished with pickled red onions and jalapeños and speckled with sesame seeds. The sauce was sweet, smoky with toasted chiles, well-spiced and rich, which worked well with the acid from the garnishes. I would have preferred that the tacos be made with chicken thighs, which are generally more flavorful and juicy than white meat, but I realize to many, breast is best, so it wasn’t a deal breaker. Upon first bite, I got a tingle of flavor-déja vu that unsettled me until I could place it. It hit me suddenly after I finished my taco – the mole had a striking resemblance to Chinese barbecue sauce made with five-spice powder.

We tried two fish tacos ($3.50 each), made with local cod – one grilled, one fried. The fried version is lightly breaded and comes topped with salsa roja, chipotle crema, shredded cabbage and cilantro. The grilled fish taco has the same toppings, but is made with cubes of fish, sautéed with diced onions and green bell peppers. If I could turn back time, I’d get two fried, and pass on the grilled.

The Tacos Dorados de Papa, crispy tacos with fried potatoes, at La Capilla. Photo: Sarah Han

We also ordered the Tacos Dorados de Papa ($6.95), a plate of four crispy-shell tacos stuffed with fried potatoes, then loaded with shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, crema and queso fresco. If you like twice-baked potatoes and french fries, you will love these tacos. The potato wedges are crispy on the outside, but light and fluffy inside. Originally, I was skeptical about potato tacos, but my friend suggested ordering them, and I was surprised to find that the Tacos Dorados were my favorite dish of the day.

There are three salads (all $9) on La Capilla’s menu, and I wanted something light and vibrant in acid, to cut the richness of all that fried goodness we just ate. We had the arugula salad with matchsticks of green apples and toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds), tossed with an apple dressing. Simple, refreshing and bright, it was a fresh interlude between the heavier meats and starches that were quickly taking up real estate in our stomachs.

Speaking of fresh, I also ordered a juice. Admittedly, I’m not much of a juice person — something about drinking all those calories seems wasteful, when I’d rather be eating them — but I felt it would be remiss not to order one while at a juice bar. The cucumber grapefruit lemon agua fresca ($2.70, small) was a good choice for me. The cucumber balanced the sweetness of the grapefruit and the tartness of the lemon, so it wasn’t cloying or sickly sweet.

Platanos maduro, fried sweet plantains with black refried beans and crema, at La Capilla. Photo: Sarah Han

Last, but not least, we ordered the Platanos Maduro ($5), a plate of sweet fried plantains served with black refried beans and crema. One of my friends who joined me for lunch is from the Dominican Republic, and before we tucked in, she claimed that you can judge a place by its plantains. Poorly prepared plantains are either underripe, so they’re not soft nor sweet and do not caramelize, or overripe, overly sweet and mushy, without any integrity. We all sighed with relief when we found our plantains just right – with crispy edges, where the sugar from the plantains caramelized while cooking, but were soft and just the right amount of sweet. They were especially good when eaten in the same bite as a forkful of savory black beans and a swipe of crema.

There is a lot more to try on La Capilla’s menu, including burritos and plate entrées, and of course, all those juices. If I were still hungry, I would have ordered the special of the day — pozole —  or another taco, this time with carnitas. But the three of us had eaten everything in front of us, which was enough food to stave off hunger for the rest of the day. I guess I will just have to wait until next time.

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Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...