Dov Sims gets teary when he thinks about the pivotal decision he made to install a window at the building housing his Berkeley catering company, California Rose.
Months before COVID-19 hit, the husband of one of Sim’s longest-term employees — she’s been with the business for 17 years — had just lost his job. To give the man some work, Sims contracted him to install a window on the wall facing an alley on Grayson Street, which he planned to use as a pass-through window.
Once the pandemic struck, that window turned out to be a lifeline.
“If it weren’t for that window, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” said Sims, noting that he believes karma has something to do with where he is now. The window has allowed him to create what’s been known for the past year as Cali Alley, a walk-up eatery with a few outdoor tables outside, where Sims puts out burgers and other comfort foods.
With the universally loved burger, it’s the accompaniments and execution that differentiate a chef’s version and takes it to another level. For Cali Alley’s burger, Sims grinds his own brisket and short rib, then mixes in ground chuck, which provides the right fat content, to create a burger that won’t shrink when cooked, and “eats like a steak,” he said.
As for the toppings, given Sims’ favorite vegetable is the onion, he says, he adds both a house-made onion marmalade made with sherry vinegar and red wine vinegar-pickled onions. He also adds house-made aioli, the requisite lettuce and tomato, and puts it all on an Acme bun.
The burger can be had as is, or in several variations – none of which are good choices for those on a diet – with additions of pastrami, swiss cheese and fried shallots in one version, or another with seared pork belly, a fried egg, sesame aioli, pickled ginger, wakame and hoisin-soy sauce, in another.
The basic burger is $14. All burgers come with a choice salad or fries, and it must be noted, the fries are not only dusted in a mysterious spice blend that Sims will not divulge, but the portion size is massive — a detail he takes pride in.
While the burger is Cali Alley’s number one seller, and it’s what he’s become known for, he said it was part of a deliberate strategy: “Get them to come here for the hamburger, and then have things that everyone can eat.”
There are plenty of other dishes to try. There’s the Fat Cat ($17), a fried chicken sandwich that’s adorned with fried shallots, pepperoncinis, marinated cabbage and a house-made dressing; mac and cheese ($5); and plated meals like short ribs ($20) and a pork chop ($19). There are bowls ($14-$17) served on either fried rice or salad, with grilled prawns, pork belly, grilled tofu, or the burger. There are a few family-sized meals, like fried chicken that comes with mac and cheese and black beans ($42).
There are also plenty of vegetarian items, like a bao plate with marinated tofu as the filling replacing the pork belly ($17), or a Beyond Burger ($16), and salads. The side serving of black beans is cooked with chipotle and coconut ($5).
“When I eat out at places, I always go for the unique items, so I thought, ‘let’s make every item unique,’” said Sims. Noting that his house-made barbecue sauce has three kinds of chocolate in it, he said, “We make all of our own sauces and do all of our own pickling. I want people to understand that we’re passionate about everything we do.”
Sims grew up in Berkeley helping out his mother, longtime area caterer Rosa Mendicino, who earned a living selling food at festivals and fairs and then by running a food cart on the Cal campus, Jane Dough. Sims would help his mother do everything from pack the van to grill the chicken or sausages she sold (it must be mentioned that her chicken sandwiches at fairs came with a headband called a “Dingaling.”)
His mother is Italian-American, his father is Black; he also has some Irish ancestry, and yet has a Hebrew name (his mom was a hippie, and just liked the name, he explained).
While he didn’t realize it at the time, his helping his mother was giving him valuable on-the-job training, so that by the time he was 20, he was getting jobs usually suited to older chefs. He lists off many no-longer-in-existence restaurants he worked at by name: Ginger Island and Bistro Viola in Berkeley; Glow and Alma in San Francisco.
He’s worked in too many kitchens to mention, everything from casual to fine dining, and at some point, decided to help his mom, whose catering business, California Rose, was struggling. They began with one corporate lunch client and steadily grew, adding events and weddings.
While his mother is no longer involved with the day-to-day operations of California Rose, she’s still involved in a smaller capacity. Currently, the “Nonna’s cheesecake” on the menu at Cali Alley is still made by Mendicino. “You ever try to get an Italian mom out of your company?” Sims joked.
Sims is proud of where the catering business was before COVID-19 hit, though he spent a lot of time pounding the pavement to get there.
Trying to break into the preferred caterers lists at Bay Area venues, he proudly called out California Rose as “minority or Black-owned,” but until recently, there was never interest in those designations.
“On the one hand, this present-day exposure is everything we’ve been fighting for,” he said. “But what it had to take to get here is the hardest part,” speaking of the murder of George Floyd.
“I’ve been going between the pain of it and being happy that people are here. That people are coming here because I’m Black-owned, and not because we grind our own brisket for hamburgers or because I’m here 70 hours a week, on the one hand, is awesome, but I’ve been busting my ass for 20 years. It’s a mixed blessing.”
Sims says he tries to keep his kitchen a fun place to work, evident by the employees who have been with him for years, and he takes great pride in that. But Sims might feel the most pride about his 18-year-old son Nico, who is now the evening grill chef, becoming the third generation to join the family business.
Although catering seems to be on the verge of returning, Cali Alley isn’t only a pandemic pivot.
“I don’t see any reason to stop it now,” he said. “It’s here to stay.”
Cali Alley is open for pickup orders and delivery, from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. , Monday through Saturday