1335 San Pablo Ave. (between Gilman and Camelia streets), Berkeley
Indoor and outdoor dining open Thursday – Monday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Gilberto Monroy was born and raised in the village of San Juan Jaripeo, in Guanajuato, Mexico. He arrived in Berkeley in 1988, and landed a dishwasher job at Bette’s Oceanview Diner in 1993.
He worked his way up at Bette’s over the next 29 years, and was a cook there when the famous Berkeley institution shut down last month. But unlike some of his colleagues, he already had a plan.
In his off hours, he’d been hard at work on his own restaurant.
That business, called Nuevo Sol, opened last week with a menu of familiar Mexican classics like burritos and tacos, as well as some less expected offerings, including a full menu of breakfast dishes.
Monroy is more comfortable speaking Spanish than English, so he relied on niece Vanessa Gonzalez to help explain his story to Nosh. Through Gonzalez, Monroy said that Bette’s late co-founder, Bette Kroening “noticed that he had a special interest in and talent for food,” and gave Monroy opportunities to learn the business from inside the Bette’s kitchen.
“She saw that he could create different flavors, building them and blending them like the strings of a guitar,” Gonzalez said.
As Monroy gained confidence in the kitchen, he started branching out, launching a catering business 18 years ago. But owning his own business like his mentor, Bette, was always on his mind.
The storefront at 1335 San Pablo Ave. has seen a couple changes in recent years. Many still think of the address as La Palmita Cafe, a longstanding Mexican restaurant with an excellent salsa bar. When La Palmita closed at the end of 2019, Pepe’s Mexican Grill moved in, bringing quesabirria to the scene. Sadly, Pepe’s closed during the pandemic, leaving the restaurant, with its lovely patio and admirable proximity to the hungry shoppers at REI, completely vacant. That’s when Monroy saw his chance.
He took the leap, and signed a lease for the spot. During the days, he’d work at Bette’s, and in his off hours he was in the new space, his own space, doing the work to open for business. He gave notice at Bette’s the same day that owner Manfred Kroening announced that the restaurant would be closing, immediately.
That closure was sad and heart-breaking, Gonzalez said, reminding me that Kroening had been meaning to retire for a while when I jokingly asked if Monroy’s departure was the reason Bette’s shut its doors for good. But it also helped keep Nuevo Sol’s opening on track, as suddenly, Monroy’s calendar was clear. Now he could get to work in earnest, joined by his tight-knit crew of helpers.
“This whole restaurant is a family affair,” Gonzalez said, and she’s not exaggerating. Monroy’s daughter rang me up when I ordered my food on Nuevo Sol’s opening day; others hustled to prepare dishes and bus tables.
Still more family members packed the sidewalk before a ribbon-cutting kicked off its first day of business, all clearly taking a proprietary interest in the space, straightening its sign and adjusting menus placed in the window. “We all have day jobs, other jobs,” Gonzalez said. “We all made time or put things on hold to help bring my uncle’s dream to life.”
A big part of Monroy’s dream was to create a menu that marries family recipes and foods he loved growing up with his own take on the classics he mastered at Bette’s.
There’s a garlic corned beef hash, for example, with a heat and oomph that you might not expect in a standard diner hash. His potato pancakes come served with apple sauce and sour cream, but there’s also chorizo in the mix. Lunch dishes range from excellent street tacos (the prawns were cooked perfectly) to cold sandwiches like a turkey club or chicken salad, to grilled sandwiches like one with spicy (no joke, it’s spicy) fish on a baguette.
Please don’t assume from my description that Nuevo Sol’s menu is overly ambitious or too expansive, a la Cafe Tropical. It all makes sense, and feels congruent, especially once you think about Monroy’s origin story and history.
Of course he’s going to make a killer omelet and be able to crush the burrito game. They’re both in his DNA, and are part of his and his family’s heritage. This is what he’d cook for them at home. And now, this is what he’s cooking for all of us, from his new restaurant in Berkeley.