Three Asian eateries around UC Berkeley offer a culinary experience that’s off the beaten path.
It wasn’t so long ago that putting the word “street” in any description of a restaurant’s food wasn’t a desirable thing. After all, restaurants were supposed to be a clean, safe haven for civilized dining away from the auto exhaust. If you wanted street food, well, you could get it out on the street.
Times have changed. Perhaps it’s all the travel food shows, popularized by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, documenting the delicious roadside eats to be found in exotic locales around the globe. Or maybe it’s the popularity of mobile food venders, bringing more and more diners out onto the street for meals. Or it could just be that diners are becoming more adventurous in their eating habits and more receptive to exotic, lesser-known dishes.
Whatever the case, it has definitely become a trend. That seems particularly true of Asian street food in the East Bay, where several newer restaurants—from Thai to Chinese to Burmese—are openly touting their street cred. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of them are clustered around the UC Berkeley campus with its high density of students, a good percentage of them Asian, looking for the kind of affordable, filling food that’s a hallmark of street food. Here are three of my favorites.
Imm Thai Street Food
This was my favorite of the bunch, and it’s also probably the most accessible in terms of its user-friendly ambience. The interior in particular is really pretty cool: light and colorful with fun Thai street accents, including the kind of squat metal stools prevalent among outdoor dining spots in Thailand, tin metal camping-style cups for water, and hanging lights fashioned out of old Thai beer cans.
What to get: The menu contains plenty of standard Thai dishes like papaya salad, curry dishes with rice, and pad thai. But I’d recommend checking out the snacks, noodle soups, and specials if you want a taste of what makes Imm unique.
In particular, I loved the intense, unique sauces that accompanied many of the dishes.
The moo ping, or grilled marinated pork, a popular item among Thai street venders, was a great savory-sweet snack taken to the next level by a side of spicy-sour chili-lime sauce. Beautiful half-moon wedges of deep fried kabocha squash were served with a sweet and sour peanut sauce. A side of roti was highlighted by a fragrant, sweet, and slightly spicy yellow curry dip. And finally, an intense vinegar-based sauce offered the perfect complement to cut through the sweet soy glaze of the rich, fatty (and extremely tender) stewed pork leg—a must-order item on the special menu served with braised greens, hard boiled egg, and rice.
Imm Thai’s flavors can be intense—the su kho Thai noodle soup in particular is a mouth-puckering, tongue-scalding roller coaster of a palate ride—but it can also be surprising subtle. The yen ta foh, a tomato based seafood soup served with flat rice noodles, initially reminded me of nothing so much as an Italian-style cioppino, with the base of stewed tomatoes accounting for the bulk of the dish’s restrained (refreshingly so for Thai food) sweetness. And then the chilies kicked in, and I bit into a rubbery fish ball, and I was brought back to reality. The fun drink selection could merit its own review, but definitely try a Thai iced tea (also available in popsicle form), cucumber soda, or hot ginger tea, a great choice for a cold day.
, 2068 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-898-1123, lunch and dinner daily, average dinner entrée $9, serves wine and beer, credit cards accepted.
This one is a bit of a cheat, since Famous Bao, in a light-filled corner spot in a small food court just off the Cal campus, doesn’t advertise itself explicitly as offering street food.However, one of the specialties on the menu are the rou jia mo, or “Chinese burgers,” a specialty of street hawkers in China’s north-central Shaanxi province, which inspired much of the menu. And in truth, these portable concoctions, which consist of various meats stuffed into a thick pocket of pita-like grilled flatbread, weren’t my favorites. The bread was overly thick, dry, and flavorless so that it overwhelmed the filling.
What to Get: Those fillings, however, are the reason to check this place out, and they’re served in a variety of formats, includ-ing in a sizzling iron pot heated with a live flame from lit Sterno cans with veggies and rice, as well as with hand-pulled biang bian, flat wheat noodles the shape and texture of al dente fettuccine or pappardelle pasta. My favorite was the noodles in soup (they’re also offered dry), which I thought offered the best, heartiest vehicle for the meats. Speaking of those, the stars were the ox tail and beef, both of which were slow-cooked to beautiful tenderness while retaining ribbons of gelatinous, flavorful tendon and cartilage.
If you’re a fan of spice, go for the spicy beef noodle soup, the clear broth of which is spiked with a sniffle-inducing helping of house-made Sichuan chili oil. Another nice aspect of Famous Bao is that it doesn’t skimp on the veggies, which are ample and fresh, particularly in the noodles and iron pots. As for the bao, or dumplings, for which the restaurant is (famously) named? The pork and cabbage are great, moist and succulent, and fairly large with a dense bread bun casing—they’re a steal at eight for $9.
, 2431 Durant Ave., Unit A, Berkeley, 510-309-9249, serves lunch and dinner Sun.-Fri., average dinner entrée $9, no alcohol served, credit cards accepted.
Tharaphu Burmese Street Food
This former boba tea café on Shattuck Avenue near University reportedly pivoted to serving Burmese food earlier this year out of necessity—i.e., the roughly 1,000 other boba spots springing up all over the East Bay. It seems Burmese cuisine is only slightly less competitive these days with Teni East Asian Kitchen and Burma Bear among the new entries into the increasingly crowded field. Fortunately, Theraphu does set itself apart by focusing on street-style snacks, as well as regional specialties that you generally can’t find at other Burmese eateries.
What to Get: The restaurant still seems to be working out its menu, which is covered with Sharpie marks blacking out items that are no longer served or available (so long, blood sausage). But the appetizer section is worth exploring. The moist, buttery yellow tofu was a standout in the fritter platter section devoted to a half-dozen fried items like samosas and egg rolls, and the homemade fried fish cakes were a revelation in that they exhibited a tender, less rubbery texture than the Asian restaurant norm. The most exotic, and I thought most successful, was the wet tha dote htoe, or marinated pork offal. The chewy strips of organ meat were cooked lightly in soy sauce with chilies, scallions, and cilantro, and actually tasted fairly mild with a pleasantly resonant pork flavor. It’s a great snack to munch on with a light beer.
For the entrees, Tharaphu does a more than serviceable version of the classic Burmese tea leaf salad (although I could have used more tea leaves). But I mostly enjoyed exploring the noodles, which included several specialties from different parts of the country. Unlike at Famous Bao, I’d recommend ordering the noodles dry without soup, because they tended to be less robust and become soggy in the broth. My favorite was the Mandalay meeshay, a signature dish in Burma’s second largest city of Mandalay. This version includes small chunks of succulent pork mixed harmoniously in round rice noodles with fermented beans, crunchy scallions, sour pickled mustard greens, and spicy chili oil.
If anything at Tharaphu, I could have used a bit more spice, a bit more sour, a bit more funk—a bit more street. After all, that’s kind of the dining experience that’s implied when you advertise your restaurant as offering street food.
, 2037 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-356-4860, serves lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat., average dinner entrée $8, serves wine and beer only, credit cards accepted.