I’ve always held a fairly dim view of foreign countries. It’s not that I begrudge them their right to do whatever it is that foreign countries do, it’s just that I’ve never had the burning impulse to be a part of it. Oh, don’t tsk-tsk me. I’ve done my share of traveling to exotic land. It’s just that my share happened to be rather small. One. And my wife and I did have a great time when we went to China a few years back. We hiked along the Tibetan border (I suppose I could say we trekked, but I can’t bring myself to use that word). We let the bliss of sheer confusion wash over us as we boarded buses to places unknown and slurped down soups full of delightful mystery meats that made us ill.
I wouldn’t mind getting out a little, but I’ve been so thoroughly sold on the wonders of America, that I’m playing catch-up seeing all that this country has to offer. No doubt the Alps are magnifique, but the Rockies are pretty darn amazing and you don’t have to take a red-eye to get there. I’m still searching for the majesty of my first purple mountain, and until I stumble on that icon of American wilderness, I’d better keep to the wide open West before I head for lands unknown.
If it’s culture you want (and I happen to want it in very, very small doses) there’s really no shortage of exotica right here at home. As far as I can tell, “culture” seems to mean food, knick-knacks and people in funny hats, all of which we have in abundance. The always-intriguing Berkeley Bowl offers vague and mildly threatening vegetables from all 14 continents plus Southern California. And within walking distance of my home I can experience Anatolian appetizers, Congolese drumming, Falun Gong breathing exercises and Brazilian hand-springing and backflipping. I couldn’t point out Anatolia on a map, but my, what wonderful boreks they have! In fact, Berkeley is so rich in foreign culture that when I began to have misgivings about the Tibetan mobile that I failed to buy while I was over there, I just went out and bought myself one on University Avenue.
So imagine my delight when I discovered a rich little slice of Southeast Asia right here at home: Sunday brunch at the Thai Temple, on Russell Street off of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. I’m not sure how it got started or who runs the show over there, but apparently every Sunday the local Thai community cooks a massive amount of incredible food and sells it to the adoring public. It’s all very exotic and confusing, just chaotic enough to be invigorating, just sanitary enough not to give you a tapeworm.
Like any good foreign trip, brunch at the Thai temple starts off with a currency exchange. You plunk down your money and get little plasticky chips in exchange. Then you trade those chips for different food items, each of which is worth a different, often inscrutable amount. The drinks can be paid for with real money except of course, when they can’t. Then you use chips. How exhilaratingly disorderly! When you’re done you can trade the extra chips back for real money if you want to wait in line. I recommend going with a bunch of friends, buying a gigantic pile of chips Vegas-style, then hiding the extras in your socks so that you’ll be forced to come back next week to spend them.
The food, needless to say, is spectacular. It’s deep fried and greasy and way too spicy to be forking down at 10 in the morning. No banana pancakes with whipped cream here, you fat Americans. Those of us who have gone native start our Sundays with green papaya salad and kleeplamduan. And since the Thai Temple is a foreign country (by my standards at any rate), the normal rules of behavior do not apply. Overeating is sanctioned, you’re encouraged to order something you’re scared of, and please feel free to eat off your friends’ plates as if they were your own.
I’m sure they’re making money hand over fist and isn’t it just fantastic? We’re being fleeced and we love it! We’re on vacation! We’re spending quaint foreign currency that doesn’t look anything like our own! I don’t know what they’re doing with all the money but I can tell you that they’ve got a bunch of giant watering troughs full of lily pads and goldfish, and if that’s not a worthwhile expenditure in these troubled times then I sure don’t know what is. Also, sometimes they have monks there, and that can’t be cheap.
So if you’re going to stay stateside for a while—and let’s face it, I will—there’s no better bang for your buck than the Thai Temple. Brunch is Sundays from 10 to three-ish, or thereabouts. It’s located on Russell above MLK. You can’t miss it: Just follow the tourists.