At first blush one would think of Berkeley as a Mecca for vegetarian eateries. But, alas, free speech and soy protein do not always go hand-in-hand.
This reporter has seen the Cal Democrats pig out on chicken wings and the local communists barbecue pig flesh.
Still, this being Berkeley, even the greasiest spoon will offer a garden burger, probably with some fresh avocado on the side. But there are several restaurants who devote all of their energies to pleasing vegetarians and vegans, so let’s give them our undivided attention.
If long lines are the surest sign of exquisite cuisine, the crown jewel of Berkeley’s meatless fare is the vegan Japanese restaurant at 1686 Shattuck Ave. Started in 2002, by Atsushi Katsumata, the retired head sushi chef at San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko, Cha Ya is the only vegan sushi house in the country.
In the past three years Katsumata says he has come up with 1,500 vegan recipes. Specials at Cha Ya change weekly.
The restaurant’s signature dish is the Cha Ya roll—sushi filled with avocado, yam and carrots and then covered in batter and lightly fried. Besides a full complement of sushi and noodle dishes, Cha Ya has seven original, elegantly prepared salads, which cost around $5 and are often the perfect meal on a hot summer’s day.
Any vegetarian planning to travel to Japan should make a pit stop at Cha Ya, where Katsumata keeps a listing of every vegetarian restaurant in his native land.
Katsumato said he opened Cha Ya at the behest of his wife, who is a strict vegetarian. He, however, has loftier goals. As one of about a half-dozen chefs in Northern California with a license to prepare Blowfish, he wants to open the Bay Area’s first restaurant to serve the poisonous fish.
“That is my dream,” he said.
Before last January a fancy meatless meal required a trip across the bay. But now vegans have an East Bay restaurant that’s suitable for just about any occasion.
Manzanita, at 1050 40th St. in Emeryville, is a worthy to successor to the popular Macrobiotic Cafe that operated out of the storefront for over a decade. Like its predecessor, Manzanita offers food that is 100 percent vegan and organic.
To the delight of the cafe’s strong following, new owner and baker Masha French retained the cafe’s cadre of Tibetan chefs. They specialize in macrobiotic cooking, which seeks to improve health by offering foods that aren’t high in acids or alkalines.
Unlike the Macrobiotic Cafe, Manzanita is solely a restaurant. But, while there are no more produce sales or volunteers, the restaurant does try to reach out to the community by holding macrobiotic cooking classes.
The menu at Manzanita changes daily and consists of seasonal produce. A full lunch costs $10 and dinner, which on Tuesday consisted of cashew cheese tacos, miso bean soup, short grain rice with shitake mushrooms, mixed green salad and steamed kale with tahini sauce, costs $11. For those who can’t handle so much healthy food, the restaurant offers a scaled down meal for $7 and individual items for $2.50.
One of the pioneers of Berkeley vegetarian food is perhaps the city’s most anonymous restaurant. Dimly lit and spartan, the Chinese restaurant at 2085 Vine Street often looks like it’s closed.
Once inside, time appears to stand still at Vegi Food. One of the few items hanging on the restaurant’s baby blue walls is a glowing restaurant review from April 15, 1979.
The couple that owns the restaurant wasn’t available for an interview, but the patrons had plenty of kind things to say about their favorite whole-in-the-wall.
“We come for that mama’s kitchen feel,” said Andrew Harth, who recommended the soy bean sheets with walnuts. “Obviously there isn’t much in the way of decor, but there’s a happy feeling here.”
Don’t be surprised if Berkeley soon sees an influx of vegan Rastafarians. They now have the perfect hot spot at the corner of Emerson and Adeline streets.
The lego-like building that for years held the mercurial Taste of Africa is now home to Ital Calabash, where the reggae music never stops and animal products never find there way into the food.
“Not all rastas are vegan, but we think they should be,” said the dreadlocked man behind the counter, who added that giving his name would be a form of self promotion, which the restaurant frowns upon.
Although Ital Calabash arrived in Berkeley a few months ago, the man behind the counter said he had been working in Berkeley with health food icons like Dick Gregory since the early 1980s.
Ital Calabash offers a variety of soy based burgers and raw veggie wraps for between $5 and $6. For a couple of dollars more, patrons can eat their signature No Meat Treat, a Jamaican style soy protein in tomato-based curry sauce over a grain with salad on the side. The restaurant also serves a variety of smoothies and shakes.
Amaryst, who stopped by Ital on Sunday, recommends the rice and peas dish. And she should know good vegan food since her boyfriend is a chef at Manzanita. If you don’t trust her, here’s what Oakland-based actor/activist Danny Glover wrote in the restaurant’s guest book, “Ital is love, love of life, love of self.”
Robert Williams might be the hardest working man in the vegan food world. Earlier this year he opened West Oakland’s first Vegan Soulfood restaurant at 906 Stanford Ave., and he still hasn’t managed to hire himself any paid help.
The only downside to being a one-man show is that Williams doesn’t have time to prepare all the items that are on his menu.
Although you never know what exactly will be available at Supreme Vegan, it’s pretty much guaranteed to taste good.
“It’s wonderful to have an all vegan restaurant here,” said Travis Moore, who recommends the barbecue seitan sandwich and the banana tofu creme pie. “It’s the best vegan pie I’ve ever had.”
It might also the healthiest pie in the East Bay. Williams is a health zealot. He refuses to use regular salt or soy sauce in his cooking. Instead he uses Himalayan salt, which he says can also be used as a health supplement. Almost nothing in the restaurant has any oil in it. Even the unchicken nuggets are steamed, rather than fried.
William’s was raised as a vegan by his family who like him were members of the African Hebrew Israelites Nation. The small sect insists that they are the original Jews and that believe the bible calls on believers to eschew eating flesh. After his family was deported from Israel in 1986, Williams learned the ropes of vegan cooking as a chef for 15 years at Soul Vegetarian in Atlanta.
Supreme Vegan offers seven sandwiches for between $4.50 and $5.50. Specialty drinks cost around $3 and a slice of pie goes for $2.50. The restaurant also has the only soft serve vegan ice cream machine in town.
If chicken tika or aloo gobi is what comes to mind when you think of Indian food, it might be time to head to Udupi Palace, Berkeley’s only all vegetarian Indian restaurant.
Udupi specialties in Southern Indian cuisine so many of the dishes most familiar to the American palate aren’t available there. Udupi’s specialty is the dosa. A mammoth sized crepe filled with the customers choice of potatoes, vegetables, spinach or even cream of wheat. Udupi offers eight types of dosas, all of which are vegan. For those who prefer thicker bread, Udupi has Uthappam, which are pancakes wrapped in spices with options for, vegetable, pineapple, hot peppers or onions.
Most of the food is vegan, and store manager Jaffar Salik said anything on the menu can be made dairy free. Dosas range from $5.25 to $6.95 and the Uthappam costs between $5.25 and $5.75.
Comings and goings
Albany’s best vegan restaurant Mother Nature closed earlier this month. However fans of raw food can take heart that in December San Francisco’s Cafe Gratitude will set up shop on Shattuck Avenue by Virginia Street.
For vegans who want pizza, the only game in town is Lanesplitter Pub. The restaurant with locations at 2033 San Pablo Ave. in Berkeley and 4799 Telegraph Ave. in Oakland, servers a vegan pies along with more traditional pizzas and has plenty of beer on tap.
Vegans who want something cold and creamy after dinner are advised to head to Gelateria Naia at 2002 Shattuck Ave. The popular eatery has around a dozen different dairy-free frozen desert options.›