Pilgrimage to Berkeley’s Thai Temple Sunday Brunch
After her first 3 1/2 months away at college in Canada, our daughter Lila was thrilled to be home on break. Besides seeing us and hanging out with her friends, Lila had a definite agenda: work her way through a bucket list of Berkeley eateries. During our weekly fall Skype chats, between updates on her exciting new life, Lila would sigh, “But I miss the food at home.” (I didn’t take it personally that she wasn’t referring to my cooking.) Once back in the East Bay, off she sprinted to her old hangouts: Barney’s, Cactus Taqueria, Yogurtland, Picante, Khana Peena, Fred’s for a chicken sandwich and Cheeseboard for their inimitable pizza. This series of sacred journeys is probably replicated by countless Berkeley High graduates home on winter break to refuel themselves with the flavors they have been craving.
Lila flew back to Vancouver this past Monday, which worked out perfectly, because the last place on her list is only “open” on Sunday. It’s not a restaurant, but as Lila puts it, “a bundle of bustling Berkeleyites and hung-over hipsters waiting in friendly lines to get their food fix.”
Brunch at the Thai Temple is a Berkeley institution; a “secret site” that, by now, is known to thousands. For almost 20 years, The Thai Buddhist Temple has been hosting this fabulous weekly feast from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. (despite some resistance from neighbors who understandably may get a bit peeved when 200-600 hungry patrons descend on their otherwise quiet Russell Street.)
Temple members cook up and serve a dizzying array of dishes, a mini-version of Bangkok’s street food scene. Breakfast foods in Thailand do not constitute a separate category and the most typical morning dishes — soup, noodles and curried rice plates – are all available here plus sweets and irresistible $1 Thai iced tea.
At the Thai Temple brunch, money exchange is part of the ritual as the first line you stand in is to exchange your bucks for tokens, which you then use as donations (to pay) for your selections. Prices are very reasonable; $10 worth of tokens will fill you up with the possibility of leftovers to take home. Some patrons bring their own containers to take their Thai delectables home straight away.
The crowd is young and old, in comfortable rumpled clothes, looking like they collectively just woke up. The mood is casual and convivial, though fans can get a little cranky if the place is crowded. Enticing smells wafting over while you stand in line serve to amp up the hunger level. Grab a seat at outside tables shaded by blue and white striped awnings, or if it’s sunny, sprawl on the grass or hunch on the curb.
Vegetarians can pick from yellow or red curry with coconut milk and vegetables, fried eggplant or squash with basil and tofu. Meat eaters can sample beef panang red curry, pork and green beans with basil and ginger, yellow or green chicken curry, plus other dishes that vary from time to time. Fried foods include chicken, taro, potato and banana. Shrimp rolls, fried flat bread and pad-thai are also on hand and green papaya salads are made to order in a large wooden bowl.
Lila’s favorites are the beef noodle soup and the fresh mango with custard and sticky rice. The hot soup is wonderfully warming on a chilly morning and satisfies with sliced beef, beef balls, celery, green onion and cilantro, garnished with dried cabbage and garlic oil and your choice of 3 widths of rice noodles. The mango rice combines black and white sticky rice with sweet, comforting coconut cream and an egg-y coconut custard topped by large chunks of fresh mango.
After bumping into a dozen people she knew— another draw of Thai Temple brunches—Lila asked me to buy one more container of sticky rice and mango to go. She ate it for an early breakfast on Monday morning before catching her flight back to British Columbia, savoring the sweetness of home for as long as she could.