Edible Excursions Leads Behind-the-Scenes Tours of the Gourmet Ghetto and Beyond
As a food-obsessed, East Bay resident for almost 30 years, I thought I knew all the juicy details of the savory stretch often called the Gourmet Ghetto. On a recent tasting tour of the North Berkeley food scene, served up by Edible Excursions, however, I discovered how much I was missing. The three-hour food-centric journey layers fascinating slices of culinary history with 10 scrumptious samples from famous and little-known Berkeley eateries, topped with revealing stories shared by the shop owners themselves.
Edible Excursions, started by epicurean concierge Lisa Rogovin, also conducts tasting tours of San Francisco’s Mission district, the Ferry Building and Japantown. Gourmet Ghetto tours run 11 a.m.–2:15 p.m. Thursdays and 10 a.m.–1 p.m. Saturdays. Stops may vary, and it’s $75 per person. See the website, www.edibleexcursions.net, for more details and to sign up.
Sitting around a long table at Saul’s Deli on Shattuck Avenue with a group of locals and out-of-state visitors, my succulent pastrami sandwich is rendered even more satisfying as I learn its intriguing back story from Edible Excursions tour guide Emunah Hauser, who also works as a publicist for sustainable food enterprises. Saul’s original owners, a group of New York investors who moved to the Bay Area, wanted their favorite childhood comfort foods here in Berkeley, and so had them all shipped out from New York. In 1995, when new owners Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt took over, Hauser tells us, “They chose to discontinue the unsustainable industrialized deli of the affluent post-war era, but didn’t immediately publicize their shift to organic and local ingredients, because that message didn’t fit Saul’s older customers.”
It’s something to think about as we nosh on Saul’s house-made cream soda and house-cured and smoked pastrami on Acme dark rye. After we finish, Hauser leads us—visitors from Florida, Utah, Illinois and locals from San Francisco and Napa—around the corner to the home of Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
“This neighborhood transformed a nation,” she tells us. “We may take for granted what the food revolutionaries accomplished here, but this is the birthplace of California cuisine.”
The unassuming coffee shop at the corner of Walnut and Vine started the gourmet coffee movement as Alfred Peet, a Dutch immigrant, changed the way people drink coffee. When Peet arrived from Holland, he was appalled that Americans got their caffeine by opening a can of Folgers. In 1966, he started roasting small batches of carefully selected dark European blends. U.C. Berkeley professors were Peet’s first customers, soon followed by their students, forming daily lines around the block.
As we stand in Peet’s original roasting room, now a museum displaying coffee grinders, cans and pots from around the world, store manager Tommy Ko passes around small cups of Peet’s most popular blend, Major Dickason’s. He directs us to sniff first for flavors and then slurp noisily. “The air you suck in makes it harder to burn your tongue.” As we sniff and slurp, Ko recounts how in the early days, Peet’s customers created their own blends. One regular, a retired army officer named Dickason, routinely bought small amounts of several different beans, to mix at home. In 1969, he approached Alfred Peet, who was curious to taste this new blend. In the next several weeks, they collaborated until they were both satisfied and Peet named the unique blend after Dickason, promoting him to major.
Ko describes how Peet’s is still seeding culinary innovation. In 2009, two U.C. Berkeley students started Back to the Roots, an award-winning company that grows gourmet mushrooms with all the used Peet’s coffee grounds they can gather.
Back on Shattuck, we enter Epicurious Garden, an airy space housing half a dozen eateries. Enticing aromas emanate from Soop, whose name is taken from the oldest believed spelling of “soup” in a 17th-century English cookbook. Founder Marc Kelley tells us that he used to travel the world for business and found soup to be a comfort food in every country he visited and was thusly inspired to become a purveyor of soup.
Soop offers eight to 10 different soups daily, plus stews and sauces. Kelley’s statement, “We use local and sustainable ingredients,” is a mantra that will be repeated in most of the shops we visit on this Edible Excursions tour. The warming properties in our taste of Soop’s vegan Thai red lentil soup, comes from onion, garlic, a hint of Thai chili and organic red lentils simmered in coconut milk. Thursday’s soup on Kelley’s weekly menu pays homage to his Swedish mother’s yellow split pea soup. (A dish still traditionally eaten on Thursdays in Sweden.)
A few steps away is the next stop, Alegio Chocolate, whose glass case of artfully displayed chocolate gems makes it look more like a jewelry store than chocolate shop. Alegio’s passionately opinionated owner, Panos Panagos, takes our tongues through chocolate boot camp, educating us about his fair trade organic chocolate that is grown exclusively on a pair of tiny islands off the African coast.
“We are purists,” he states, insisting that the world’s best chocolate contains “no milk chocolate, no vanilla, no lecithin and forget about sugar. Welcome to Berkeley.”
Our series of six chocolate morsels starts with the fermented and roasted bean itself. Next is 100 percent “naked chocolate”—strong but not bitter. Taste number three is 80 percent cacao and 20 percent crystallized sugar. “Notice the different texture,” Panagos says, “It has a neurotic New York character, like a Woody Allen finish.”
Panagos announces confidently that our next taste of 75 percent cacao is the best chocolate in the world. It is utterly smooth with the perfect amount of sugar. I think he could be right.
Now, a test to see how much our palates have been educated. As he passes around tiny brown shards, Panagos advises, “This popular chocolate has vanilla to cover up its faults. Taste it and see who is lying to you.” My now super-trained tongue easily detects a big hit of vanilla first. The woman from Napa guesses correctly that it’s Scharffen Berger chocolate.
Walking down Shattuck Avenue as we resume our tour, we pay a quick homage to Alice Waters as we reverently stop in front of Chez Panisse. Hauser reminds us that, “when Waters opened Chez Panisse, the term ‘organic’ was associated with fringe health-consciousness and pesticide paranoia, not high-end dining and better flavor.” She names a roster of Chez Panisse graduates who went on to open their own businesses, including Peter Levitt of Saul’s Deli, Jim Master of Picante, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery and Charlie Hallowell of Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe Service.
Another Chez Panisse graduate is Aaron Rocchino, who with his wife, Monica, own the next stop on our trip, The Local Butcher Shop. Monica meets us outside with a platter full of the sandwich of the day, a delectable combo of pork, pecorino and fava beans. She explains that all their meat comes from organic animals, pasture raised on ranches within a 150-mile radius. By buying and selling all parts of the animal, they believe they are testifying to its value. The meat that doesn’t sell becomes sausages, soups, stews, dog food, even chocolate chip cookies made with lard.
The most interesting tidbits Rocchino shares reveal the seasonality of meats. Beef season starts in May and peaks in August and September, just in time for summer barbecues. Chickens that are raised outdoors, are seasonal, too. In December 2011, the Rocchinos ran out of chickens but have since helped a farmer in constructing a shed to protect the chickens from the rain, so production can continue throughout the winter. Winter weather affects local lambs as well. Without sunlight, the grass doesn’t grow, so the lambs don’t eat enough to make them as big as the butchers need. When the lamb runs out, the couple replaces it with goat.
A visitor from Florida comments, “I never realized so much thought and energy go into sustainability. We’re not that tuned-in in Florida.”
Our next stop, Poulet, has been clucking since 1979, started by Marilyn Rinzler, a single mother who wanted nutritious to-go food for her children. Poulet’s general manager, former chef Michele Le Prohn, greets us in the cheerful restaurant festooned with all things chicken, including chicken-themed decorations and sundries.
The deli case brims with inventive vegetable salads like quinoa tabouleh with mint and roasted eggplant with parsley yogurt sauce.
Poultry dishes from around the world, such as adobo, coq au vin, teriyaki and tikka masala, make weekly appearances. We sample Poulet’s classic lemon-garlic chicken. “We buy smaller chickens because they can marinate to the bone and cook faster,” says Le Prohn. Devoted customers come two to five days a week, and some even leave offerings for the collection of chicken-themed tchotchkes.
Grégoire Jacquet, a former executive sous chef at San Francisco’s Ritz-Carlton, had a rustic upbringing in the South of France. In 2002, he turned a former garage on Cedar Street, near Shattuck Avenue, into a high-end French takeout (and modestly called it Grégoire) and designed his own octagonal boxes to keep the food warm, without getting soggy. We taste his addictive crispy potato puffs with creamy middles. Grégoire’s chefs must sign a contract not to reveal its secret recipe, and one bite of these is enough to convince us why such secrecy matters.
The last stop, The Cheese Board Collective, started as a mom-and-pop store in 1967 and became a 100 percent worker-owned collective in 1971. In the beginning, the store just sold fine cheeses. Now, using a 40-year-old sourdough starter, the bakers craft a revolving variety of breads and scones.
The Cheese Board Collective started making pizza one day a week in 1985 and eventually expanded to form a second collective next door for the pizza side, crafting about 1,000 pies of a single variety of vegetarian pizza daily. We gobble down fragrant green slices of pesto pizza, with corn, basil, onion, mozzarella, feta and pine nuts. Cathy Goldsmith, who has worked at The Cheese Board for 17 years, tells us that all 50 workers in the collectively run business make the same wage: new hires (after a six-month probation) and 30-year veterans. She never feels bored because she can rotate tasks and take on new challenges. After 40 years, workers have seen loyal customers grow from little kids to U.C. grads.
As our tour ends, the sight of The Cheese Board’s pizza fans lolling on the skinny strip of grass that bisects Shattuck Avenue, enjoying their savory slices while blithely ignoring the Keep off the Median signs, strikes me as a fitting finale to Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto Tour.
Disclosure: As a food and culture writer, Anna Mindess found the Edible Excursions’ tour of San Francisco’s Japantown so intriguing that she now leads the tours with the company on alternate Saturdays.
More to Savor – A Competing Tour
Savor Oakland Food Tours is another local outfit offering an East Bay foodie tour, this one centered on the Jack London Square area.
West Oaklanders Geneva Europa and her husband, Carlo Medina, were eating their way through Central and South American countries when they had a eureka moment (in Colombia, specifically) and came up with a way to highlight and celebrate the food culture in their own backyard, a subject they share deep passion for.
“We have always loved food and food openings and keeping up with the culinary scene in general,” Europa says in a recent telephone interview, explaining the two feel strongly about presenting a diverse representation of what Oakland has to offer in the Savor Oakland tours.
They launched Savor Oakland in October, scheduling a 3.5-hour, 1.7-mile walking food-and-culture tour on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The excursion takes in five to seven restaurants plus an urban winery and includes bits and pieces of JLS history amid the food and wine samplings. Participants have included Bocanova, Chop Bar, Miette, Urban Legend Cellars and Home of Chicken and Waffles as well as occasional pop-up markets and visiting food vendors.
Savor Oakland may expand into other neighborhoods, perhaps Uptown, but for now Europa, an academic dean, and Medina, a nurse, continue to explore options.
To reserve a spot, visit the website, www.savoroaklandfoodtours.com. The cost is in the $45 to $50 range, and tours are generally limited to 10 participants.