Saturday, February 21, 2015

If you're a foodie in Berkeley and you haven't been here yet...

... you're missing out! And no, it’s not Chez Panisse. Or with fellow foodie, Nancy Li (photos/captions)

Think back to your childhood memories and try to remember how you felt when you visited your favorite toy store. The sheer joy from being in the store is hard to forget and even harder to replace. Throughout my life, I have found several blissful spots that make me explode with joy — although I have yet to write about them, Yushan in Taiwan and my godmother’s dining room are two of a handful of these places. These powerful places that heighten almost all my senses are hard to find and to my surprise, and unexpectedly, I found one of those places last year in Berkeley, California. What was most surprising to me was that I suddenly felt overcome with joy and I wasn’t outside hiking a mountain or in the middle of a fantastic meal. No. I was in a supermarket. And I was ecstatic.

Entrance to Berkeley Bowl West in Berkeley, California
Greetings, foodie!

It’s hard to describe a Berkeley Bowl (West) experience in writing but we will give it our best shot. The back of the massive 54,700 sq. ft (5,000 sq. m) space feels like it offers a curated version of everything that grows in California’s Central Valley plus a variety of many other fruits and vegetables you’d find in farmer’s/street markets throughout the world. The produce section in the back splits into the organic and the non-organic section and has a fantastic bulk area with four rows of bins full of dry goods. The organic section is much more seasonal and the majority of the produce is actually affordable. Now that dark leafy greens are in season, I saw at least four varieties of kale, at least seven different kinds of organic mushrooms and a kind of lettuce I had never seen before, leopard lettuce. 
Organic glory!
The larger non-organic section could be a produce market just on its own and there is almost nothing they don’t have — my recent favorites are the bins full of shishito peppers, baskets full of Mexican guayabas/guavas, the bulk section where you can fill your own bags of baby kale, wild arugula, mizuna or the banana/plantain section where, even if my 6 ft 3 in husband were to stretch his arms out, he would still not be able to hug all the kinds of bananas and plantains offered. 
Them 'shrooms!
The bulk section, my go-to spot for granola-making, has three rows of floor to ceiling bins stocked with anything from organic coarse pink Himalayan salt and goji berries to roasted salted, roasted unsalted, raw, smoked, slivered or crushed almonds. I may or may not have spent one hour in this back area during several of my visits there. Time flies when you’re food shopping, I have proof!

I'm a sucker for value and spend a lot of time at the bulk section

The rest of the perimeter consists of a large and busy meats and seafood section where you can get their deli peppered bacon, massive cuts of pork shoulder or the wild caught, seasonal fish. There is also a huge L-shaped refrigerated dairy section that wraps around the south-eastern corner of the store. If it wasn’t so frigid, you may be able to spend more time thinking about which of their 20+ selection of egg dozens to get or which of the milks to try next: organic whole, organic whole cream top, Strauss in a glass container or in the larger plastic gallon? Decisions, decisions! 

Life without yogurt would be miserable! They've got St. Benoit further down the aisle (can't see it though!)
Across the store in the north perimeter you can go snag a free sample of the featured cheese and walk around the DJ-booth-like cheese section. You may go bananas if you’re a fan of zee goats; you’ll freeze in excitement about all of the opportunities — humboldt fog, raw goat milk cheddar, the truffle tremor, the cremont, the goat gouda or any of the other Cypress Grove ones. For me, if I visit the Bowl with a type of dish in mind, I’ll get stuck on various sections as I move down this little piece of cheese heaven. The other day it was all about the blue cheese; I was struggling to pick the right mix of blues for Smitten Kitchen's blue cheese and chive buttermilk biscuits I was planning on making. Mind you though, I’m not complaining. For those of you with a sweet tooth, there is a lovely selection of delicious desserts immediately adjacent to the cheeses and they feature a phenomenal Tiramisu according to my friend Nancy. 

A lady ate half the samples after this picture was taken -- goat cheese can have that effect on people

Knowing that the middle section is full of the more processed, packaged and high-margin goods, I tend to skip it. But from time to time I do get sucked in. You can find yourself spending way too much time picking the next mustard or three for your fridge door - how about a green peppercorn or a seeds and suds (beer) one? The same could happen in the spice section where you could buy at least six different brands of spices or over by the tofu racks where you can get organic firm tofu, organic non-GMO firm, non-organic silken or how about some teriyaki, BBQ or spicy baked tofu? I don’t know about you but this kind of decision-making is something I get really excited about.

I still don’t think I’ve done Berkeley Bowl justice. Hopefully the images below will help. But even better, next time you’re in the Bay Area and you’re in the East Bay (Berkeley/Oakland), make sure to pay a visit to one of the best food stores on earth. Fellow foodie adventurers, you won’t be disappointed.
Bulk meets organic

The milk rainbow at the Bowl
J'aime le fromage
Blueberries, anyone?
The spot for 'rug and other salad greens
It's hard to capture how huge the Bowl is, those apples are so far (behind he toddler)!
Great stop before camping trips

I don't have much of a sweet tooth but Nancy definitely recommends these
I hear this ox tail is one of the best in Town
Wall to wall meats

Delicious results after a day at the Bowl: Ox Tail Soup at Nancy's!