June 1904 Archives

Picante, Berkeley California


Picante is the sort of "Mexican" food I love. It's not terribly authentic, but it's so much better than authentic that I completely forgive them. Good, freash ingredients. No weird combos or attempts to do anything nouveau with Mexican food. The result is great tasting food.

And then there's the service.

You may think it's odd to talk about service at a restaurant that has a walk-up ordering counter and a Darwinian seating arrangement, but it is important. Tables are bussed quickly and really cleaned, so when you do find a seat it's not covered with dried-up rice or sticky with spilled margaritas (did I mention they have a full liquor license?). Food comes out to your table lickety-split, too, so if you go in there starving you're not far from food (unless the line reaches out the door, which has been known to happen on fine summer evenings).

Even better, though, is that they have a bunch of special menus with very specific listings of foods appropriate for different folks. The vegetarian menu shows which foods have eggs, cheese, or other dairy. The kids menu seems appropriate for kids. And so on. If you've got a food allergy or sensitivity or are on some funky diet, they will accomodate it happily without making you feel like a whiney baby, and there's a lot to be said for that.

Linguini's Pizza, Alameda, California


We ate at Linguini's last night, and I was disappointed. Linguini's is at the North end of Park Street, Alameda's twee little downtown shopping district, across the street from Ole's Waffle House. It appears to have the potential for good food: usually crowded, two storefronts instead of one (a casual bar/grill place and a fancier restaurant place), plenty of recommendations from locals.

The food was disappointing, though, at least to this New Yorker. We started with the "Famous Garlic Bread." The major difference between this garlic bread and other garlic bread was that this one was literally drowning in parsley. There was Asiago cheese on top, too, rather than Parmesan. Well. Big difference, you know.

Free soda refills, though, and they were prompt about them. Actually, nothing about the service was bad at all.

Then the pizza. We got the "Acropolis," which looked to be standard-fare vegetarian Greek pizza. Unfortunately, it was a lot more boring than that. Imagine, if you will, a simple pesto/red onion pizza. Tip out a Greek salad on top (with black olives, rather than kalamata; this is Alameda we're talking about here, not Palo Alto). Bring it to the table. Ignore the shocked looks of your friends and family as you serve them this item. Just make them eat it by making them feel guilty about how much work you did to make them a Greek pizza.

A pizza really needs to have mixed flavours. You don't want to have something that tastes like it's trying to be two things at once. A pizza that's trying to be a pizza and a salad will do a bad job at being like either one. I could dismiss it as a fluke if we hadn't had the parsley bread. Instead it appears to be a boring cook. So I doubt I'll be returning to Linguini's any time soon.

India's Clay Oven, Monterey, California


In Monterey's often-neglected downtown, there's a nice Indian restaurant hidden behind a foul-smelling alleyway and a weird little elevator. It's India's Clay Oven, at 150 Del Monte Ave., on the second floor. We ate there on Sunday, and it was quite tasty. The spicing was different from the Indian in the Bay Area; I don't know what the difference is, but it was more earthy, back-tongue tastes rather than the tangy, front-tongue tastes I've gotten used to.

It tasted like Indian food did when I was living back East.

We got the Sag Paneer, which was the best I've ever had, with a nice smoky taste to the cheese and a smoothness to the spinach. No stringy, runny bits; it was a perfect, creamy paste. We also got a shrimp jalfrezi, which is shrimp cooked with vegetables. It was perfect, except that if you're going to cook shrimp in a stewy mass, you really should remove the tails.

Service was a little abrupt, and clearly the place does a lot of takeout (our vegetable samosas arrived with little plastic takeout sauces), but it was decently priced, food came fast enough, and everything was tasty. A side benefit to the nasty smell outside and odd little elevator was that the place was practically empty, despite it being a summer evening. Being able to sit down immediately was a major plus after a long day of being tourists.

I like Spenger's, because I like seafood and they do it well. This time we went on a Monday, when they have a $15 one-pound lobster special. I like lobster, but I hate having to work so hard for my food, so I got the wild Atlantic salmon stuffed with dungeness crab and brie. It's about $22 and certainly worth it, because I would never be fussed to make something so elaborate at home.

While we were reading over the menu, I noticed an interesting comment. The menu claimed that Spenger's is a haven for seafood lovers of various sorts, including "UC Berkeley students on a budget." Now, I may be more than a decade removed from being a starving student, but I would not consider a place where the entrees are about $15 to be "cheap." Certainly, when I was a starving college student, a $10 dinner (including drink) was pretty extravagent. Especially with the bloom of places nearer the university where you can get dinner for two for $10 (I'm thinking of Vegi Food), Spenger's doesn't seem like a good choice for the student diner.

Maybe they mean that Spenger's is the sort of place where you take your parents (which it is, and I have) when they are going to pick up the tab. It's a fancy dinner place that isn't so fancy that you wouldn't go there on a more casual occasion, like a visit to the kid at school. Most parents would balk at entertaining their children at a place like Chez Panisse, because they would suspect that age has not yet given them appreciation for that sort of food. Probably more of them would be right. For those parents, on those occasions, Spenger's is about as nice as you want to get.

Enough on the social commentary. Let's talk a bit more about the food.

Spenger's has excellent fresh fish and other sea animals, and they know how to cook it so it doesn't turn all rubbery and bland. They appear to make choices about the fish they serve that show environmental awareness, which is comforting in a place where they go through literally tons of the stuff every week.

I recommend their fish and chips for the fussy eaters, and their stuffed salmon for the more sophisticated diner.

If you're a drinker, there's a full bar, with some nice beers on tap and some of the basic American standbys, and a nicely filled-out wine list with lots of California wines and a few non-local varieties.

For after dinner, there's a really nice selection of desserts, which I rarely have room to eat after the entree, because portions are plentiful.

If you want to take the love home with you, there's a deli/fish market next door where you can buy some really good fresh fish and some short-order food to go.



Seitan is wheat gluten turned into a solid chunk of stuff, a meat substitute, some say, but not really. It is delicious sliced thin and fried crispy, then added to a stir-fry. I've also had it as chewy chunks in a tomato sauce, which adds some texture and protein. My main gripe is that it's too expensive when purchased at the store, so I decided to make it on my own. I had some wheat gluten sitting around that was nearing expiration, so the timing was right.

If you don't have wheat gluten sitting around your pantry (and why not? Gluten is very useful stuff. You can add a spoonful to bread dough to give it amazing texture. You can use it as a "thickener," too, but that word makes me feel unwell when applied to food), you can buy it at gourmet grocery stores, specialty baking stores, or natural food markets. Here in the Bay Area, you can buy it at almost any Albertson's or Safeway.

Traditional seitan is made in a miso (fermented soy paste) broth, but we didn't have any miso around the house, so I made it in a vegetable broth.

The dough is very gummy and sticky, but doesn't seem to stick as tenaciously as bread dough or cookie dough. It's so gummy that when you pull on it, it stretches and snaps up, so although every piece of dough stuck to the counter, they all came up cleanly.

The recipe is quite simple:


1 cup wheat gluten
3/4 cup water
8-10 cups broth

Knead gluten and water together until they form a spongy dough. Knead the dough a bit. Slice it up in small slices, then simmer it for an hour in the broth. Finished seitan can be used immediately, or frozen for later use.

Note that you really want to slice the dough up thin, because it swells something amazing in the broth. It ended up about five times the size of the original bits of dough. Lesson learned.

White Cake with Buttercream Frosting


I went to a potluck today. As matter of policy, I like to bring desserts to potlucks (even though there are always too many) because I am really bad at making tasty main dishes or even sides. For this potluck, I made my favourite moist white cake. It's made from a recipe on the King Arthur Flour web site. I won't re-type the recipe here because it's theirs, so follow the link and check it out.

I like that this cake doesn't require a whole lot of hard work; it's a cake I can throw together in an hour, if I need to, with added time for cooling, of course. My real gripe is that sometimes people ask me which mix I made it from, even though it doesn't taste at all like a mix. Those people don't know that the way to make a white cake is to simply not put in a bunch of egg yolks. There's no special magic. (This recipe uses one yolk, which is not enough to make a difference; you can add food colouring to make it wild colours if that's your bag.)

The best thing about this recipe is that the sour cream (I always make it with sour cream after one bad yogurt experiment) adds a real richness and moistness without overwhelming you with flavour. You also want to be sure to use cake flour, for the fine texture. Do a lot of sifting, and if you use a stand mixer be sure you scrape down the sides a lot because this batter needs aeration. Once the cake is in the pans and ready to go in the oven, I like to let it sit for ten minutes and come into its own at room temperature before I pop it in the oven. This probably doesn't do anything, chemically, but the cakes where I've done that have come out lighter and fluffier, so I do it every time now. That's the power of superstition.

It's a good recipe for a child's birthday because it is pretty bland and is sweet. I pair it with a buttercream (1 cup butter, 3 cups confectioner's sugar, 3 tablespoons milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla, colouring, you know the drill) and make it in two 8-inch layers, which makes a nice-sized birthday cake and enough frosting to get the job done and not have too much left over. I like to use a lot of colouring on the frosting, so it doesn't look too bland. I haven't tried it with chocolate frosting, but I was thinking today that that would be pretty tasty.

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