Albany, California is to Berkeley what Berkeley once was to San Francisco: a chill town where parking is easy, people aren’t in a hurry, and it’s OK to linger over a meal. It’s the perfect spot for a brunch menu that runs until 3pm every day, complete with Catahoula coffee for the morning set, craft cocktails for afternoon diners, and a menu that is planted squarely in both breakfast and lunch, leaving no craving unaddressed.
What is Oregon cooking, anyway? Besides the stellar berries and wild salmon, it’s not a lot different from the cooking of the Berkeley of yore, a town once known as a West Coast hippie enclave. In other words, it’s healthful, carefully prepared with local ingredients, and satiating. We used to call it “farm-to-table,” but now that goes without saying.
Co-owner Ryan Murff, along with partner Jon Guhl — the duo also own Little Star Pizza and Boss Burger in the same block — grew up in Eugene Oregon, and the menu reflects some of Murff's favorite childhood dishes.
The menu is so compelling that it’s hard to choose what to order. We tried three dishes, starting with “green eggs and sam,” whose central feature, a homemade biscuit, was just the right ratio of soft to crisp, not at all sweet, and dense without being heavy. (Our server said the biscuits were actually in homage to chef Amanda Joost Gehring’s grandmother. She isn’t from Oregon, but they’re so good it hardly matters.) In between were eggs scrambled with kale, avocado slices, and slices of exquisite house-smoked salmon. On top, hollandaise sauce, something I’ve avoided for many years because of its reputation (in American restaurants) for over-emulsified heaviness. This homemade version was light and lemony, as delightful a sauce as it was meant to be. On the side, crispy fried potatoes sang with earthy simplicity, topped with sour cream and chives.
The tofu paté sandwich is the one menu item that really does seem straight off a 1980s vegan menu. I honestly don’t know how it tastes so good, but it starts with Acme Italian batard. The toast is slathered with the paté, a creamy, herbaceous spread that is rich without being heavy, and topped with julienned rainbow carrots and a mixture of herbs and sprouts. It’s light, but filling, and modeled, according to Murff, after Eugene restaurant Toby’s claim to fame.
And we tried a twist on chile rellenos, a “strata” made from roasted poblano chiles, gruyere and mild cheese curds, topped with a poached egg and served with a Treviso chicory salad. It’s the perfect occasion to ask for the homemade habañero hot sauce, a super-spicy, but not bitter, sauce that goes well with all the egg dishes.
Servers are gracious, well-informed, unobtrusive and helpful.
Café Eugene is for the hippie in all of us, the one who could actually rock it in the kitchen and whose food has universal appeal.