Congregants of Wat Mongkolratanaram begin the Songkran celebration with a processional leading to the performance area. (Kim Westerman)
This article was updated on April 2, 2019.
On a quiet residential street in South Berkeley, Wat Mongkolratanaram, a Thai Buddhist Temple, is a splash of color on a street perfumed with pittosporum and citrus trees and wisteria dangling from the eaves of houses. Every morning you can find the monks outside sweeping up leaves and tidying the grounds.
The temple is a popular spot for Sunday brunch, and every April they hold a New Year’s celebration, called Songkran. The event features music and dance performed by the children of the community.
Welcoming neighbors to the annual Songkran (New Year’s) Festival.
Congregants of Wat Mongkolratanaram begin the Songkran celebration with a processional leading to the performance area.
Children of the Thai Cultural Council perform a concert at Songkran.
During this celebration, and every Sunday throughout the year, the temple hosts an outdoor Sunday brunch. The system is a bit complicated, as they accept cash only, but require you to purchase tokens in exchange for food. Because the temple is a non-profit, this allows them to keep more of your donation to further the temple’s mission. Allow about $12 per person in tokens ($1 each) if you’d like to try more than one dish, but remember the portions are large, so sharing is also feasible. And don’t fear over-purchasing; if you have leftover tokens at the end of your meal, servers are happy to return cash for the unused tokens.
Food service is divided into two lines, vegetarian and meat, but you are welcome to sample both. Highlights of the meat menu include skin-on barbecued chicken, mild and sweet, served with white rice and sweet chili sauce. Sweet and sour fried fish is a good choice if you get in line early when the food is hot, but not so much after it has been sitting on the buffet for awhile. Perhaps the best dish, at least the one with the most heat is spicy basil chicken.
Of the vegetarian dishes, the green papaya salad is one of the most popular. It’s very mild, but there are condiments that you can avail yourself of to take up the heat. Stir-fried green beans are the best vegetable side dish, served simply with mild chiles. Unless you order separate dishes, everything gets rather haphazardly piled up on one plate, something to consider if you’re sharing.
There’s also a separate line for beef noodle soup, with your choice of three thicknesses of noodles, laden with carrots, celery, cilantro and onion, in a rich, fragrant beef broth.
Desserts are a strong suit. Mango with coconut custard and kanom krok, little rice-flour pancake rounds made to order in a variation of a waffle iron, are a big hit with kids.
All seating is outdoors and open to all, but tightly packed, another reason to plan to arrive on the early side of service hours.
You’re also invited to go inside the temple, provided you take your shoes off and leave them by the door.
Inside the small upstairs space is a gold altar and a money tree where community members can make donations to the temple. Monks sit in the corner in prayer or preparation for the ceremony.
While the Songkran celebration is a wonderful time to visit the temple, Sunday brunch throughout the year is a fun, kid-friendly, and inexpensive way to dive into Thai culture and enjoy some homemade cooking.