I grew up in the South, a place where the weather typically matches the seasons on the calendar, so every year around the beginning of April, I get into full spring mode. I clean, I garden, I start wearing more shorts and dresses. But at my home in Berkeley, the weather can’t always keep up. It’ll be delightfully warm one weekend, and then cold and windy the next.
However, I do my best to push forward with my natural instincts and embrace what little, strange spring we have before summer’s weird and frustrating fog sets in. The truly best way to celebrate spring, for those of us who spend all of our time thinking about food, that is, is to try to eat as many meals outside as possible. And sure, I like preparing a picnic at home in my kitchen from time to time, but it is often easier to grab food to go, especially when the weather can change from dreary to sunny at the drop of a hat.
Luckily for us, Berkeley and Oakland have what can seem like endless choices for takeaway food. I sampled some of the best spots for picnic fare — from sandwiches to sushi — in both cities. Here’s where you should stop in on your next sunny day off.
Best Breakfast: Zella’s Soulful Kitchen, Oakland
If you’re planning on heading out on an early morning adventure, especially if said adventure is being taken via Bart, you’ll want to head in to Zella’s Soulful Kitchen for provisions. The tiny kitchen sits in the back of the Mandela Foods Cooperative across the street from the West Oakland Bart, and it serves some of the best breakfast sandwiches and prepared soul food around.
First, pick up said breakfast sandwich. The hero, as it should be, is the sandwich’s biscuit foundation. Crumbly, slightly sweet, and super buttery, it is a perfect base for fluffy scrambled eggs and gooey cheese. You can leave your sandwich as is, or add bacon or chicken sausage for a rich protein oomph. That bacon, by the way, is served ultra crisp, a welcome textural contrast to the rest of the sandwich. Make sure to ask whoever is working to heat up the sandwich for you before you dig in.
Before paying, be sure to add a few items from the prepared foods refrigerator. Zella’s fried chicken is delicious at room temperature — spicy and tender, with an undercurrent of buttermilk-y tang. The macaroni and cheese, which is sold in large, satisfying slabs, tastes like it is at least half cheese — so not a bad thing. Like the chicken, it also tastes great at room temperature. You can add a salad or two if you’re feeling virtuous, or go in the entirely opposite direction and add a grilled short rib and cheese sandwich to your order. You’ll definitely not regret it.
It was a major win for Oakland when Jeff Mason decided to move his sandwich shop into the kitchen at the new Firebrand Bakery in Uptown. Mason has been making crazy-sounding-yet-still-balanced sandwiches for seven years now, and his skill shows. You really can’t go wrong with anything on his menu, but my personal preference is for Aunt Malai’s deep-fried Lao sausage.
The spicy, crazy-juicy sausage has a punchy undercurrent of lemongrass and coriander, just salty enough, with a snappy casing fresh from the deep fryer. Cilantro-cucumber relish and arugula provide cooling, fresh contrast, and the house mayo holds everything together. Mason understands the need for a proper ratio of bread to filling; in the sausage sandwich, the torpedo roll comes scooped out in the center all the better to cradle the tasty filling. Vegetarian items aren’t a high priority, but Mason does make a mean veggie sandwich, and the salads and soups are likewise on point. It’s a quick walk to Lake Merritt if you care to enjoy your spoils on a picnic blanket.
2343 Broadway (inside Firebrand Artisan Breads) [map]
Oakland, CA 94612
Ph: (415) 203-4911
Hours: Mon-Sun 11:00am-3:00pm
Price Range: $$ (entrees between $10 and $15)
Best Sushi: Kirala 2, Berkeley
Let’s get this out of the way first — most takeout sushi is kinda sketchy. I will never go near anything with raw fish that’s been sitting in a semi-cold cooler at a grocery store for, well, who knows how long. Yes, I may pick up veggie rolls or California rolls in a pinch, but between the soggy nori and the gummy rice, they’re rarely good. Kirala’s takeout joint, Kirala 2, located up Shattuck from its mothership in South Berkeley, is another story entirely.
Walk up to the storefront in North Berkeley’s Epicurious Garden and you’ll see at least two sushi chefs slicing ahi and assembling the colorful boxes of fish in the refrigerated case. Choose from the Yummy Sushi Combo (five nigiri and one spicy tuna roll) or Deluxe Sushi Combo (eight nigiri and one spicy tuna roll) for the closest approximation to a sit-down meal. (There are also two roll combos — one veggie and one with fish — available for easy pick-up, and you can order rolls and nigiri a la carte.) The sushi itself tastes very fresh, with more-than-serviceable rice. The tuna roll is on the mushy side, but has a pleasant heat and, again, fresh flavor. Add an extra container of ginger if you’d like a little more oomph.
Kirala 2 also offers a free sale item for every purchase over $10 (all of the prepared sushi qualifies). Stay away from the day-old sushi, and go for the pork gyoza, which you can zap in their on-site microwave. (There’s even a sign on top with heating directions.) Non-sushi eaters can also opt for a donburi bowl, bento box, or noodle soup. Take your sushi out to one of the two parklets on the block to people-watch while you eat.
1511 Shattuck Ave., Ste. D [map]
Berkeley, CA 94709
Ph: (510) 649-1384
Hours: Mon-Sun 11:00am-8:00pm
Price Range: $$ (entrees between $10 and $15)
Best Burrito: La Mission, Berkeley
There are plenty of places to grab a burrito to-go in the East Bay, but there are really none better than La Mission, on Berkeley’s University Avenue. La Mission doesn’t have the cheapest burritos around — you’ll likely drop at least $7 on one — but they’re absolutely worth the price.
La Mission excels at braised meats, which it offers in a few forms in its burritos. Chile Colorado (available with pork or chicken) is my favorite. The chiles in the red sauce are held in balance with an undercurrent of sweetness and zippy vinegar. Rich shredded pork is the best match for the bold sauce, which is rarely contained by its tortilla wrapper. If you prefer chicken, stick with the chile verde sauce. It’s on the milder side, with bright grassy notes and tomatillo tang. La Mission’s beans and rice are also winners; always perfectly cooked and seasoned, they manage not to detract from the star protein. The restaurant’s patio is a fine place to dine al fresco, or bring your burrito (and lots of extra napkins) across University to Strawberry Creek Park.
1255 University Ave. [map]
Berkeley, CA 94702
Ph: (510) 845-5898
Hours: Mon-Sat 8:00am-midnight; Sunday 8:00am-11:00pm
Price Range: $ (entrees under $10)
Best Salad Bar: Liba Falafel, Oakland
Yes, Liba specializes in falafel. And yes, they’re pretty decent. But the real reason to visit the colorful restaurant is for the salad bar. It’s a far cry from those 1990s all-you-eat style salad bars filled with miniature corn and crappy three bean salad. It is limited in scope, and is all the better for it. Liba’s salad bar is designed to serve as both a toppings station for falafel sandwiches and as a build-your-own bowl of greens and good stuff.
Build your base with a healthy scoop of baby lettuces. Add scoops of as many of the toppings, dips, and marinated vegetables as you can fit in the compostable container. You really shouldn’t miss the smoked baba ganoush if it’s available, or the carrot salad, or the fried pickled onions. A generous sprinkle of salty feta cheese is never a bad choice, and neither is the chimichurri or the zhug hot sauce. Three falafel balls are enough for moderately hungry appetites, especially if you add a side of pita chips. Like Pal’s, Liba is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Lake Merritt; you could also consider a longer walk down Broadway to the Embarcadero for sailboat watching.
380 17th St. [map]
Oakland, CA 94612
Ph: (415) 806-5422
Hours: Mon-Fri 11:00am-2:30pm; Closed Saturday and Sunday
Facebook: Liba Falafel
Price Range: $ (entrees less than $10)
Best Hot Foods Bar: Piedmont Grocery, Oakland
Just about every grocery store boasts a salad and hot foods bar, and most are good in a pinch. But few offer as wide a range of cuisines as at Piedmont Grocery. The independent grocery store on Piedmont Avenue has been open for over 100 years, and has continued to evolve with the neighborhood.
The takeout bar is the best place to shop for meal that needs to accommodate a range in tastes. There are standard items — a cold salad bar, olives, pickles, five rotating soups — and a wide variety of cooked vegetables like green beans almondine (well-seasoned if a little mushy) and roasted root vegetables (like the beans, well-seasoned but slightly overcooked). More surprising is the emphasis on various international cuisines; Piedmont Grocery’s bar includes several different Indian dishes like saag paneer and samosas, plus enchiladas con mole and a taco bar. I also sampled the jerk chicken, which was mild in spice but full-flavored, and the lasagna loaded down with seasonal vegetables. Bring a box of goodies up the hill to the Mountain View Cemetary for a killer view with your meal.
Best Gourmet Picnic: The Pasta Shop, Berkeley and Oakland
For a higher-end takeout meal, venture to one of the two Pasta Shop locations and grab an assortment of cheese and charcuterie. The market-style grocery store offers some of the best selection of specialty foods in the East Bay, so you’d be hard-pressed to pick up something that isn’t delicious.
The Pasta Shop’s cheese counter is compact, but full of great options, both local and far-flung. All of the cheesemongers are friendly and happy to chat dairy while serving up samples. For the best deal (and variety), check out the sale bin — it has small chunks of several cheese at a decent discount. On a recent visit, I picked up a wedge of Montgomery’s Farmhouse aged cheddar from the UK and half a round of Jasper Hill’s Harbison, a bloomy, soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese from Vermont. To pair with the cheese, you can choose to wait in the always long line for sliced charcuterie, or do what I do and pick up an Olympia Provisions sopressata sausage. It doesn’t need refrigeration (perfect for a picnic basket), and packs an extraordinary amount of funky porky spice into a small sausage. On the side, add some mixed marinated olives, cornichons, and a baguette or two from Acme or Semifreddi’s. A miniature bar of chocolate is also not a bad addition. Bring your spoils up the hill to Lake Temescal and enjoy in a shady spot away from the kids’ swimming area.