--> Café Tibet, Berkeley, www.cafetibetberkeley.com
Paradise Biryani Pointe, Santa Clara, www.cabiryani.com
Rangoon Ruby, Palo Alto, www.rangoonruby.com
The tolerance level of a place can be directly measured by counting the number of local eccentrics. The United States does not do very well in this regard. But Berkeley, CA, is an isolated island of exception. While I waited in the region around Sproul Hall for my younger son to finish his college tour, a parade of eccentrics passed by in unconventional dresses and in discussions with themselves, each his or her own unique center of reference. It is therefore no surprise that the Berkeley area is also home to a few eclectic restaurants.
We had dinner at the Tibet Café near the University in Berkeley. The inside is decorated with pictures of Tibet and a small prayer wheel near the entrance. The owner tells me that there is a sizable Tibetan community in Berkeley, most of whom have grown up near Dharamsala, India, and schooled in the hill stations in North India. They speak fluent Hindi and many still consider India their home. Tibetan food has influences from India and China. We had curry, noodle soup and an appetizer of battered eggplant chips where, what we in Bengali called Telebhaja, except that the eggplant was not diced crosscut across its length, but along its length. The curry tasted like an Indian curry. We hear much about Japanese Ramen and Vietnamese Pho, but Tibetan noodle soups deserve their own place. If the broth in Ramen is known for its texture and complexity, and the Pho for its direct simplicity, the Tibetan Thenthuk speaks of nourishment and wholesomeness. Both of our soups were noteworthy—a beef noodle soup and a soup with oats and barley. All of the dishes were prepared from scratch, but the wait was well worth it. Tibetan food is homely, rounded at the edges, the poorer cousin in a Camry, but if you arrive tired and lacking in nourishment, it will put you on the train headed for home.
Leaving Berkeley with its residuals of activism, and Indian influence, we travelled to the clearer skies of San Jose and for dinner arrived at a Hyderabadi restaurant in Santa Clara by the name of Paradise. A one word review—if Milton had the opportunity to dine here he would have regained whatever he might have lost. Paradise is an autistic restaurant. Its Hyderabadi biryanis, with a little yogurt, some goat or chicken curry, and shorba(broth) has a magnetism that is hard to resist. But the rest of the restaurant experience is off the mark. Routine expectations: that empty dishes be carted away to clear the table for incoming dishes, that there will be a symmetry between the number of plates and the number of spoons delivered, remained unfulfilled. But what are a few logistical shortcomings in the front of divine food that “Recover'd Paradise to all mankind”? It is reputed that the mathematician Ramanujan would write down solutions to well known and unsolved mathematical problems without bothering with the intervening steps, and when asked on his methods would claim that the Goddess gave him the solutions. It is thus with Paradise, that in this hole of a restaurant where nothing else seems to work right, the biryani comes, pure and perfect, straight from Maradona’s legs and the hands of God.
The third restaurant sounded an exotic one, in Palo Alto, a city far from Berkeley culturally. We walk into the Burmese Rangoon Ruby, smack in the middle of Palo Alto, into a dining room that has tried to recreate an ambiance of colonial South-East Asia—wood that is made to look like teak but is not teak, a feeling of bamboo without bamboo, glassware laid out on white table cloths in a high ceilinged room, with a large glass window beyond. A bit of Maugham, a bit of Orwell, and the staff joking with one another, yelling “Whose your Daddy?”, to add a California touch. Thus began my introduction to the Palo Alto version of Burmese food, closer in spirit, fashion, and body to California than to the shores of Yangon. Not to say that the restaurant was bad. It was run efficiently by a manager from Hawaii with a Bronx accent. There was a phenomenal noodle soup, with refined flavors. I was just not sure whether it was Burmese. And there was a pork curry dish with mango pickle and potatoes, and a noodle dish that could pass off as Chinese. The food was fine, just did’nt seem particularly authentic to me.