Oftentimes you can walk down a single city block and figure out which ethnic group is most prevalent in the neighborhood. Near the Fruitvale BART station you'll find bakeries that sell horchata and pan dulce, a peluqueria with a bright cornflower-blue awning, and a shop that sells quinceñera dresses. Near Berkeley City College you'll find sari shops wedged between restaurants that sell fresh samosas and daal. The southwest corner of downtown Oakland is crowded with grocery stores that sell bulk tofu, dried squid, and bok choi; the restaurants are redolent with soy sauce and sesame oil. But in West Berkeley, right around the intersection of San Pablo and University avenues, just about anything goes. Walk two blocks in any direction, and you'll run across Hawaiian, Jamaican, and Pakistani restaurants; shops hawking raw ingredients from Spain and Portugal; a taquería that sells tortas on fresh-baked bread, and a new Afghan establishment that sells salads made from potatoes and garbanzo beans.
You don't have to be a real foodie to appreciate this kind of exposure, and you don't have to be a folklorist to enjoy the area's compelling international history. The oldest restaurants in this part of Berkeley are run by Indian and Pakistani families who immigrated to the US several decades ago, said Indus Village Restaurant owner Shahid Salimi. "In the '60s and '70s this used to be a Mecca for South Asian food," Salimi explained. "Everybody would settle in Berkeley, or come there to shop for spices and items they couldn't find in rural areas such as Stockton." Salimi launched Indus Food Center (then called Apna Bazaar) in 1979, and always stocked it with imported teas, rare spices, and Halal-certified meat, which he obtained from livestock auctions in Dixon, California. (To this day, Salimi procures roughly 80 percent of the market's meat from local farms in Stockton and Petaluma.) The restaurant, which launched a couple years ago, sells fresh naan, kabobs, Basmati rice, vegetable samosas, and Indian ice cream made with sweet cheese and condensed milk.
Since the '70s, West Berkeley has transformed dramatically. The neighborhood now houses Middle Eastern, Laotian, and Caribbean restaurants right alongside the old Indian and Pakistani establishments. There are places to buy fruit smoothies, Ayurveda remedies, and Portuguese spices; the taquerías use organic avocados and cilantro; many of the shops sell organic produce and cooking oils. The whole multi-culti panoply will be in evidence at this Sunday, June 29's Berkeley International Food Festival at the intersection of San Pablo and University aves., at which local shop owners and restaurateurs will present a variety of menu samplings along with live music, dancing, and cooking demos. Now in its third year, the festival offers proof that the melting pot cliché can actually happen — especially when you have food as a mediator. Noon-5 p.m., free. BerkeleyInternationalFoodFestival.com