A Week of Grazing 

In which curiosity compelled the critic.

There's nothing like a Thai market to launch you into the outer realms. When the floor is spotless and the room air-conditioned enough to suck away controversial smells, there's no reason not to while away your lunch break wandering up and down the aisles of strange, enticing packages. What's that frozen fish? Is canned mangosteen as awful as canned pears? What would Thai toothpaste taste like?

Hours I spent daydreaming in Tuk Tuk Market on Berkeley's University Avenue last week under the pretext of eating noodles. Several months ago, the successful and tasty Tuk Tuk Thai restaurant downtown took over the space that was once Wild Oats and turned it into the swankest Southeast Asian grocery in the Bay Area. The owners recruited San Francisco's King of Thai Noodle empire to set up an outpost inside the market, and the food stand is basically a steam table plus a noodle shop.

Eating in means sitting at tables in the produce section. I loved the market, but the steam table produced a merely okay lunch -- a middling green curry, a sweet and oily eggplant-tofu stir-fry. It was more exciting to point at the food pictures on the wall and try to pronounce their names so that the staff would understand. After a cross-cultural game of telephone, I ended up with the guey taew moo I wanted, a clear chicken broth with rice noodles, barbecued pork, ground pork, fish balls, and spinach, as reassuring as soup can be. Guey taew ruer turned out to be beef and noodles in a sweeter, richer broth. Both were made to order and well worth $5.25. Off-menu, little curry puffs, plump little turnovers filled with sweetly curried vegetables, would be good if they weren't at room temperature, but banana-leaf packages still release a gratifying amount of steam when opened, uncovering sticky rice wrapped around gooey banana, black beans, and a whiff of fish sauce. The takeout-delivery menu, which I picked up on the way out, lists dozens of dishes that don't appear on the version above the cash register.

I'm the kind of guy who flies to Beijing to eat street food, so I'd been itching to check out a variety of local markets, bakeries, and food stands that weren't worth a full-length dining review on their own. Curiosity, if not sheer perversity, led me to Wings and Strings, a new place on Berkeley's University Avenue -- I wanted to know what in the hell "strings" were. I had visions of high-concept fried noodle nests or julienned vegetable ropes, but they turned out to be the restaurant's signature mix of potato and yam French fries.

It's a cute hangout, with exposed brick, a wall of celebrity photos, and TVs tuned in to the latest sports game. The cooks do breakfasts and salads, but the centerpiece of the menu is an Epcot Center of chicken wings, served (with strings) by the order and by the party platter.

The wings combo plate lets you taste one of each style of wing. Then, after you try all six, you can order two more of your favorite. Though everyone who worked there was awfully nice, the chicken wings were overcooked, the fries needed to be crisped up again in the fryer, and the appeal of the sauces varied. Wings of Asia and Wings of the Polynesian Islands came dunked in interchangeable gloopy syrups. My Wing of India was coated in an odd, Spanish-tasting red-pepper puree, while the Wing of Africa was tossed in a decent barbecue sauce. I ended up reordering a Wing of Berkeley, unsauced and straight-up salty, and a Buffalo-inspired Wing of South America, rolled in a tomato sauce so fiery that my lips still hurt five minutes afterward. I'm going to stick with Scend's for my wing needs, but if Wings & Strings decide to deliver late-night platters to Cal's fraternity row, I foresee a great future for them.

Have you tried Bakesale Betty's ginger cookies? They lull you with molasses-hued chewiness, then zap you with candied ginger. Alison Barakat's electric-blue wig and lamingtons (a cakelike Australian dessert covered in chocolate and coconut) are fixtures on the East Bay's farmers' market circuit. Her fans are just beginning to make their way to her two-month-old bakery on the corner of Telegraph and 51st Street.

It's strictly takeout, but the clean, bright storefront offers up all the Betty favorites -- scones, lemon bars, those lamingtons -- and now a couple of lunches. Every day, the Chez Panisse Cafe alumna prepares a couple of pressed sandwiches on thick, soft white bread, the insides oozy Vermont cheddar and asiago with tomato or ham (or just plain), the outsides slathered with butter to caramelize on the grill while it crisps. But the treat that seems to be gaining cult status is the fried chicken sandwich, a Chik-fil-A with a Ph.D. Between the halves of a French roll, Barakat nestles chicken breast strips, juicy underneath their crunchy flour coating, into a slaw of shaved green and red cabbage tossed with a spicy vinaigrette. That's it. Nothing fancy. I've already been back for seconds.

Which is what I may soon head back to Pie in the Sky for. Tim and Justina Barnard opened this shoebox pizzeria on Center Street in Berkeley, next to the Act I & II Theaters, three months ago. Tim learned to make pizza in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and ran his first Pie in the Sky in New Orleans a decade ago. At Pie in the Sky, the sequel, the Barnards make New York-style pizzas with California-style toppings -- such as walnuts, eggplant, roasted peppers, pesto -- as well as sandwiches and pastries, all baked in house. The Barnards' thin-thin crusts crackle when you fold them, but aren't so overbaked that they shatter. A mix of whole-wheat and white flours gives the dough a slight nuttiness, and the toppings and cheese are judiciously applied.

The goal of my meanderings was supposed to be new places, but I had to hit one more spot I've always wondered over: Brazil Fresh Squeeze Cafe. Over the past five years, the charismatic Pedro Robin has covered a tiny trailer with signs, flags, a green-carpeted dining area, plastic tables, and a surreal blend of real and faux plants, bringing a bare parking lot to life. Robin is famous for his tri-tip sandwiches, called picanha in his home country, chunks of grilled beef stuffed into a French roll slathered with cilantro-garlic sauce. It's great with ricotta and pineapple, too. The cilantro-garlic sauce pumps up all the sandwiches, from a multilayered vegetable-and-ricotta deluxe to the "bossanova" chicken salad, which incorporates corn and chopped hearts of palm and bookends it with thick slabs of brown bread. Everyone sips mango smoothies from plastic glasses.

Some friends and I arrived on the day that a new table appeared in front of Brazil Cafe, this one bearing a petition. Robin signed his second five-year lease in January, only to find out this month that the owner of the lot his stand occupies had sold it to UC Berkeley, and that he must move everything by December 1. Robin hopes his petition will garner him a meeting with the chancellor to ask for an extension while he fast-forwards his search for a permanent space. Anyone got a spare storefront in downtown Berkeley?


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