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A Big Bite of the Gourmet Ghetto

Let your food-freak flag fly on this Berkeley walking tour


Photography by Lane Hartwell

The 60-year-old blonde in a lime green sweater, plaid shorts, and checkerboard Vans watched her life flash before her eyes. Her life in coffeepots, that is. “I remember those Chemex pots,” she said, pointing to a glass beaker cinched at its waist with a fetching wooden bodice and displayed at the Peet’s at Walnut and Vine in Berkeley.

“I’ve used so many pots over my lifetime.”

Ah, yes. So many pots, and so many yummy little treats are the things that constitute a life. And that make up the weekly walking tour of the approximately seven-block cluster of hallowed halls known as Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.

Say what you will about food obsession signaling the decline of civilization, this tour is a hundred times more wholesome than boarding a bus to visit the homes and haunts of dead celebrities (although the two combined could be fun: You could call it Ghouls and Gluttons). The tour elicits no fainting or screaming among the Ghetto tourists, just a lot of oohing and ahhing, with mouths full of lighter-than-heaven’s-air potato puffs or 75 percent dark chocolate.

As it turns out, food and ethics are served in almost equal portions in the Gourmet Ghetto. Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen provides the Ghetto tourists with a brochure detailing the high-mindedness of the pastrami on rye. Humanely raised meat, no antibiotics or hormones, on Acme bread made in Berkeley with organic flour—all of which will not be served with a Dr. Brown’s soda but a house-made natural syrup soda because Dr. Brown’s is no longer owned by Dr. Brown, and uses artificial ingredients.

A Ghetto tourist learns that Juice Bar Collective employees work a four-day week, with full medical, dental, and vision benefits. Unlike the rest of us, they climb the company ladder not toward further entrapment but toward liberation, dropping a day a week after five years and two after 10 if they like. And they make killer black bean polenta with fresh salsa and cheddar.

Meanwhile, the would-be proletariat at the Cheeseboard all make the same amount of money, whether they started last Tuesday or 40 years ago, and they use a “consensus-building decision-making process” to decide whether to invest in new capital goods, such as a bread oven.

Amid such egalitarianism and deliciously chewy thin crust, Cheeseboard pizza eaters practice an age-old Berkeley form of civil disobedience: picnicking on the median strip that runs down Shattuck Avenue, beneath signs that say, “Keep Off Median, BMC #14.32.040.”

Still, an elitism runs parallel to the community-mindedness, and it’s all about the taste of the food. “You people don’t know what good chocolate is because you’ve never had it before,” Panos Panagos, co-owner of Alegio Chocolaté, says, quoting Claudio Corallo, his devil of a chocolate-maker, and making sure the Ghetto tourists know this isn’t some boardwalk candy shop.

Panagos congratulates this reporter when she’s the first one to guess the identities of every one of the chocolate-covered secret ingredients—including corn nuts—that he puts into the mouths of the tourists, and she begins to think all this food obsession isn’t anything to get all worried about after all. I eat, therefore I am. So what? Did I tell you I guessed all the secret ingredients in the chocolates?

Oh, and the glorious swag! Opportunistic passers-by have been known to sidle onto the tour to pocket a free sack of Guatemala Santa Isabel at Peet’s or down a cup of Thai red lentil at Soop. “We have savory and then sweet, coffee, and then booze. Who’s ready for booze?” tour leader Mary Ladd asks her group of merry tourists at just about high noon, before pulling a bait and switch, and leading them to delectable cupcakes at Love at First Bite, which looks a bit like Rainbow Brite’s dream cottage.

Alas, cocktails and celebrity sightings are few on the Ghetto tour. We did catch a word with Mike C. of Kitchen on Fire cooking school, who is KOFY TV-20’s “Hippy Gourmet.” But we were left to go on Ladd’s opinion that Grégoire’s chef-owner, Grégoire Jacquet, is very attractive. “You can look him up online,” Ladd said, pantomiming typing with a salacious smile and apparently forgetting all about her promise of booze until almost the end of the tour.

Only then did we visit an awesome little vault of wine called Vintage Berkeley, where we were offered just enough Preston Zinfandel to fully appreciate all that the Gourmet Ghetto stands for—and that includes the Cheeseboard’s project to create an economy for yak herders in Nepal.

The Culinary Walking Tour of the Gourmet Ghetto takes place every Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., rain or shine, and costs $60 per person. Go to inthekitchenwithlisa.com, or call (415) 806-5970.

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