CHEAP EATS I still have some Berkeley wonders to tell you about. In fact, I’ve been saving the best for last: fried chicken and donuts at Rainbow Donut, which is my new favorite restaurant — and just down San Pablo from there, my new favorite restaurant: Smoke Berkeley.
Smoke Berkeley, or Berkeley Smoke as I call it for fun, is wedged between a car wash and a piano store. The advantage to which is that one can play a little Brahms while waiting for the line to die down, and, on the other hand, if you eat outside, you might get somewhat misted.
Most times, I know, being sprayed by a car wash during lunch will not seem like an advantage, especially in the Bay Area; but I’ve spent the last couple days driving through a southern-style heatwave and, believe me, I have missed being misted by car washes, even over barbecue.
Especially over barbecue.
So, yes, in Mississippi, Tennessee, and even Virginia, I did: I missed Berkeley Smoke. Strange as that may sound.
The restaurant doesn’t open until noon, and we got there at ten till, the li’l chunks de la Cooter going absolutely batty with excitement and hunger. And they weren’t the only ones.
The place has a following. It’s only about half a year old, but people are onto it. Crawdad and the chunks held down an outdoor table while I stood peering through the door at the menu, committing our order to memory. A line formed behind me. When it finally opened, I was at the front of that line, my nose pressed into the iron-grated screen door, very much enjoying the smell of the place.
Unfortunately, the door that was opened, upon opening, was not the one that I had applied myself to. Fortunately, Mr. Crawdad de la Cooter was waiting first-in-line at the right door. (I had wondered where he’d gotten to.)
Anyway: pulled pork and beef brisket. Normally there are ribs, but the ribs weren’t ready yet. We got pulled pork sliders for the kids. Those were actually pretty good.
The brisket plate was not — surprisingly, given the chef’s Texas connection. Maybe an off day. Maybe the wrong part of Texas. But the meat was dry. It had a nice flavor, the right amount of smoke, and the hot barbecue sauce helped, but — honestly — not oversmoking it would have helped even more.
Unanimously, we preferred the North Carolina pork.
Loved the Cole slaw. The jalapeno cornbread was moist and good, and the jalapeno mac and cheese was great. The mayo eaters loved the potato salad, and the chocolate eaters loved the chocolate pecan pie, but I don’t fall in either of those camps, so . . . can’t say.
As for Rainbow Donuts: new favorite restaurant. Technically, it’s a fried chicken, fried fish, donut, and lottery shop, with an emphasis on the lottery. They have a couple of scratcher machines, a rack of scratchers behind the counter, and stations for Daily 4, Daily Derby, Mega Millions, and Hot Spot.
Fluorescent lights and ceiling fans, dirty red fast food tables . . . Like most donut shops, Rainbow has that down-and-out feel that I so love. There was a table of people sipping Cokes in utter silence and scratching scratchers kind of almost maniacally. And you know me — I eat that shit up!
But speaking of eating stuff up:
The fried chicken was awesome. A crispy, peppery breading with a perfectly succulent inner goodness. You have to specify you want it fried to order, though, or they’ll give you the crusty crap that’s been sitting in the display case.
They were out of biscuits, so she gave me an extra side. I didn’t want fries with my fish (also awesome), so she gave me an extra piece of chicken. And she gave me an extra donut for the hell of it.
You see? You see why I love this place?
And the mac and cheese was decent, the greens were alright, and the shrimp gumbo was good. It wasn’t particularly gumbolike, but I liked it. Probably, if I had that four-block stretch of San Pablo to do over again, I’d get my sides from Smoke, and my meat from Rainbow.
Not to compare fried and barbecue, but . . .
2434 San Pablo Ave., Berk.
Mon-Sat 5am-8pm; Sun 6am-8pm
2025 San Pablo Ave., Berk.