Wat Mongkolratanaram sounds like a Bay Area secret, but it’s definitely not anymore.
The decades-old Berkeley Buddhist Temple has served Sunday brunch in its backyard for years. The last mention that we could find on Weekly SF The website dates back to 2003, when former food critic Meredith Brody raved about Thai food. “There you exchange money for tokens ($ 1 each) and then, in a system that seems complicated but works well, exchange the tokens for fabulous fresh Thai food,” Brody wrote, noting “delicious small grilled coconut milk patties “as a highlight of the brunch.
Not much has changed since 2003, although Wat Mongkolratanaram has taken on its own challenge to keep the weekly brunch open. In 2009, neighbors of the temple argued that Wat Mongkolratanaram was breaking the law with its brunch sales, citing traffic and crowds as negative impacts on the community. Fortunately, the temple has garnered the support of 2,700 petitioners, UC Berkeley students and the Asian Law Caucus, the Berkeley Daily Planet reported. The Zoning Adjustments Board voted eight to one to keep the temple’s weekly brunches alive.
At least in retrospect, the decision is not at all surprising. When I went to Wat Mongkolratanaram last Sunday it was in full swing. The aforementioned token ordering system stays in place: pay for your tokens, then line up for the individual dishes you want. There were long lines that moved quite quickly – my group and I probably waited 20 minutes on average per stand. I would definitely recommend that you bring some friends and then go your separate ways to minimize the wait time. Send a person to their token exchange point. It’s cash only, and a dollar earns you a token. They’ll give you a dixie cup full of green and red plastic coins, and if you have any extra at the end of lunch, you can bring it back to the token exchange stand to collect your money.
There are many options to choose from – that’s why you should come as a group and share. The stalls at the front sell various curries, with vegetarian options available. Seven tokens (seven dollars) entitle you to a curry starter with a side of rice; eight tokens give you two; nine gives you three. We tried the panang beef curry, a combination of red curry and coconut milk that is not tangy but extremely tasty with its drier and thinner slices of beef. We have also added the pad thai and eggplant basil to our combo of three starters: the pad thai is a little sweeter, and the aubergine with basil sautéed with tofu and basil for a simpler dish that focuses mainly on its main ingredients rather than its seasoning.
The highly recommended beef noodle soup (8 tokens / dollars) gets its own booth. Good broth should never be underestimated. You can choose the width of your noodles (fine, medium, wide). Individual servings are heated in hot water, then served on a bean sprout base. Candied cabbage, chunks of celery, beef slices and meatballs are placed on top before the whole thing receives two giant scoops of beef broth in a huge metal pot. Next to the entire operation is a box of beef bones, some of which are hollowed out of their marrow, testifying to the incredibly delicious, rich and fragrant soup.
Do you remember the “delicious little grilled coconut milk pancakes” we were talking about above? They are named kanom krok, and they’re vegan and gluten-free. Eight tokens will get you a full platter of these little treats, almost the size of a bite, but not quite. Kanom krok comes with green onions or black sesame seeds in their center, making it a delicious, flavorful snack or sweeter dessert. (Amazing what a change an ingredient can make!) Either way, they have the same melt-in-the-mouth, somewhat gelatinous, warm, and fresh center out of a hot egg waffle iron. Other sweet options include taro fritters (8 tokens), thai tea (2 tokens), and sticky mango rice (6 tokens) which is flooded with a mixture of sweetened coconut milk and a good portion of chopped mango.
Of course, you can probably get some really delicious Thai food elsewhere if Berkeley is a bit of a trip for you. In San Francisco, you might not be able to get it so cheaply and you might not be able to enjoy it in such a vibrant and bright environment as the backyard of Wat Mongkolratanaram. Part of the allure is sitting in the long rows of plastic picnic tables under bright sunshine, where you can chat casually, loudly, as if everyone is on a giant collective picnic. . It’s one of those shared experiences that sparkle with good food and literal sunshine, every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. edges.
Wat Mongkolratanaram, 1911 Russell Street, Berkeley.