See Gidion’s Knot If You Possibly Can!

Gidion's Knot 3Because I’ve been blogging so much about food lately, I haven’t been sharing all the wonderful theater experiences as I should. But I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage as many people as I could to see this amazing play at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.

Everything about Gidion’s Knot is well done. Before the play even officially begins, actress Stacy Ross is in character as a teacher on stage, grading papers at her desk in a convincing fifth-grade classroom. The set is decked out with the typical primary-colored, cheery pre-fab elementary-school posters under harsh institutional fluorescents, which is the perfect setting for shining light on an extremely dark topic and sets the right tone for what must be the most uncomfortable parent-teacher conference ever. My compliments to set designer Nina Ball and lighting designer, Michael Palumbo.

I don’t want to give away important plot twists because part of the beauty of the play is the unveiling of each element, but it is a story that delves into many issues, none of which are easy or clear cut. An abrasive, wounded, misguided mother, played by Jamie Jones, descends on the teacher who does her best to consider the mother’s situation before reacting.

Johnna Adam’s script is a finely cut jigsaw puzzle whose pieces interlock before the audience to reveal a troubled student who never appears on stage. Both the mother and teacher have pieces of that puzzle. But even when the audience has the insight of both women, the picture isn’t complete, which illustrates how deeply complicated an eleven-year old can be.

Also noticeably absent is the principal, who is supposedly on her way. Representing an institutional lack of support, this Godot fails not only the teacher and the parent but presumably the boy as well.

Stacy Ross is one of my favorite Bay Area actors, and this role took advantage of her great talent. (Another actress will take over that role starting March 4, and I’m sure she’s good, but to be on the safe side, I would get tickets now.) Jamie Jones did such a good job of being that multi-faceted pain-in-the-ass parent that I actively disliked her character while also feeling great sympathy.

It’s not a rollicking good time, but it’s a moving drama that poses important questions that will haunt you long after you leave the theater.

For tickets, go to


La Farine’s secret sandwich stash

Dave with La Farine roast beef sandwich
Dave with his roast beef sandwich

Okay, maybe it’s not supposed to be a secret, but I don’t think I ever would have known that La Farine on Solano sells sandwiches if I hadn’t heard someone ask for one. So I tried it one day—asking for one that is. But it was almost 1:00, which apparently isn’t early enough before they run out. But I don’t give up that easily.

The second time I went at noon. I was a little nervous because although I’ve been to La Farine at least a hundred times to buy a rustic baguette, a morning bun, or a pain au chocolat, I’d never asked for something that I couldn’t see behind the counter.

“Do you have any sandwiches today?” I asked casually of the baker as if I were a regular sandwich buyer there.

He opened the mini-frig and did some recon.

“We got egg salad and roast beef with roasted bell pepper.”

“What comes on the roast beef? Is there any mayonnaise?

(Anyone who knows me is not wondering about this question, but for those of you who aren’t personally acquainted with my eating habits—it would be an understatement to say I don’t like mayonnaise.)

A different baker chimed in that it had a horseradish sauce. I do like horseradish, but the “sauce” part worried me—it might be code for mayonnaise. The problem is that egg salad also generally had mayo, so I didn’t think I was going to be able to order one of the available sandwiches that day. La Farine foccaccia

Dave stepped in and ordered the roast beef, and I ended up with one of their savory focaccia with Gruyère, tomato, and walnuts. Yum! Of course after Dave pointed out that it would have been better warmed up, I enjoyed it less. Thanks a lot, Dave…

But to offset this, he let me have part of his sandwich, which turned out to be mayonnaise-free and quite good. He thought it would be more interesting with other toppings, but as he put it, it was good for someone who “really likes meat.” Between the slices of bread were  a few roasted red peppers, sliced roast beef an inch tall, and some mild horseradish but nothing else.

It was a beautiful sunny day, so we sat on the bench outside. It’s an excellent spot for people watching.

The only issue was water. Inside is a pitcher of water for anyone who wants some. But the cups are those tiny paper kind, the size of the ones we had in our kitchen growing up that came out of a Dixie dispenser. I think they were basically created for people who need to take pills and need just enough water to get them down. So I had to go back several times to get enough water to last me through lunch even after drinking Dave’s water as well.

But it is a bakery after all and not a restaurant, so I wouldn’t expect them to have bigger cups. I guess my point is that if I were to get lunch there again, I’d bring it home or take it with me to, say, Peet’s across the street, where I can order a low-fat sugar-free vanilla latte to accompany it and sit at their outdoor tables.

So it’s a great place if you like savory focaccia or a lot of meat on your sandwich, if you get there early, and if it’s a nice day so you can get in some good people watching. But bring your own drink!

Nature’s Express offers a plethora of options

Nature's Express wrap

My sister-in-law Victoria and her husband Chris are vegans and were in town for the long weekend. It was complete happenstance that the next on my list of lunch spots was Nature’s Express, which is a vegan heaven. So of course they accompanied us.

The menu was quite extensive. We ordered four different food items and two smoothies, and we swapped tastes all around. Except I had no interest in partaking of Dave’s beet smoothie, as gorgeous as it was to look at, because I am of the opinion that no matter how pretty they are, beets taste like dirt.

Chris and Victoria shared a Brazilian smoothie, which they liked. I won’t mention my husband’s inappropriate response when I asked what made the smoothie Brazilian, but if you are at all familiar with Brazilian waxes, you might come up with some variation of it yourself…

I got the “tuna” melt, tuna being in quotation marks because of course it isn’t really tuna but a chickpea substitute. I don’t know why it couldn’t have been called a chickpea salad melt, but I suppose the idea is to lure carnivores into eating something that sounds familiar. I was excited to see that one of the add-on options was caramelized onions, which I promptly ordered because everything tastes better with caramelized onions. Sincerely. I dare you to come up with something that doesn’t improve when infused with this miraculous foodstuff.lentil soup

My sandwich was quite good albeit messy because the wheat bread kept dropping the garbanzo bean/Daiya cheese mix into the basket below. (Notice how I blame the bread rather than myself.) My lunch companions ordered wraps, which were easier to eat without losing the innards. We all thought Dave’s Spicy Thai Chik-un wrap was really tasty (chik-un being some sort of chicken-like non-meat, or un-chicken). Chris thoroughly enjoyed his lightly toasted avocado kale wrap (purported on the menu to be an “all time bestseller”). Victoria’s lentil soup was fine, but declared Dave’s wrap as “unbelievably flavorful.”

Because we felt virtuous, having eaten so healthily, Dave decided that as a reward, we should split a Pecan Cardamom blondie among the four of us. That was probably the only disappointment, mostly because our mouths were expecting a blondie, but what we got was more akin to a muffin.

It was their last day in Berkeley, and before they left for the airport, Victoria returned to Nature’s Express to get dinner for the plane ride home. Along with a sandwich, she came back with sweet potato fries, which I pointed out would not taste as good an hour later when they were cold. So we ate them immediately. I was only too happy to help out…

Still a loyal Peet’s customer…

Peet's food

First, let me say that I had every intention of trying out Peet’s new lunch options. I’d heard that they had started selling salads and sandwiches that were made locally and delivered fresh daily. My plan was to grab lunch there and take it home to eat while watching my new guilty pleasure, the animated series Bob’s Burgers, available on Netflix. I know Peet’s has some outdoor seating, but it wasn’t one of those beautiful sunny days that beckons me to eat outdoors. (I realize I’m a spoiled California girl and that there are snowed-in folks on the East Coast who would kill for a perfectly pleasant overcast 60-degree day, but I have better opportunities to lunch outside, so this was not going to be one of those al fresco meals.)

I went so far as to walk in and read the nutrition labels on the sandwiches, which two different Peet’s employees had declared delicious. And I bet they are. But I’m trying to lose weight, and the turkey sandwich had 22 grams of fat; the ham had 23. I decided these were not options for me. I looked halfheartedly at the quinoa salad, which was certainly healthy but didn’t appeal to me at that moment. And I didn’t even pick up the fruit salad because I eat lots of fruit every day, so there’s no real motivation to buy it at Peet’s just to bring it home. The same went for the cheese and crackers plate and the hummus and carrots combo. I’m sure the lentil salad would have been fine, but by then, I’d decided that I just wanted something warmer to eat.

So I’m not saying I wouldn’t have had a wonderful dining experience at Peet’s. Maybe once I achieve my goal weight, I’ll go back and try one of those gourmet sandwiches slathered with aioli. But for now I am content to buy my coffee beans there and splurge on the occasional—okay, maybe more than just occasional—latté. (My regular is the low-fat, sugar-free vanilla latté, and my special treat is the  one with salted caramel. My mouth waters just thinking about it.)

A side note: I love their oatmeal with all the fixin’s (brown sugar, dried wild blueberries, and nuts), but that’s breakfast…

Troy serves up tasty Greek fare

Troy frontFor those of you keeping track, Troy is stop number eight in my quest to lunch down Solano Ave.

Dave and I met friends/business associates there, and I got so caught up in conversation that I forgot to take photos of my food. I also forgot to check out the restrooms. But here’s a shot from the outside.

I really like Troy. Dave and I split a Greek salad that had a light, crisp, refreshing dressing and was quite satisfying. Plus it comes with their pita bread, which is so much better than pita bread I’ve gotten anywhere else. It’s warm, soft, and tasty. Dave ordered the chicken shawarma wrap, and I got the chicken souvlaki wrap. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t really tell the difference between the two except that Dave’s seem to have more sauce, so his basket was messier than mine when we were all done. Dave insists that mine was better though. The seven-inch wrap, which is plenty big, is $6.95,  and the nine-inch version is $7.95. Peter is fond of lamb, so he got a gyros, which consisted of both lamb and beef, and he enjoyed it. Amy-Lyn had a lamb souvlaki wrap and seemed to like hers too.

It was pretty busy, but the service was good and the noise level reasonable. I did have to ask for my second refill of water, but it came quickly after my request.

On a previous visit to Troy, my sweater, scarf, and backpack had an unfortunate encounter with one of their sauces, which are brought to tables in plastic, squeezable, diner-style catsup containers. It was a matter of adding force to one such container whose clogged spout suddenly spewed green garlic jalapeno sauce. I’m just glad I was wearing glasses so that my eyes were protected. But I added both the green sauce and the red chili pepper sauce this time without any accidents.

Besides sharing our opinions on what makes a true bagel (which I realize has nothing to do with Greek food but was discussed because Peter actually makes his own bagels but has yet to invite us over to have any), we also discussed what gyro means. Does it refer to its form—a wrap consisting of pita around meat, tomatoes, cucumbers, and either tsatsiki or a tahini sauce? No! Gyro literally means “turn” and refers to the meat itself (usually lamb), which is roasted on a vertical spit.

I didn’t notice any typos unless you count misguided capitalization. (Why, for instance, when the dish was described as having “herbs and Spices” was spices capitalized but the h in herbs remained lower case? This seems to favor spices over herbs, and I can’t imagine why the author of the menu would grant one a higher status than the other.)

I was surprised at the pronunciation that the menu provided for gyros: YEE-ROS. Back in Okieland, when ordering from the Greek deli across the street from his office, my dad always ordered a jīrō pronouncing it like the beginning of gyroscope. I was corrected by my husband some years back that it’s actually pronounced like the English word hero. So when I got home, I looked it up and found all of these plus ZHEER-oh and GHEER-oh. So, far from settling the matter, I’m more confused than when I started.

In any case, I’m going back. I can always just point at the menu if I’m feeling insecure about pronunciation…

Zachary’s is still a crowd-pleaser

zacharysberkeley entrance

Zach Zachowski and Barbara Gabel opened a pizza place in Oakland in 1983, and its popularity inspired them to open another one in Berkeley a year later. Zachary’s Pizza quickly became a Solano Avenue anchor that has brought folks from outside the neighborhood to North Berkeley to partake in its signature Chicago-style deep-dish pizza for 30 years. Now an employee-owned business, it’s a favorite spot for families and groups of all sizes, evidenced by the many framed posters, including one declaring it East Bay Express’s Best Pizza for umpteen years in a row.

I often order Zachary’s half-baked pizzas for large gatherings at my house. It’s been a fixture of our Oscar night for almost a decade. But I wanted the full lunchtime experience to report on, so I dined there this time. I’m glad I did because I got to enjoy all the artwork that kids and adults have created in Zachary’s name as part of their bi-annual contest. It’s definitely worth walking around to see how many different themes people have come up with in the restaurant’s history. Tweedledee and Tweedledum flank a pizza in one frame and local historic figures eat slices of Zachary’s in another.

Zachary's artworkSomething on this visit that was new to me was the availability of a stuffed slice. Zachary’s has served slices at lunch for as long as I can remember, but they were always thin crust. When you order slices rather than a whole pie, you go up to the counter and get them right away. Dave ordered the special, which was any slice, any soft drink, and a half Caesar salad for $9. I had a half garden salad and a slice of cheese.

They brought us our salads shortly after we seated ourselves next to the window where we could watch the life on Solano stroll by.

I don’t know if this is always true, but my thin-crust slice was handed over on a paper plate whereas Dave’s deep-dish slice was served on the heavier plastic plates that they use when serving whole pies. My guess is that paper wouldn’t stand up to Dave’s slice. Perhaps they had suffered paper plate failure before and decided that the heavier slices required more heft.

My pizza and salad were both quite tasty, and the paper plate didn’t really bother me too much. Dave liked his pepperoni mushroom stuffed slice but made the same comment that I’d heard before—that the deep dish style had too many tomatoes. They were good tomatoes—there were just too many. He particularly liked the lemonade, though, and he’s kind of picky about lemonade. So bonus points were awarded there.

Because we were limiting ourselves to the slices that were available—it being a busy work day for us both—I couldn’t have my favorite of Zachary’s pizzas, which is the thin crust with chicken. But I’m sure I’ll be ordering up one of those soon for pick up…

Bland but perfectly edible

cactusIt had been years since I walked through the door of Cactus Taqueria on Solano. When my daughter was much younger, I recall going there and seeing small children playing in the fountain in the middle of the dining area. I was always curious to see which moms kept their eyes on their little ones and which ones didn’t seem to remember that they’d brought children at all. It was always a delicate balance and nobody wanted to call out parents on their lack of discipline because that wouldn’t be a very cool Berkeley attitude. Luckily, I never saw any serious accidents caused by toddlers splashing around on slippery tiles.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped going to Cactus, not because I was worried that I’d be exposed to fountain-related injuries but because a taqueria opened up closer to my house, and I just wasn’t fond enough of Cactus to pass by one perfectly good Mexican place to eat elsewhere. Maybe I’m just lazy…

But I tried to look at Cactus as if I’d never been there before.

The first thing I noticed was that you no longer order where you first enter. You have to wait until you make it through the line and reach the cashier. This means you don’t get to watch them assemble your burrito while you wait to pay. Oh, well—not a deal breaker, by any means, but I do wonder what prompted the change.

While in line, I ran into one my daughter’s preschool teachers from seventeen years ago, which was nice, but it was too noisy and crowded to chat casually, so I couldn’t really tell you how he’s doing.

cactus pozole soupThe menu has a lot of variety. I ordered a chicken tostada, and Dave had the tamales. My tostada didn’t have anything wrong with it, but it wasn’t terribly exciting either. It was no-frills chicken, lettuce, beans, salsa fresca, and a dribbling of Mexican cream. I don’t think there was even cheese on it… Dave liked his chicken tamale okay but left most of the sauce uneaten. Our friends who joined us got the sopa de la dia and green chicken enchiladas. The soup that was billed as pozole was bland. But we pointed out to Laura that the main ingredient was hominy, which is sort of bland by nature, and she did not contest this fact. The enchiladas didn’t have enough sauce. (Though Barry assured me that usually there was more sauce and that it’s a good dish. He’s a regular customer, so I’m going to trust him on that.)

The bathroom was clean but quite cold, and you have to walk around the side all the way to the back of the building before you reach it. For some reason I thought of my friend who has trouble walking long distances, and I wondered how she’d fare. But it was certainly reasonable for able-bodied folk.

My final verdict? It’s cheap, fast, and not unpleasant.