Writing about hidden local gems presents an agonizing conflict of interests. On the one hand, such excellence should be recognized, properly praised and encouraged to persist. On the other, drawing attention to a restaurant no bigger than a tool shed that already garners intimidating lines, puts it in danger of becoming even more overcrowded than it already is. Kiku Sushi needs no press to bring business through the door; on a completely unassuming, undistinguished Tuesday, wait time can stretch well into the darkness of night, no matter when you arrive. Well known for their commitment to quality, what potential patrons may not realize is the utterly innovative vegan menu.
It never turns up on lists for the best plant-based dining options, and yet it’s far more deserving of the honor than many predictable staples. We’re talking about more than the usual suspects here, with cucumber maki giving way to sumptuous specialty rolls that are every bit as creative as their fishy brethren.
That said, there’s plenty to relish from this bill of fare, starting with a number of truly killer apps. Don’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy impossibly rich, savory spoonfuls of Mushroom Miso Soup, or meltingly tender Nasu Dengaku, without the fear of bonito lurking in the background.
Spicy Tuna takes shape from chopped tomatoes, of all things, generously seasoned with fiery shichimi togarashi. A hint of cumin-scented shiso leaf and the crisp bite of crunchy cucumbers creates a well-balanced, fresh composition that’s distinctly different from the typically mayo-laden approach, and dare I say, far better.
Made of mushrooms instead of mollusks, the Baked Scallop Roll is an umami explosion in a rice-wrapped package. Creamy avocado adds richness without smothering the nuanced, shockingly authentic oceanic flavor. Though your eyes and mouth may try to tell you differently, that’s not tobiko on top, but finely grated carrot that somehow becomes an unbelievably convincing imposter.
If neither seafood nor any vegetable-based facsimiles ever did appeal, then the Kiku Roll was made for you. Take futo maki to the next level, and one step beyond, and you’ll have some idea of the behemoth about to descend on your table. Fully deep-fried in a light tempura batter and drizzled generously with sweet soy and ginger sauce, one order alone could become a wholly satisfying meal.
In a similar vein, the Spicy Crunchy Roll should have wide appeal across all dietary preferences and tastes. Toothsome marinaded kampyo meets yuba and decadent piles of tempura flakes, impossibly grease-less and, as promised, resoundingly crunchy. The spice level is gentle yet bright, clear, and distinct, perfectly cutting through the indulgent topping.
Kiku Sushi clearly isn’t hurting for business, and while I fear jeopardizing my own chances at getting in the door, such edible artistry needs to be celebrated. For a restaurant that never sought vegan accolades, they certainly do treat their plant-based diners to a royal sushi experience.
1316 Gilman St
Berkeley, CA 94706
Chain restaurants have come to represent the slow erosion of all that is held dear by discerning diners the world over. Homogenized, mass-produced, oversimplified menus designed for consistency and volume proliferate, muting bold flavors in favor of simplicity. Quality isn’t the first, nor second or third, consideration, with more focus placed on cost than true value. Small businesses are edged out, putting the endangered mom and pop shop around the corner at even greater risk than ever.
Surely you’ve heard this tale of woe before. It’s not a new story, and no happy ending seems to lie ahead in the yet unwritten pages. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. “Franchise” doesn’t have to be a dirty word when it represents the spread of better corporate values. Veggie Grill is bucking the trend as the largest 100% vegan chain in the country, bringing real food that “celebrates the veggie, the fruit, the grain, and the nut” to the people. Veggie Grill has over 30 locations spread across the west coast and is soon to begin their east coast invasion, taking root in Cambridge, MA before spreading to NYC in 2019. If you haven’t yet heard about their infamous B-Wing Salad or sat down to a towering Beyond Burger, you’re in for a treat.
My first taste of Veggie Grill was many years ago when it was still a fledgling eatery based in Portland, OR. Although I’ve dabbled with the bay area locations once a year or so, they still remained just a bit beyond easy access… Until now. Planting themselves right in the heart of downtown Berkeley, it’s dangerously easy to pop in whenever the craving for Tempura Green Beans strikes, or worse yet, simply order $1 delivery through the app.
Meatless mains feature prominently through partnerships with Beyond Meat, Gardein and Hodo, appealing to the staunch omnivore and old-school vegan alike. Many reviews come from confused patrons who realize only after plowing through their entree that it was entirely plant-based. This is exactly the kind of accessibility that the industry needs now; not dumbed-down flavors, but a level playing field to unite eaters of all stripes. You can still get your spicy Buffalo Wings with creamy ranch dressing; your soulful Southern Fried Chicken plate piled high with mashed potatoes and gravy; your bright and zesty Mediterranean Super greens Salad, if you so choose.
My personal favorite of the moment is the Rustic Farm Bowl for its deeply umami grilled mushrooms, roasted yams, braised white beans, broccoli pesto, roasted tomatoes, and red pepper sauce. Every element would be a fine bite by itself, but in concert, creates a symphony of carefully tuned tastes, in perfect proportion. It’s a grounding meal that always leaves me feeling satisfied, energized rather than weighed down, easy to grab and just keep going. That’s what fast casual dining should really be about, right? Fuss-free, wholly satisfying fare that fits into the existing social fabric, rather than tearing a hole through it. If you haven’t yet tried Veggie Grill, prepare yourself. You may just see one opening up near you soon.
Don’t forget to download the app before you go and use my code HannahKa8145 for $5 off when you sign up!
Little Gem Salad from Millennium
Homemade Tofu and Peach Salad from Sound & Savor
Something Healthy Salad with Fried Vegan Egg from The Butcher’s Son
Fattoush Salad from Saha
Next Level Cobb from Next Level Burger
Buddha Bowl from Paradise Park Cafe
DIY Quinoa Bowl from Eatsa
Kale Salad from Saha
Golden Gate Bowl from Nourish Cafe
Mapo Tofu from Sound & Savor
Samusa Soup from Burma Superstar
Snaking past the illuminated case of thin-sliced meats and artisan cheeses, spilling out the door and onto the sidewalk, the line is already at least 15 deep, and it’s not even noon yet. Any respectable food establishment in downtown Berkeley will inevitably experience the usual lunch rush on any given day, but The Butcher’s Son is guaranteed to be more or less a mob scene no matter the hour. After a year and a half of slinging sandwiches to these hungry hordes, their popularity shows no sign of waning, nor the excitement from dying down. Eavesdrop on the masses already tucking into their oversized sandwiches for encouragement to endure the wait; exclamations of deep, primal joy echo off the walls, speaking louder than any formal review.
Salads and fried snacks round out the menu, but make no mistake, it’s all about the sandwiches here. Overstuffed with plant-based meats and dairy-free cheeses, these generous assemblages transcend the boundaries separating vegans and omnivores. Scores of staunch meat eaters have been shocked to discover that this old school deli is entirely flesh-free, even after devouring a full meal. There’s a certain finesse to the casual fare that reveals dedication to the craft that can only come from passion and attention to detail.
Each towering creation is a feat of culinary architecture. The Fried Mozzarella & Meatball could comfortably satisfy two diners, and the Roast Beef Reuben piles on thinly shaved beefless slices and sauerkraut with the same enthusiasm.
Bestsellers include the BLAT, a classic combination of bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato, straight to the point and sure to satisfy any nostalgic cravings. It’s tough to leave without ordering the Pulled Pork though, a saucy, smoky barbecue sensation that’s crowned with tender strings of caramelized onions and creamy coleslaw.
Groaning, straining within the confines of one’s previously well-fitting pants, it would behoove the average diner to reach for a takeout box early on. Resist the temptation of cleaning the plate, no matter how strongly the urge strikes. Besides, there’s still dessert to consider. Don’t overlook the pastry case, stocked with a rotating selection of pies, cheesecakes, cookies, doughnuts, cannoli, flaky croissants, and all variety of other sweet surprises. Just in case you need a meaty fix throughout the week, cold cuts and cheese are sold by the pound, right alongside house-made sour pickles.
Come hungry and early to secure a table, especially for the epic weekend bunch menu. This isn’t your average delicatessen, but the overall experience wouldn’t lead you to think it was any different.
The Butcher’s Son
1941 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704