Wat Mongkolratanaram feels like a Bay Area secret, but it definitely isn’t anymore.
The decades-old Berkeley Buddhist temple has been serving up Sunday brunch in its backyard for years. The last mention we could find of it on SF Weekly’s website dates back to 2003, when former restaurant critic Meredith Brody raved about the Thai cuisine. “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 dishes,” Brody wrote, noting “delicious little grilled patties of coconut milk” as a highlight of the brunch.
Not much has changed since 2003, though Wat Mongkolratanaram has gone through its own challenge to keep the weekly brunch spot open. In 2009, the temple’s neighbors argued that Wat Mongkolratanaram was breaking the law with its brunch sales, citing traffic and crowds as negative impacts to the community. Thankfully, the temple garnered support from 2,700 petition signers, 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 isn’t surprising at all. When I went to Wat Mongkolratanaram last Sunday, it was thriving. The token ordering system mentioned above remains in place: Pay for your tokens, and then stand in line for the individual dishes you want. There were long lines that moved decently quickly — my party and I probably waited 20 minutes on average per stall. I’d definitely recommend you bring friends, and then split up to minimize the wait time. Send one person to its token exchange spot. It’s cash only, and one dollar gets you one token. They’ll hand you a dixie cup filled with green and red plastic coins, and if you have any extra at the end of the lunch, you can bring it back to the token exchange stall to get your cash back.
There are plenty of options for you to choose from — hence why you should come in a group and share. The stalls at the front sell various curries, with vegetarian available. Seven tokens (seven dollars) gets you one curry entree with a side of rice; eight tokens gets you two; nine gets you three. We tried the beef panang curry, a red curry and coconut milk combination that’s not spicy but extremely tasty with its drier, thin beef slices. We also added the pad thai and eggplant basil to our three-entree combo: The pad thai is a little bit on the sweeter side, and the eggplant basil stir-fried with tofu and basil for a simpler dish that focuses mostly on its main ingredients rather than its seasoning.
The highly recommended beef noodle soup (8 tokens/dollars) gets a stall of its own. Good broth should never be underestimated. You get to pick your noodle width (thin, medium, wide). Individual portions are heated in hot water, then served on top of a base of bean sprouts. Preserved cabbage, celery pieces, beef slices, and meatballs are placed on top before the whole thing gets two giant scoops of beef broth from a massive metal pot. A tin of beef bones, some hollowed out of their marrow, sits next to the whole operation as testament to the incredibly delicious, rich, fragrant soup.
Remember the “delicious little grilled patties of coconut milk” we mentioned earlier? They’re called kanom krok, and they’re vegan and gluten free. Eight tokens will get you a whole tray of these small, almost-bite-size-but-not-quite, treats. The kanom krok either comes with green onions or black sesame seeds in their center, making for either a lovely, savory snack or a sweeter dessert. (Amazing what change one ingredient can make!) Either way, they have the same melting, somewhat gelatinous center, warm and fresh out of a hot egg waffle-esque iron. Other sweet options include taro fritters (8 tokens), thai tea (2 tokens), and mango sticky rice (6 tokens) that’s flooded with a sweet coconut milk mixture and a healthy helping of cut mango.
Sure, you can probably get 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 as cheap though, and you might not be able to enjoy it in an environment as lively and bright as Wat Mongkolratanaram’s backyard. Part of the appeal is getting a seat in the long rows of plastic picnic tables in the bright sunshine, where you can chatter loudly, casually, as if everyone is partaking in a giant collective picnic. It’s one of those shared experiences that glow with good food and literal sun, every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. On a good weather day, you’ll see people sitting on the grass while they enjoy their food, with yellow wildflowers blooming at fence’s edges.
Wat Mongkolratanaram, 1911 Russell St, Berkeley.
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.