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Surviving Berkeley

Berkeley is unlike any place I’ve ever been. It is a college town, through and through, but people here march to the beat of a different drum. The second you start exploring, you notice that there is a different, unexplainable, characteristic about this place. From all of the recommendations I’d received from people, I knew that the town had a good food scene and vibe, but nothing could have prepared me for what it had in store. Simply put, Berkeley is the first place I’ve been where people truly are themselves. It’s an admirable and enviable quality, having the courage and tenacity to live without the fear of a stranger’s judgment. And it’s the major characteristic that separates this town from any place I’ve been to before.

If you’re new to the area, or from the Midwest like me, prepare yourself for a fantastical culture shock. Berkeley is a world of its own, unlike any place in the Bay, at least to my knowledge. Living in SF, I took the BART, arriving to the downtown area within 30 minutes. Upon arriving, my first destination was Cinnaholic or, as many Bay area locals romantically call it, the best cinnamon roll in the East Bay.

The cinnamon roll. The ultimate guilty pleasure. For those looking for a sugar-filled joyride, Cinnaholic is a must stop in Berkeley. One block from the downtown BART station, this quaint shop offers the best cinnamon rolls I’ve personally had the chance to introduce my taste buds upon. I ordered the original, a cinnamon roll with vanilla icing. That alone would be enough to make the biggest cinnamon roll enthusiast yip with joy, yet, what sets these sugary sweet rolls apart are the toppings. All in all, customers can choose from 30 icings, ranging from the classics to root beer and key lime. As for toppings, you can go sweet with toppings such as gingersnap cookies and brownie chunks or fruity with a range of fresh fruits and berries. The possibilities are endless! Though they may seem outrageous to pair with cinnamon rolls for some, any fruit selection on these rolls make the experience awe inspiring. I choose a variation on the pecan pie roll: vanilla icing, pie crumble, raspberry, and strawberry. What makes the roll and is a must have on any variation you do decide to make is the pie crumble. Combining the two holiest of foods, sugar and butter, this topping goes well on any roll concoction you do decide to order. Along with the contrast of the tart coming from the fruit, the sweet, sugary treat was almost orgasmic, perfect for any day (for instance, this surprisingly hot Spring day was in the mid 80s and still perfect).

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To work off the cinnamon roll, I take a personal tour of the campus. After hours of roaming, I reach another breaking point and it's time for some more food and a cold refreshment. Another place I’d received numerous recommendations for Berkeley was Joshu-ya Brasserie. A short walk from campus, past the wide array of crafts and knick-knack tents present that Saturday afternoon on Telegraph Avenue, you can find the somewhat hidden restaurant. Joshu-ya Brasserie is considered “Asian fusion”, at least on the online websites, but it is so much more. On Urbanspoon, my go-to website, they are popular for dishes you would expect like ramen, but at the same time bread pudding is listed among the fan favorites. They also have sushi, sashimi, udon, and tempura, as would be expected from an Asian fusion restaurant. But what sets this place apart is their kitchen. Along with their wide range of Asian fusion fare, they also offer kobe beef burgers, sliders, pomme frittes, and wide range of Asian inspired tapas. One reason for the wide variety can also be attributed to their seasonal menus. So if some of these food gems are not on their menu when you visit in three months, don’t look at me!

If you go to Joshu-ya, the pomme frittes are a MUST HAVE. I don’t care that the place is Asian fusion. That’s how good they are. I had reservations about ordering them, that was until the wait staff insisted that I try them. At Joshu-ya brasserie, it doesn’t matter if you go traditional or dive into some of their kitchen offerings, any order you make will not disappoint. Whether it is the octopus, shrimp tempura, kobe beef sliders, or any of their many sushi rolls, you will be having a good meal. My perfect meal that day was the spider roll and, the star of the show, the pomme frittes coded in white truffle oil, parmesan and cracked pepper. UNBELIEVABLE. To top it off, a hop nosh IPA helped wash away some of my soreness from hours of wondering around the campus. For under $25, I left this hidden gem one happy camper. Overall, Joshu-ya Brasserie is ideal for any occasion. You can go in the early afternoon like me and hang out in their closed off patio. You can bring a date and sit at the sushi bar as the food is prepared in front of you. It doesn’t matter. Just like the food, this place is versatile and a little outside the box.

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To conclude a day in Berkeley, anyone visiting should do two things. One, they should wonder down Shattuck Avenue. From the time I arrived till the time I departed, there was a wonderfully fantastical, seemingly grunge (perhaps homeless) band playing kick ass music next to the BART station. Whether they were indeed homeless or part of the university’s music program is still a mystery, but one thing was for sure they were putting on a great show for anybody that wanted to stop and watch. Second, and I cannot emphasize this enough, go to Grizzly Peak. I repeat, GO TO GRIZZLY PEAK. This breathtaking, romantic, awe-inspiring view of the entire Bay is truly a sight to behold. If you are lucky enough to get half of the view I had that night, it will set you back. Living in North Beach, I’m spoiled with views from the nearby Coit Tower, but that doesn’t pale in comparison to Grizzly Peak. If you are visiting Berkeley without a car like me, even the $12 Uber ride to the view is well worth it!

So as I left this wonderful, unique and inspiring town, I couldn’t help but romanticize the experience. The people and culture was unlike anything I’d come across before. I witnessed things that were new, people that I didn’t dream still existed, and experienced things that seemed hardly real. I saw an unforgettable view of an unforgettable area. And I had the cinnamon roll of my dreams. Berkeley was all in all a dream in itself. A place where people don't give a shit what others think. Berkeley, keep being yourself. Keep being weird and what makes you so great. Cheers!

(Finished 3/7/15 1:55am, more than ½ handle Bacardi Gold Rum in and full day of exploring Berkeley complete)

(Edited 3/9/15)

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