Guacamole and Chips, Enchiladas de Mole “Puebla,” Carnitas Plato
Occupation: Theological Librarian
Favorite Restaurant: Picante
Reviewed Picante: Tuesday, July 16, 2006
What can I say about Picante? It is hands down my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area. Put simply, if you are looking for some of the freshest, best tasting Mexican food, drive no further than the west side of Berkeley and you will find it. Parking is easy on the street with no meters to contend with, and you will be joined by hundreds of others who eat their way through the Picante menu on a nightly basis. On top of having great food, the speedy kitchen and the informal atmosphere is a big hit with all age groups. For those who like to dine al fresco, there are two patios to eat on besides a large dining room.
On the night we went there for dinner, my dining party was two adults and a preschooler. Although the order line was long, it moved quickly and it wasn’t long until we had found a table on the side patio. Within five minutes our appetizer arrived, followed quickly by the entrees until our table was full of plates of steaming food. My personal favorite is anything with the Manchamanteles chicken, known for its almost barbeque like taste and deep red sauce. My dining companion ordered the flautas with black beans while the junior member of our party dined on the kid’s chicken taco that comes with rice and beans. Unlike the myriad other Mexican restaurants I have been to that have mushy beans, overcooked rice, and everything smothered in cheese, Picante uses none of these tricks.
Rather, the rice and beans are both firm and tender with fresh authentic flavor. Likewise, seasoning is subtle throughout the entrees and this lets the quality of the ingredients shine through and the various spices come to life. For dessert we sampled the chocolate angel food cake and their signature rice pudding. The cake was moist and chocolaty. The rice pudding allows you to taste the grains of rice, which seem to float in a sea of velvety pudding. We ended up with two boxes of leftovers that made for a great lunch the next day.
To the uninitiated first timer, the ordering line that often stretches out toward the front door can be daunting. But grab one of the menus — yellow is the regular menu, green for vegetarians, and the white one is the kids menu — and start trying to decide what you want to order. The portions are large and they do have a bar with good beer and great margaritas.
After you have placed your order find a table. Especially on the patios and in the larger dining room, the tables and chairs can be moved around to seat parties large and small. While you wait for your food, enjoy the casual atmosphere and watch the wait staff wend their way through the dining room with platters of food. If you have kids in your party, stop by and watch them make the corn tortillas by hand in a small area in front of the kitchen. For those needing more spice, there are refrigerators of salsa by the silverware stations. By the way, in case you need one, the to-go boxes are near the front by the phone order pick-up station.
Occupation: Software Engineer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Da Flora
Reviewed Picante: Monday, July 17, 2006
I was a little disappointed when I found out that Picante was one of the restaurants chosen for me to review for Check, Please. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s one of my standard lunch places. I was hoping to experience some new place or cuisine and this, in the back of my mind, was just the Mexican place we go to all the time. After thinking about it, I realized that if I go there all the time it must be good and worthy of review. And it is. I won’t lie, there’s nothing about this restaurant that will blow you away, but there is little to disappoint either, especially the value.
Picante serves basic Mexican food, but somehow it seems fresher than elsewhere. I am sure there’s a better word, but I’m going to use “clean” to describe their food. Individual flavors come through in their dishes. Things aren’t drowned in heavy, gloppy sauces here. Instead, they make three different delicious salsas, one of which is not for the weak-of-tongue. However, fresh clean and simple can lead to boring. My favorite lunch choice is the carnitas plate. While it is usually rich in porky goodness, I sometimes find myself topping it with their smoky salsa to add any depth of flavor. There is a similar problem with their beans. You’re offered a choice of refried, pinto, and black, and I vote only for the pintos. The refrieds are bland, and the black beans tasteless. Again, add the salsa.
In my visit today for the show I went with co-workers (as usual) and we decided to try things we don’t normally eat there on a work lunch. For the most part we were happy. We started with the most important measure of a Mexican restaurant, the guacamole. I had never had theirs as anything other than a garnish and it was great. It had clearly been made that day with perfectly ripe avocados and cilantro. It was also neither too creamy nor so chunky you couldn’t get a chip into it. Yes, it could have had more kick in it, but a drop of salsa solved that problem. We also tried the empanadas, which were gooey, cheesy, pepper-licious. I’ll have those again. Unfortunately my flautas were not so good; I found them to be bland and soggy, not their best effort. I loved one companion’s chorizo and potato tacos. I also found my other companion’s carne asada to be perfectly seasoned and delicious, although she felt that it was a bit too chewy to eat fajita style. Which brings up another positive for Picante, home made tortillas (and chips). You really can make a meal here of just tortillas, salsa and beer.
I wish I would have skipped dessert today and indulged in more of the former. But, I have often contemplated the chocolate angel food cake because you can’t avoid it as you’re ordering at the counter. It looks and smells amazing. Unfortunately, all the flavor is in the chocolate sauce and the cake itself is pretty boring. One companion described it as dry. All in all, I think Picante is great for a quick meal, a work-day lunch etc. The food is good, the restaurant is huge and clean, very group friendly. There are two outdoor dining areas so it’s also great with kids and dogs. But go when you’re hungry, portions are huge.
Occupation: Construction Manager
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Miller’s East Coast West Delicatessen
Reviewed Picante: Saturday, July 22, 2006
We ventured over to Berkeley on a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon to fill our hungry bellies with some good East Bay Mexican food. Located in Northern Berkeley in a quasi-industrial area, Picante is easy to find and street parking is no problem (though we noticed a parking lot across the street on our way out).
We started off with fresh guacamole and warm tortilla chips and an order of ceviche. The guacamole was great, though lacking a little bit on spices (salt, pepper, cumin, etc). The tortilla chips were one of our favorite parts of the meal. A lady behind the counter was hand-making fresh corn tortillas, and the chips were cut as long strips instead of your normal triangle chip. Fresh and warm, they were delicious. The ceviche had good flavor, though it was on the sweet side — perhaps too much sugar? It tasted a bit like cocktail sauce. The whitefish and shrimp, however, were fresh and that’s what is most important.
For our entrées I had the carne asada plate and my fiancé had a grilled chicken salad. Her salad was delicious — fresh ingredients, warm grilled chicken, jicama, queso fresco, and black beans. She enjoyed the salad and proclaimed it was more fresh and flavorful than any salad at a Mission Mexican restaurant. My carne asada plate came with rice, beans, and the fresh corn tortillas we came to know and love. The steak was fresh and perfectly grilled — zero complaints.
The atmosphere inside was nice, everyone was friendly and seemed to be having a good time. The décor was similar to your average taqueria, but more warm and inviting then normal. One complaint we had was that the large dining room where everyone was sitting had no windows. Meanwhile they had a nice large patio out front with no cover, so all the metal tables were too hot for anyone to sit at and enjoy. The serving sizes were ample and we definitely left the restaurant content. Living in the Mission district of San Francisco, I eat Mexican food often, and Picante definitely held their own against stiff competition. While I wouldn’t feel the need to drive across the bridge anytime soon with so many local options at my disposal, if I was ever in the area I would definitely go back again. Good atmosphere. Good food. Fair prices. What’s not to like?