BERKELEY, Calif. -- You don't get more Berkeley than Cafe de la Paz. Founded after the 1991 Gulf War, the "Peace Cafe" specializes in mouth-watering Nuevo Latino cuisine but also serves as a gathering place for local activists.
"We are one of the essential restaurants bringing together cutting-edge cuisine and a commitment to social and economic justice," says Russell Bass, the middle-age founder of this thriving gourmet establishment.
From its energy-efficient lighting to its largely organic ingredients, from its half-price meal tickets to its donations to local schools, from its work with Earth Island Institute to its events with the United Farm Workers, Cafe de la Paz walks the walk. "What's going on in the world right now is very scary, in my view of things," Bass says, "but it's important to focus on the positive, as well as tell the truth about what's going on. People have different jobs. Our job is to be a community center where people who believe in a better vision of humanity and social order can feel their best."
With elegant and spacious seating arrangements, wall-to-wall windows overlooking the East Bay Hills, and an alluring blend of smells wafting through the air, the restaurant provides an ideal ambience for rejuvenating one's soul, as well as one's appetite: Tangy and mild flavors, crunchy and moist textures, and a vibrant array of colors elevate hearty nourishment into a sensory immersion experience.
Begin your own gourmet journey with a savory Brazilian-style Empadinha pastry, stuffed with a blend of warm goat cheese and cream cheese, mint, and just a touch of onion ($4.95). Move on to a dreamy Ecuadorian Llapingacho potato patty, filled with melted jack cheese, butter, a hint of onion, and mild seasoning ($5.75). Round off these tapas with the sweet and tangy flavor of Platanos ($3.95), Latin fried plantains served with fresh chile crema sauce made from sour cream, ceso fresca Mexican cheese, and chile ancho. Chili peppers, says Bass, are one of the secret ingredients of Cafe de la Paz's cooking.
"There is a world of delicious and subtle, nuanced flavor to be gained from cooking with chili peppers," he says. "A lot of people don't realize that, because they associate it with a hot, picante taste. But it's very diverse and flavorful."
The Ancholito and Tamal Azteca combination entree ($10.95), a classic Nuevo Latino creation, exemplifies the chili pepper's versatility: Winter squash, Italian squash, corn, and three types of cheese are blended with a poblano chili, making the Ancholito the flavor equivalent of warmhearted chamber music. In the Tamal Azteca, fresh spinach, corn, and mushrooms are mixed together with a roasted "chile de arbol" and roasted tomato sauce, then layered between jack cheese and
corn tortillas. The result is a dazzling burst of sweet and spicy flavors. Xim Xim ($10.95), a wholesome Afro-Brazilian dish, further emphasizes the numerous possibilities in cooking with chili peppers. Chunks of vegetables, tofu, and almonds are mixed with coconut milk and a jalapeno cream sauce, leaving the eater simultaneously satisfied and excited. Available in mild, medium, and spicy variations, this dish is a winner for any palate.
Far from the world of chili peppers is another signature food at Cafe de la Paz: the Chocolate Mocha Kahlua Experience ($5). With semisweet dark chocolate and fresh coffee beans, this dessert is dense, smooth, and luscious. The fresh fruit crisp ($5) is another excellent dessert option, a sweet crumbly pastry with a different fruit each week, including mango, apple, and pear. Emma Goldman, the early-20th-century anarchist, might have agreed that social justice work cannot be fueled by activism and food alone, no matter how exciting and delicious.
"If I can't dance," Goldman reportedly once said to a labor movement colleague, "I won't be part of your revolution." Fortunately, Cafe de la Paz offers weekend flamenco shows. So whatever your social justice mission, Cafe de la Paz is the perfect place to take a break, meet inspiring folks, and refuel for the next big rally. And with every heavenly bite you
take there, you will know you
have just made the world a better place.