It's only open three hours a week, so make sure to plan accordingly.
The University of California at Berkeley is just a quick BART ride from San Francisco. But the most sought after meal for UC students has little in common with the trendsetting establishments across the bay. Wat Mongkolratanaram is not a restaurant in the traditional sense—or any sense really. It is a Buddhist temple, but a temple that serves a Thai brunch from 10 am to 1 pm every Sunday, staffed by temple volunteers and paid for not in cash, but with temple tokens. We found a regular attendee of those brunches to share what eating at the temple is all about.
By Chris Ying, as told to Priya Krishna
The Thai temple is one of those places that every student finds out about at some point, usually through word of mouth. The thing with Berkeley is that even though it’s supposed to be this hub of cuisine, the food around the Cal campus is not that great — it’s mostly chain restaurants and garbage junk food. Temple Brunch is popular because it’s something different, and more importantly, it represents that alternative Berkeley spirit that you can’t really find visiting other restaurants in the area.
You go, and you find these gaggles of beleaguered looking college students who have obviously all hung out the night before and quickly showered and walked over to this place. There is always a long line, and there is no explanation for what you have to do when you get to the front. It’s just something that you learn: you get tokens, and then you get into one of six lines. There’s one for vegetarian food, one for the curries, one for drinks, and so on. Also, each token is for a different kind of food — there’s a red token for one thing, a green token for something else. It’s confusing, but part of the fun is figuring the system out.
I will be the first to tell you that Temple Brunch is about the experience, not the food. I do love the sticky rice and mango. I like the boat noodles. I love the coconut custard, which is hot and griddled and comes in these little cups. Everything else is pretty run-of-the mill Thai food. But this is completely beside the point of why people go. The food is all cooked by volunteers, you feel good about supporting this campus institution, and you feel cool that you are living outside the normal system of dining. For most college students, temple brunch is their first alternative dining experience — the idea that you can go to a temple and buy tokens and exchange them for food and admire this beautiful temple and see monks walking around is very awesome.
Sometime back, a few neighbors in the area tried to shut the place down, complaining about the smell of the food — basically racism 101. The city council voted unanimously against the complaint. It just goes to show how universally adored the place is.
I went there recently with my wife on Mother’s Day, and she was holding our baby. One of the volunteers came up and said she couldn’t let her wait on Mother’s Day, and ushered her to the front of the line. It’s things like that that make the temple special. It’s not a foodie destination. It’s a place that exists for the community, and that’s why people love it.
Wat Mongkolratanaram, 1911 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA, 510-849-3419