My keen sense of déjà vu kicked in this weekend while I was eating brunch at Gilberto Monroy’s Nuevo Sol. The plate of lemon ricotta pancakes I ordered looked exactly — and I mean exactly — like the ones served at Bette’s Oceanview Diner. They had the same creamy texture, tangy flavor and the same color, speckled golden brown. Two sausage links were placed in the same location on the plate, center right. And my perfectly poached eggs, served in their own small bowl, were dotted with the same random pattern of dark green chives.
Monroy is serving a dish that he’d been making as a chef at Bette’s, now newly reopened as the Oceanview Diner, for over two decades. Even if the recipe was once Bette’s, when a chef can remake the dish in his own kitchen as tasty as the original, he can rightly claim it as his own. The dish though wasn’t merely an imitation. It was Bette’s culinary legacy right there on the plate. What Monroy can also cook that the Oceanview Diner can’t is a mighty tasty birria taco.
Nuevo Sol’s menu reflects Monroy’s experience as a chef, and his Mexican heritage. Alongside daily specials like the lemon ricotta pancakes, there’s a familiar mix of American brunch dishes and Mexican ones. For $3.50, my birria taco was exceptional. The meat was tender and served in a dark, rich sauce that tasted as if it had been bubbling on the stove for the right amount of time. Radish wedges provided a nice crunch, and a green tomatillo salsa added a complementary brightening, acidic note.
We tried a spicy red pozole, which was another special on the menu. Or, rather, it was written on a piece of paper and propped up on the front counter. The chilaquiles ($13.95), it must be said, should be ordered with scrambled eggs. The mountain of sauced tortilla chips works best with scrambled, not fried eggs, because they nestle neatly inside all the crevices — in the same way that beans lodge among a stack of cheesy nacho chips.
Other specials are drawn on the board above the cash register. Ignore them at your own peril. Each one was a hit. As far as I could see, there were no printed menus. You stand in line to order and have to make a decision on the fly. If you do want a primer before you get there, the menu, sans specials, is on their website. For dessert, flan lovers had two options, traditional and chocolate. While there was a cakey-looking sample of the chocolate flan displayed on the counter, we tried the traditional one with caramel custard. It was sweet but not overly sugared.
Nuevo Sol is located on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, directly across the street from REI. The restaurant is sandwiched, and slightly camouflaged, between Hida Tool & Hardware and a longstanding car repair garage. Pepe’s Mexican Grill was open in the space for only a couple of years before closing. Before that, the address belonged to La Palmita Cafe. In this iteration with a new business owner, the exterior and interior decor have yet to be updated. Monroy has set up coffee and water stations both inside and on the back patio. But when you walk in, there’s a lingering feeling that the folks from Pepe’s sold the restaurant without taking anything with them.
Obviously, it’s expensive to open a new business in the Bay Area. And it’s clear that Monroy made the decision to invest in high-quality ingredients to start with rather than giving the place a fresh coat of paint. But there are minor touches that could improve the aesthetic experience — for those customers who pay attention to the atmosphere as well as to the food on their plates. For example, we sat next to a large black barrel of kitchen oil. Placing a couple of potted plants or a screen in front of it would have been an easy way to disguise it.
But apart from superficial cosmetics, Monroy, his kitchen and the friendly, attentive staff are serving familiar brunch favorites from his past life and new favorites that could be pointing the way toward a wide-ranging dinner menu.