.Darband & Belly: Two new fast casual restaurants to consider

Darband Mediterranean Restaurant

The newest tenant dwelling inside the halls of Berkeley’s Epicurious Garden is Darband Mediterranean Restaurant. Darband’s menu prominently features Afghan and Iranian dishes. Since neither country is within walking distance of the Mediterranean Sea, the menu takes an imaginative leap to group a variety of Middle Eastern cuisines. Familiar items such as falafel and hummus seem to represent the broader Mediterranean region. 

A digital menu hangs overhead, crammed with information. Someone has taken an overambitious approach to corralling descriptions, prices, dishes and their corresponding reference numbers. I grabbed a paper menu sitting in front of the cash register, but it belonged to the owner’s other business, Sahara, a Middle Eastern market and deli in Dublin. The extra menu overlapped with some but not all of Daraband’s dishes and didn’t clarify the choices before me.   

To order, I relied on my memories of eating that Iranian restaurant standby, the joojeh kabob. Skewers of grilled meat, in my case chicken, are served over a bed of rice. But you can turn practically anything on the menu into a wrap. Darband also offers some Iranian stews— for example, there’s ghormeh sabzi (herbs, herbs, herbs and kidney beans) and ghaymeh bademjoon (lamb and yellow split peas)—but when I dropped by for lunch, they didn’t have any tahdig. Serving a cheeseburger without french fries would be the American equivalent. I tried an excellent eggplant purée instead, using it and a mint yogurt as dips for the bolani. 

All of the restaurants in the Epicurious Garden prepare takeout food. Outside, there are a few tables in a small garden that curves toward a hallway with larger tables. Darband is still in its soft opening phase and had trouble keeping up with a sudden rush of incoming orders. The “NOW HIRING” sign posted was the first indication that finding employees in 2022 persists as the most challenging aspect of running a restaurant. A promise of a 20-minute turnaround slowly devolved into 50 minutes.

The hallway tables aren’t adjacent to the restaurants. Without an automated numbering system, there’s no way to find out if your order is ready. Inside, there aren’t designated spaces to wait for your food. Until Darband establishes its kitchen rhythms, either be prepared for delays or call in your order ahead of time.

Darband, open daily 11am-10pm. 1511 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 510.356.4120. darbandrst.com.  


Belly

When The Hideaway shut its Rockridge doors and went away for good, Uptown Oakland’s Belly decided to expand into the neighborhood with a second location. The College Avenue address has housed several restaurants over the years. None of them have become local institutions. The Hideaway kept much of the décor intact from the previous tenant. But Belly’s owners have a clearly defined aesthetic that veers away from the homelier interior that stuck around for a few too many years before their arrival.

Textured walls cavort and mingle with bright colors and patterns. It’s like eating inside a manga comic book, or a human-sized aquarium drained of all the water. Belly’s menu is programmatic, based on a formula that must be straightforward enough for new hires both in and out of the kitchen. Pick your protein and make it a taco, burrito, bowl or salad. Add sides like onion rings or french fries and you’re all set.

Belly’s concept advances the idea of a 1950s American diner with any number of Asian influences efficiently marching towards Mexican dishes. On paper, the fusion sounds exciting and new. On the plate, the flavors advance in a culinary war before both sides end up retreating into an agreed upon, mutually unsatisfying surrender. 

Although you can substitute a corn tortilla, the default taco wrap is similar to the ones served with mu shu, but they’re denser, chewier and bland. The Belly Taco ($6.50) comes with steak, rice, Korean slaw and a kimchi aioli. The steak itself was well-cooked but lost amongst all the additional ingredients. Mexican street tacos are beloved because the proteins are stewed, boiled or grilled to be the stars of the plate. Finely diced cilantro and onions or a small dollop of salsa and a splash of fresh lime enhance rather than detract from the flavors of the meat.       

In bowl form, the tempura fish, or Surf Bowl ($17), had a gray tinge rather than a golden coating. Although the descriptions read like a rainbow—avocado, pico de gallo, sambal aioli, spicy crema, sesame slaw—each band of color looked slightly washed out. As an upscale fast food restaurant or even as a food truck, Belly’s concept makes sense. Customers can order familiar dishes with a novel approach, a change of pace from a taqueria or bowl full of ramen. 

But the most memorable thing I ordered was a seasonal lemonade ($5) made with guava. This tropical fruit is underrepresented on mainland menus. In supermarket cartons, the natural taste of guava can be oversweetened with sucrose and unpleasantly thickened with cornstarch. Combining it with lemon was a brilliant touch. The two flavors lifted each other up, and both were detectable in every little sip.

Belly Rockridge, Wed to Mon 11am-9pm. 5634 College Ave., Oakland. 510.350.8799. bellyrestaurants.com  

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