Most of us go to cafes for the coffee, the Wi-Fi, or the opportunity to plant ourselves near an outlet, put on our noise-cancelling headphones, and crank out some work on our laptops. Few visit cafes for the food, much less the social interaction.
But from the beginning, the founders of The Hidden Cafe wanted it to be a different kind of cafe, one meant not just for getting your caffeine fix, but for providing creative, nourishing food, a community gathering place, and an opportunity for musicians, poets, and chefs to showcase their work.
Andy Kellogg, one of the co-owners of the cafe, was the perfect person to create such a place. As one of the founders of Adelines Lab, an art center in South Berkeley, Kellogg already had a network of artists to draw from to provide The Hidden Cafe’s first music performances. His longtime friend Luke Flaherty provided financial support. He also brought on board co-owner James O’Brien Makowski, an artist and poet who also loves to work with the medium of food and drink.
The Hidden Cafe is tucked away in a brick building in Strawberry Creek Park, surrounded by a grassy field, a creek, and a playground. While it might not have the street presence of the restaurants on nearby San Pablo Avenue, it certainly has plenty of foot traffic. On a Friday morning, business was booming at the cafe’s opening at 10 a.m. sharp. Regulars greeted each other outside of the cafe while they waited for the doors to open, and their dogs, too, greeted each other with excited yelps, sniffs, and tail wags. Inside the cafe, Kellogg and Makowski welcomed many of their customers by name. All ages, from babies in bucket hats to the elderly pushing their walkers from the nearby senior home, made an appearance. There were a few people working on their laptops; The Hidden Cafe isn’t so draconian to not offer Wi-Fi access. But for the most part, customers were talking with staff and each other, sitting near the windows or enjoying the sun at one of the picnic tables outside.
In a departure from your typical sandwich-and-salad cafe fare, tacos are the star of the menu. Absent are familiar options like carne asada, carnitas, and chorizo. Instead, they’re replaced by Italian-inspired options like the Chicken Bella Sue taco, made with chicken and portobello mushroom soup that’s drained and served on tortillas with aioli, Parmigiano-Reggiano, chives, and breadcrumbs. While the idea of a chicken soup taco sounded unappealing to me, I thoroughly enjoyed the juicy, tender chicken, the bread crumbs soaked to just-the-right soggy-crisp consistency, and the unexpected crunchy wood ear mushrooms.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the Classic taco, which incorporated Italian sausage, roasted tomato sauce, parsley, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Makowski originally created this taco to serve at a music event as a utensil-free way to eat Italian sausage and tomato sauce. Surprisingly, it worked: The sausage was caramelized and slightly crisped, and the sweet, slightly acidic tomato sauce wasn’t too different from a mild tomato salsa. Equally enjoyable was the breakfast taco, filled with a runny fried egg, caramelized onions, and seared cabbage. The portobello pesto taco was a good option on the lighter side, with breadcrumbs for crunch and pesto for bright flavor. All the tacos come on organic corn tortillas that allow you to really taste the bright, fresh flavor of the corn. They’re fairly sized, too — two or three should fill you up — and most are $3 each, which I found quite fair. And they’re proof that, in the words of Contramar and Cala’s chef Gabriela Cámara, anything can be a taco.
While I found no fault with any of the tacos, I was disappointed with the adorably-named Yellow Shy Doll. An homage to Makowski’s love for dal, it was a yellow ginger lentil soup with seared cabbage, garlic potatoes, garlic pesto, chili flakes, and nigella seeds. The soup was too watery for my liking, and the chili flakes were a little harsh. And while I enjoyed the fresh, grassy flavor of the pesto, the cabbage was burnt rather than seared, giving the soup a bitter taste. Thankfully, the fritta — three mini frittatas on top of frisée — made up for the soup. The CaliFlower version, made with garlic, kale, cauliflower, ricotta salata, cumin, and coriander, was light and airy, with nutty flavor from the cauliflower and ricotta. The Southside Kale salad was also a hit, with juicy pomegranate seeds, shaved ricotta salata, caramelized onions, crushed roasted chickpeas, lemon-tahini honey dressing, and nigella seeds.
And while you could order coffee or espresso drinks here, made using locally roasted coffee, there’s also a whole menu of teas and botanicals. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a teabag to be found at The Hidden Cafe. Instead, you’ll find quality teas imported from China, like the delicate white tea I tried over ice, and lightly sweetened tea lattes like the strawberry matcha latte, which reminded me of Japanese candy. On another visit, I tried the Dry Rose tea blend made with rose buds, eleuthero root, schisandra berries, and rhodiola, which balanced floral, bitter, and earthy flavors in a refreshing drink.
While you’re waiting for your food and drink, there’s plenty of art to absorb in the cafe. On the bottom of the front door is a poem written by Makowski, inspired by his mother, that reads, in part: “she used to freeze pesto/to use all the basil that’d grow like wild in the summer heat on the back porch/she’d freez’m in ice cube trays and damn/it’s nice to toss some pesto in a pan on demand.” On the wall is a child’s yellow raincoat with a poem written in Makowski’s distinct handwriting: “Rain, rain, stay awhile/feed the plants and watch them smile.” There’s also a guitar by the door with a poem written on its case, and poems hidden throughout the shop. A typewriter on the counter invites guests to write their own poems. If you manage to stop by on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll be greeted with live music. Botanical wreaths adorning the light fixtures add a touch of nature, and the long communal table down the middle of the cafe invites neighbors to start up conversations.
“I like the dynamics of getting different groups together within a space, and seeing how they interact, socialize together,” Kellogg said. “That’s special to me.”