Cheap Eats and Close Retreats

Staying in the Bay? Here's the sights to see and the food to eat.

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Old Mill Park/Mill Valley Public Library

Berkeley's natural beauty lies mostly in its sweeping vistas. The city itself, taken from the point of view of your average downcast glancer, isn't fantastic. It is, for lack of a better term, a concrete jungle.

That's what makes the short trip to Mill Valley-a Marin town like Mayberry, only far preppier-so breathtaking. Mill Valley's Old Mill Park is one of its jewels: a dense, lush grove rich with redwoods and ferns and the whisper of the shallow creek that runs through it. Even on a sunny day, the park is full of places that covet the shade, making it the perfect place to contemplate life away from the constant buzz of Berkeley.

Nearby is the public library. The building rests in the angles of the surrounding redwoods, differentiated from the landscape only by its towering windows. The warm interior is perfect for non-school reading. After a semester-or just a week-of the stress of school, the sweeping shade of Mill Valley provides a much-needed resting place for a weary day tripper.

Point Reyes

The stereotypical California beach is the surfer- and sunbather-friendly seashore of the southern half of the state. As pleasant as that can be, I choose the Northern California coastline any day.

Point Reyes is one of the finest examples of that kind of inspiring but unforgiving landscape. The beaches are cold year-round, punctuated by a swirling, bitter wind. The sand is often rocky and dark. But while sunbathing may not work out so well in Point Reyes, the drama of the scene is unforgettable and far longer lasting. There's a constant, relentless white surf and the surrounding countryside recalls Marianne Moore's "The Steeplejack." The clapwood and salt-eroded town Petaluma is the best place to stop for inexpensive picnic goods on the way to hiker-friendly Tomales Bay.

The next few months are particularly good for those with heavy coats and a taste for sweeping vistas. Yellow and purple flowers will soon be blossoming in the hills above the ocean, a scene of unique beauty that never stops being completely awe-inspiring.

Windmill at Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is one of the great gifts San Francisco gave back to its residents. The sprawling outdoor playground is free to roam (excluding the Tea Garden) and ripe with new adventures upon each new visit. One of its highlights, the stone beauty of the north windmill, certainly soothes a midterm-addled mind.

The windmill sneaks up on you, suddenly towering from behind the trees. Built in the early 1900s, the now-defunct mill marks the end of the park and the beginning of Ocean Beach. Nestled between tall trees and the pounding surf, it's the ideal spot to enjoy the sunset. After admiring the windmill's solemn majesty against the faded winter sky, head east to explore Stow and Spreckels lakes-both surprisingly natural sites in the midst of the city. Accomodated with small ramps to help travel in and out of the water, the ducks and their tiny offspring are sources of endless amusement.

Floral aficionados can also rejoice in the next few months. Soon, the famous tulips surrounding the windmill will be in full bloom, as will many other flowers and trees in the park. The windmill is just a few blocks away from the N Judah line of Muni, making it easy to access without a car. It's also a short Muni ride away from Milano Pizzeria, one of the city's best pizza joints, on 9th Avenue.

El Farolito

BART stations are, by and large, grimy and disgusting. So it may be hard to believe upon exiting the 24th Street stop in San Francisco that the best Mexican food in the Bay Area is steps away.

El Farolito-Spanish for the lighthouse-is an apt name for the taqueria, because it's a shining, delicious beacon in an otherwise dingy environment. For anyone planning on going here for a first date, an advisory: El Farolito is small, narrow and claustrophobic. The tables are covered in a fine film of grease. It shares a wall with the BART elevator.

That said, the tip-off that El Farolito is the real deal is the guy at the grill manning the meats: Carne asada, carnitas, even cabeza. And damn, is it good. The carne asada plate shames all other Mexican dishes I've ever had. Tender, flavorful steak, warm tortillas and sweet grilled scallions make for a dish that is so delicious, even the threat of a Mexican food-induced tummy ache can't slow my rate of consumption.

At less than $10 per item, you can experience the ecstasy of fantastic Mexican food without the agony of spending half your paycheck on a single meal.

Milano Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant

I'm of the firm belief that great pizza should never be glamorous. I don't want to feel like I need to use a fork and knife to eat it. Eating great pizza should be a visceral experience-it's you and the crust desperately trying to support the sagging weight of toppings. There's nothing glamorous about Milano Pizzeria in San Francisco. And that's why I like it.

The crust is soft and yeasty on the inside but sizzling and crisp on the outside. And the toppings-sweet bell peppers, rich, tasty mushrooms and no shortage of sausage. It's the type of pizza that burns the tips of your fingers because you can't wait for it to cool before devouring it.

Located on 9th Avenue between Irving and Judah, it's a block away from Muni and a few blocks away from Golden Gate Park. For $17, you get a medium pizza that would probably qualify as a large in most other situations and the happy, satisfied feeling that only great pizza on a Friday night can provide.

Da Lian

It's hard to ruin Chinese food, but it's also hard to find truly great examples of it. We normally associate Chinese food with thick, heavy sauces, but this wood-front establishment on Shattuck proves the merit of a light touch.

Nothing is over-seasoned. Everything is achingly fresh, allowing the individual flavors to come through. The chow mein isn't saturated with salty sauce; it's light and flavorful with barely sauteed vegetables. But this simple fare lacks no drama. Order the sizzling chicken to find out. You can hear your dish coming out of the kitchen. Then, you see it. The soft pieces of chicken in a peppery, onion-y sauce are poured straight onto a cast iron plate which is brought to your table steaming plumes of white fog. Served with rice, it's an outstanding foray away from your "traditional" Chinese dish.

For just $10-$12 per entree, Da Lian is the antidote to every mediocre plate of orange chicken you've ever endured.

John's Ice Cream

Sure, Ici is great. All your yuppie friends wax poetic about it. But sometimes paying four dollars for a scoop of ice cream sounds just plain stupid. For those times, I give you John's Ice Cream.

John's doesn't pretend to be something that it isn't. This is cheap ass ice cream. Period. It's located on Shattuck where Cold Stone Creamery used to be, and the owners simply slapped a cardstock sign on top of the old sign to designate the change. It's a good harbinger for what comes next.

The ice cream is exactly what you expect. It's too sweet and too rich, but completely satisfying when all you want is straight-up ice cream. For a dollar. Cone or cup, one dollar. If there's a better dessert deal in Berkeley, I challenge you to find it. Until then, or until I have enough money to spend more than a dollar on ice cream, I'll keep frequenting John's.


Eat your heart out with Katie at [email protected]

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