Russell Street looks like many of Berkeley’s tree-shaded roads: There are cyclists, pretty little houses, and Priuses. But then you’ll come upon a cheery Victorian house made brighter by the red, gold, and blue-painted entryway. A similarly colorful sign reads “Wat Mongkolratanaram,” and beneath that, “The Thai Buddhist Temple.” On Sundays, a little crowd in front waits for the best brunch in food-obsessed Berkeley.
Though it’s been active in the Bay Area for decades, Wat Mongkolratanaram transformed the Victorian at 1911 Russell Street into a temple in 2001. Ever since, they’ve served the local Thai and Thai-American community, including students at nearby University of California, Berkeley, by offering religious services, as well as open-to-the-public cultural events, language classes, and a festive Songkran (Thai New Year) celebration each April. But it’s best known for its longstanding weekly fundraiser: a tasty and affordable brunch.
When you arrive, you’ll join a line formed alongside the temple that leads up to food stations in the backyard, each shaded by a tent. A dish costs only seven or eight dollars, although you’ll want to come with a group so you can sample several. Then, enjoy your brunch at the long tables laid out on the lawn. The curries, soups, and noodles are served simply on disposable plates. The temple staff often pour Thai iced tea into paper Coca-Cola cups.
The surrounding area is fully residential, and complaining neighbors did once try to get the Sunday brunches shut down. In response, a flurry of petitions and support led the zoning board to vote 8-1 in favor of the temple. Defenders of Wat Mongkolratanaram described the weekly tradition as “magical” and “quintessentially Berkeley.”