I’ve dined at Cha-Am for many years, but can’t seem to remember why. Perhaps it’s the whimsical treehouse dining room, overlooking Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Maybe it’s the food, but nothing springs to mind. And so, in this state of uncertainty, I selected Cha-Am for dinner with my Beau’s best friend.
Walking through the door, everything looked familiar—orange walls, bamboo-colored wood, potted plants strewn about. The menu is typical Thai-American fare with plenty of vegetarian options. Once the food arrived, however, it struck me. This restaurant is completely forgettable, except for one ‘best of show’ dish: The Cha-Am-Fresh Roll.
Before it arrived, we mucked through the customary Golden Triangle, stuffed with yellow squash, taro, fresh corn, yams, Thai herbs and served with sweet & sour sauce ($7.5) and the vegetarian Tom-Ka-Gai—tofu simmered in coconut milk, galanga, lemon grass, roasted chili, onions, coriander and mushrooms ($9.25). Both deserve no more attention than this.
Holding to the stereotype, I ordered Pad Thai ($8). Loaded with vegetables, this otherwise unremarkable dish surpassed the glob of tacky noodles that often passes as Pad Thai. Although the ingredients were well prepared, the dish begged for spice to balance its cloying sweetness. On a side note, the fresh squeeze of lime that usually accompanies the dish was oddly replaced with an orange!
Lacking the characteristic punch of Thai cuisine, the Pad-Makua-Yao ($8.50) also fell flat. This soft tofu dish—sautéed with chili garlic herb sauce, basil, baby corn, onions, bell peppers and eggplant—somehow managed to taste like nothing.
But I digress.
Despite everything, odes should be written to their Cha-Am-Fresh Roll. Short of traveling to Vietnam to devour this delicacy at its source (which I’m sure to do someday), I’ve eaten at least 200 renditions of the style of roll. It appears on Southeast Asian menus under various surnames: Fresh, Summer, Salad, Vietnamese, Spring, Gỏi cuốn… but the formula is consistent. The defining ingredient is the wrapper—a gummy translucent round of rice-flour paper. I adore the chewy texture of rice-flour skin and the thicker, the better!
When it comes to fillings, there’s room for play, but Cha-Amhas developed the consummate recipe. Gone are the bland bulky rice vermicelli and mock meat filler – all that remains are pungently fresh herbs, dense deep-fried tofu and matchsticks of succulent vegetables. Wrapped together tightly, the Cha-Am-Fresh Roll ($7) is a moist, crisp, and richly herbal delight. Paired with sweet & spicy peanut sauce, these are quite possibly the best Summer Rolls I’ve ever eaten! This is why—despite the lackluster food and average service—Cha-Am holds an exceptionally high rank in my culinary pantheon.
1543 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94709