1328 6th St, Berkeley, 510-525-3121.

Picante is not especially cheap for a Mexican restaurant, but for its flavors, freshness, and association with Chez Panisse, it's a bargain. Their food is extremely delicious, the setting is beautiful (with a lovely patio), and they have great extras on the menu such as Mexican wedding cookies, chocolate angel food cake, several high-quality aguas frescas, and Mexican hot chocolate at weekend brunch or breakfast--plus it is one of the few Mexican places in the area to serve breakfast at all. They make all of their own tortillas right there in the restaurant, and the results are incredible.

There are some nods to California cuisine, but on the whole it's pretty authentic. Although the noise level is a bit high and it's pretty casual, it's a good place to take a date, especially if you explain the whole Chez Panisse connection. They have a website with sample menus at http://picantecocina.citysearch.com/

Slow food aficionados Jim and Laura Maser, who operated Berkeley's Mazzini and Cafe Fanny, opened this large cafeteria-style restaurant in 1994, serving up Oaxacan cuisine, including handmade corn tortillas (they have fresh masa delivered each day), mole sauces, homemade chorizo, and enfrijoladas. Menu includes vegan and vegetarian options, such as tamales made with butternut squash and roasted poblano chiles.

(The Chez Panisse connection: Laura is the sister of Alice Waters.)

Online reviews of "Picante" (as it is known locally) are mixed, for two reasons. First, visitors looking for either "traditional" Mexican food (i.e. the American version of the Mexican restaurant) or San Francisco's famous Mission-style burritos are often disappointed by the authentic Oaxacan flavors and ingredients. Second, with 200 seats, this is one of the largest casual dining restaurants in Berkeley, and the kid-friendly food options make this place very popular with families. The presence of so many children does not spoil the quality of the food, but for some, it does make for a less than ideal atmosphere.

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