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It’s a Caldo Kind of Week 

Tuesday, Dec 23 2014
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Comfort food comes in many forms, and one of my favorites is caldo. The Central American and Mexican broth-based soup can include chicken, beef, or seafood, but usually includes hearty cuts of vegetables, an accompanying stack of warm tortillas, and a lime wedge hiding in the shadow of an oversize bowl. Extra points in my book for sides of Mexican rice and avocado. Here are three places around the bay to get your fix.

El Taco Zamorano, Fruitvale

The ambience at El Taco Zamorano is trapped somewhere between Jalisco and Taco Bell: Colorful murals on the back wall depict dreamy scenes of high-cheekboned, busty women in mountain villages sitting outside making fresh tortillas, while generic posters advertising pupusa meal specials cover the windows and block most natural light. The kitchen produces grotesquely sized super burritos, which made me skeptical that it could put together a proper bowl of chicken soup, but indeed it did.

The caldo de pollo here is chock-full of tender bite-size pieces of celery, squash, potatoes, and carrots, and an even balance of dark and white meat. Small garbanzo beans were unexpected and added a welcomed creaminess to each bite. The broth is speckled with cilantro and hovers just below the line of too salty, a squeeze of lime providing some acidic relief. A hearty portion of perfect Mexican rice is served on the side, as well as half an avocado. The small is plenty and the large is enough for two; both are under $10. The only complaint here is the thick tortillas that feel spongy and undercooked. 4032 Foothill, Oakland, (510) 536-3146

La Santaneca de la Mission, Mission

A workday and sick-day lunch spot for many of my friends in the neighborhood, this is a solid place for a beef soup, called sopa de res. It's also a cozy spot, with a wooden interior, big booths, and soft guitar music playing through the speakers. (Note that the restaurant is known for its fish soup, which I'm generally not a fan of, so I didn't try it. )

A large bowl hosts a pyramid of a chayote squash split lengthwise, bright hunks of carrots, whole leaves of cabbage, and a pile of beef you'll need a knife and some persistence to pick apart. As I tried to cut a few bites off the bone, I was reminded that often caldo is really about the broth and not so much about the meat. The sweet slices of corn on the cob, however, are delightful to sink your teeth into. The tortillas are perfectly browned with a chewy bite. The whole meal was $9, cash only. 2815 Mission, 285-2131

Platano, Downtown Berkeley

Several years ago I used to work in downtown Berkeley, and at that time Platano was infamous for its slow service. But my co-workers and I endured for the homey casamiento (rice and beans mixed together) and loroco pupusas. I'm glad to report that while the service has gotten faster, the cooking is still not cutting any corners.

The restaurant's sopa de res ($10.95) has a deep brawny broth, with a heavy trace of cabbage and herbs. Hunks of yucca provide a fun starchy counterbalance to the zucchini and carrots. The tortillas are almost like thin pupusas but, unlike El Taco Zamorano's, they're golden, fluffy, and irresistible. If you really need to warm up, go for the atole here too. 2042 University, Berkeley, (510) 704-0325

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Ferron Salniker

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