New Berkeley restaurant serves Mexican specialties and dinner classics
1335 San Pablo Avenue (between Gilman and Camelia streets), Berkeley
Indoor and outdoor restaurant open Thursday to Monday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Closed Tuesday to Wednesday
Gilberto Monroy was born and raised in the village of San Juan Jaripeo, Guanajuato, Mexico. He arrived in Berkeley in 1988 and landed a job as a dishwasher at Bette’s Oceanview Diner in 1993.
He rose through the ranks at Bette over the next 29 years and was a cook there when the famed Berkeley institution closed its doors last month. But unlike some of his colleagues, he already had a plan.
During his off hours, he worked hard in his own restaurant.
This company, called New Groundopened last week with a menu of familiar Mexican classics like burritos and tacos, as well as less-anticipated offerings, including a full menu of breakfast items.
Monroy is more fluent in Spanish than English, so he relied on his niece Vanessa Gonzalez to help explain his story to Nosh. Through Gonzalez, Monroy said Bette’s late co-founder Bette Kroening “noticed he had a particular interest and talent for food,” and gave Monroy the opportunity to learn the craft. from Bette’s kitchen.
“She saw that he could create different flavors, build them up, and blend them like the strings of a guitar,” Gonzalez said.
As Monroy gained confidence in the kitchen, he began to branch out, starting a catering business 18 years ago. But owning her own business like her mentor, Bette, was always on her mind.
The storefront at 1335 San Pablo Ave. has undergone some changes in recent years. Many still think the address is La Palmita Cafe, a long-established establishment Mexican restaurant with an excellent salsa bar. When La Palmita closed in late 2019, Pepe’s Mexican Grill moved in, bringing quesabirria to the scene. Unfortunately, Pepe’s closed during the pandemic, leaving the restaurant, with its lovely patio and admirable proximity to hungry REI shoppers, completely vacant. It was then that Monroy saw his chance.
He took the plunge and signed a lease for the spot. During the day he worked at Bette’s, and in his spare time he was in the new space, his own space, doing the work to open its doors. He gave notice to Bette the same day owner Manfred Kroening announced the restaurant would close immediately.
This closure was sad and heartbreaking, Gonzalez said, reminding me that Kroening intended to retire. for a certain time when I jokingly asked if Monroy’s departure was the reason Bette closed for good. But it also helped keep Nuevo Sol’s opening on track, because suddenly Monroy’s schedule was clear. Now he could get to work in earnest, joined by his tight-knit team of assistants.
“This whole restaurant is a family affair,” Gonzalez said, and she’s not exaggerating. Monroy’s daughter phoned me when I ordered my food the day Nuevo Sol opened; others scrambled to prepare dishes and bus tables.
Even more family members filled the sidewalk before a ribbon-cut kicked off its first day in business, all clearly taking a proprietary interest in the space, straightening its sign and adjusting the menus placed in the window. “We all have day jobs, other jobs,” Gonzalez said. “We all took time or put things on hold to help make my uncle’s dream come true.”
A big part of Monroy’s dream was to create a menu which marries family recipes and foods he loved growing up with his own take on the classics he mastered at Bette.
There’s a garlic corned beef hash, for example, with a heat and punch you might not expect from a standard restaurant hash. Her potato pancakes are served with applesauce and sour cream, but there’s also chorizo in the mix. Lunch items range from great street tacos (the shrimp was perfectly cooked) to cold sandwiches like a turkey club or chicken salad, to grilled sandwiches like the one with spices (no kidding, it’s spice) fish on a chopstick.
Please don’t assume from my description that Nuevo Sol’s menu is too ambitious or too extensive, at the Tropical Cafe. It all makes sense and feels cohesive, especially once you think about Monroy’s backstory and origin story.
Of course, he will make a killer omelette and be able to crush the burrito game. They are both in his DNA and part of his and his family’s heritage. That’s what he cooked for them at home. And now that’s what he cooks for all of us, from his new restaurant in Berkeley.