Cha-Ya (Berkeley)

Review by: Ken

1686 Shattuck Avenue
Between Lincoln and Virginia
Berkeley, CA 94709
(510) 981-1213


Cha-Ya is my favorite restaurant in all of Berkeley. A small (20 seat) strictly vegan Japanese kaiseki ryori restaurant in the Gourmet Ghetto. Kaiseki cuisine is an edible art form largely unknown outside of Japan, and most-closely associated with Kyoto. Take me there for my birthday, or any day; I never need an excuse to go.

A vegan meal at Cha Ya consists of many small plates, and there’s a huge variety of dishes and food styles to mix and match. Weekly specials are posted on the wall. You can probably go ten times and never order the same thing twice. It can be overwhelming on your first visit if you’re not familiar with the food. Here’s a little orientation, based on what I usually order.

Among the soups I’ve tried, I prefer the Dobin Mushi, a “pot soup,” with all kinds of delicious veggies and mushrooms. Once you pour off and finish the broth (like tea), you can dive into the pot and eat the veggies. The salads are all incredibly fresh, and come with seasoned hijiki (seaweed), ginkgo seeds, tofu, greens, and sometimes persimmon.

There are a number of small dishes (Kozara) that I love, but my hands down favorite is the Gyoza (vegan pot stickers). Served with gyoza dipping sauce, they’re warm and melt in your mouth as the steam rises from your first bite. They’s sweet and chewy and really a treat. I also recommend the simple and delicious Robata Yaki (which is served as pair of skewers with grilled vegetables, mushroom, and tofu, glazed with a sweet plum sauce).

Cha-Ya has a very wide variety of al la carte veggie rolls: both hosomaki (nori seaweed on the outside), and nigiri vegetables on top of the rice, strapped on with a little nori belt. Among the hosomaki, don’t miss the Kampyo, seasoned gourd. It doesn’t sound impressive, but it has a mouth-watering, sweet, slightly vinegar taste. With the Nigiri I really love the way they do the eggplant. Seasoned perfectly, the eggplant is soft and delicious.

There are some special rolls that are particularly decadent. The Cha-Ya Roll is my guilty pleasure: tempura sushi filled with avocado, yam, and carrots, the entire roll is lightly battered and deep-fried, served with a special house sauce. It’s amazing.

On a cold night, there are noodle soups, and on hot nights, you can order cold noodles, like Zaru soba.

The menu contains six or so Combination Dinner Sets, which come with a bowl of miso soup and a small salad, in addition to an entree. The combos are probably a great deal, but I can never wrap my mind around how they’re organized or what I should choose. If you’re already ordering an entree that’s part of the specials, it makes sense to see if the specials work for you.

I’ve just scratched the surface, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that they have a number of vegan desserts. The Vegan (chocolate) Cake is usually excellent, but the Vegan Ice Cream Sundae is the real prize winner, with both azuki beans, and green tea sauce.

The menu features many kinds of fine teas, and a range of sake (hot or cold), including Sho Chiku Bai Sake from Takara, made in Berkeley!

The place is small and popular, so if you get there too late, you might be standing in the cold for a while waiting for a table. Be forewarned.

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