.The Casein Point

A love affair of cheese in the East Bay

The East Bay is in love: with cheese. It’s that simple. Survey anyone about curdled, pressed and in other ways casein made magnificent—even ask total strangers—and find ample testimony and proof that cheese is either just one ingredient in a sandwich, a food of genuine but calm interest or an obsession. One might receive an earful about this region’s favorite restaurants, cheesemakers, cheesemongers, cheese shops and other places to buy mozzarella or one of the hundreds of other variations that result from playing with milk, nuts, plants and other root sources.

Expect also to hear extended dissertations on the premier pizzas, mac ’n cheese, saganaki, fondue, wine and cheese duos, grilled cheese anything, new plant-based cheese alternatives, and of course, tales of epic cheeseburgers, including the Squeeze Burgers that adorably and deliciously “wear” a cheese skirt and cause lineups at The Squeeze Inn’s seven Northern California locations. (Yes, a cheese fetish sometimes requires travel beyond the East Bay to Sacramento to quench a particular fix. Here’s hoping the Squeeze Inn drifts southwest and plants an eighth location closer to home.)

A summertime jaunt seems warranted, regardless of the temperature of one’s relationship with cheese, given the bounty of new and established locations whose menus place cheese centerstage. Following are a few suggestions for tickling tastebuds… perhaps while planning a trip to a local artisan cheesemaker or enrolling in a cheesemaking course for a more immersive, educational exploration.

The Melt has taken the Bay Area by storm from its home base in San Francisco and recently jumped eastward to Oakland and Danville, with a Local Kitchens partnership pickup outlet in Lafayette. 

A comfort-seeking dream menu comes with tons of cheesy options, whether it’s the hefty MeltBurger with more than one-third of a pound of Angus and Wagyu beef that’s chopped and grilled before it’s stuffed with tons of melted cheddar or the classic Melty Mac that achieves textural contact with a topping of cheddar and toasted bread crumbs astride pillowy pasta—add kick by choosing the Garlic Chicken Bacon Mac—or choose from a boatload of sandwich variations such as Three Cheese Classic, Patty Melt, Mac Daddy (mac ‘n’ cheese, aged cheddar and smoked bacon in artisan French bread) and more. Anyone who believes “melt” and “cheese” are codependent will find their tribe at Melt.

Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective is a 100% worker-owned and operated business that carries over 400 different cheeses. The location on Shattuck Avenue boasts a pizzeria, bakery, espresso bar and a legend: Customers know this is a place whose origins began when a group of hungry pizza lovers with hunks of sourdough baguette dough and favorite cheeses and vegetables decided to play pie. 

In 1985, the collective began dispensing their generously cheesed vegetarian pizzas to customers. The rest is a history not lost in the past but always pushing forward, as the pizzeria still serves the original pie, plus gluten-free, vegan and take-and-bake options. As a collective, Cheese Board’s dedication to workers’ rights is both a given and notable. 

During COVID-19, people seeking in-person expert cheese tips relied on the Collective’s blog for contact, so there’s good news in 2023: Saturday lunches resumed on April 8 for the first time in three years. On the menu or sold in the cheese market? Pizza—and dozens of soft, cow, goat, sheep, blue and special-of-the-week cheeses.

Of course, extensive cheese selections may also be found at a local grocer. Piedmont Grocery and Rockridge Market Hall both host special sections of the good stuff.

The United Dumplings in Rockridge might not be the first place most people think of when gooey-seeking missions are launched. That is unless one has already heard of or has waxed ecstatic about the northern Chinese cuisine and California-inspired dumpling shop’s menu at the three United Dumpling shops owned by Julia Olson and Sandy Zheng. 

Working cheese into a traditional dumpling format was tricky, according to the two women entrepreneurs, who aimed to ease their kids’ cravings with the invention of Wonton Mac and Cheese. The dish is a sellout, and not only young folks are imbibing it. The full menu is worth a visit, but don’t head home without cheesy dumplings for the kids. (No nibbles on the way home.)

Everyone knows that pizza is royalty when it comes to cheese, a fact made evident when the simple mention of sourcing the perfect slice for a news article results in emails from dozens of people with suggested pie shops. There are not enough months in one summer to “research” all the available locations—which is not a reason to delay, but merely a heads-up that one might be embarking on a years-long pizza perusal process.

Among just a few highly recommended are Graffiti Pizza, State Flour Pizza Company, Sliver Pizzeria, Little Star Pizza, Pizzeria Violetta, Rose Pizzeria, The Star on Grand or Park, Zachary’s and the new Pizzeria da Laura. The variations in style, crusts, toppings, sauces and dough-tossing techniques—plus bake-at-home and customer-designed options—are too numerous to list, but with the East Bay’s proliferating pizza makers and shops seeming to expand daily, whatever one craves is likely available. 

For the revolutionary pizza eater, there are even versions sans cheese, but why bother? After all, to eat cheese is to fall in love. Enjoy a (cheesy) summer swoon.

Lou Fancher
Lou Fancher has been published in the Diablo Magazine, the Oakland Tribune, InDance, San Francisco Classical Voice, SF Weekly, WIRED.com and elsewhere.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here