By Vickie Lewis
Kensington is a small unincorporated community of Contra Costa County that borders Alameda County and is nestled in the Berkeley Hills. Most residents of this community and the surrounding areas are likely quite familiar with Kensington Fine Foods (KFF), a specialty deli and butcher counter co-located with Young’s Market on Arlington Boulevard. However, if you don’t live in the immediate area, you may not have discovered this hidden gem tucked away in bay area hills. But I can attest that it is totally worth the short trek to check out what this small business has to offer.
Kensington Fine Foods is the local source for quality fresh meats, poultry, and seafood, and has been a pillar in this small community for the past twelve years. In addition to fresh meats, poultry and seafood, KFF offers a plentiful selection of gourmet prepared foods, all of which are prepared on site by Owner/Chef Larry Lefebvre, and his two long-time co-workers, Javier and Conlan. Together, this team of three gentlemen handle all aspects of the business with calm and finesse, serving quality foods and providing personalized service to their faithful customers.
Larry is originally from New Jersey where he grew up in a family who owned a catering business. He developed a passion for food services through helping his grandfather and family with the business. After his graduation from high school, he secured a job working for Rocky Hill Inn in Princeton, New Jersey. He worked there for three years, and then moved on to work at a couple of New York restaurants, including Keens Chop House. It was at Keens that he became a protégé of one of the senior butchers and learned about the meat business and the art of meat cutting. In 1997, Larry was recruited by a good friend to work as a chef for the Ginger Island Restaurant, formerly on Fourth Street in Berkeley. So, Larry and his wife, Jessica, moved to California from New York where they planned to stay for only three years. However, he continued to work at Ginger Island for approximately 8 years until the restaurant eventually closed.
While considering the next move for his family, he learned that the owners of Arlington Meats would be retiring after forty years. After considering purchasing this business and a couple of other options, he ultimately opted to purchase the business now known as Kensington Fine Foods. Since acquiring the business, he has introduced a variety of prepared foods for the convenience of customers who seek healthier, higher quality options to fast food. He also offers catering services, in addition to offering quality meats, poultry and seafood to patrons of Young’s Market and the local community.
I handled this review solo because Larry had explained to me ahead of time that Kensington Fine Foods is a business where customers pick up prepared foods to take home to enjoy, and that there is no seating available. After a pleasant fifteen-minute drive up Arlington Avenue during which I enjoyed beautiful views of the bay area, I arrived in Kensington on a recent Thursday afternoon. Kensington Fine Foods is visible directly upon entry into Young’s Market, immediately identifiable by the long, glass-enclosed meat counter. Behind the meat counter is a tall rotisserie used for cooking whole chickens throughout the day, as well as spare ribs, and occasionally specialty offerings, such as Porchetta. (Porchetta is a traditional Italian porkloin roast seasoned with garlic, fennel, rosemary, sage and oranges, wrapped in a pork belly which seals in all the juices and flavors of the herbs.) Next to the rotisserie is a large commercial stove and a long prep counter for making sandwiches and readying foods “to go.” Conlan and Javier were busily helping customers when I arrived, and Larry was busy in the back room where the all of their home-made foods are prepared. As I waited, I reviewed the chalkboard menus on the back wall, and salivated at the tantalizing mountain of fresh golden-brown rotisserie chickens and meaty racks of spare ribs stacked in the warming bin near the cash register.
Larry emerged from the backroom, and after introductions, we strolled to a nearby coffee shop so we could sit and chat about the business. Quality is of the utmost importance to Larry, and all of the meats offered at Kensington Fine Foods are all natural and hormone-free. They are sourced from various high quality vendors, many of which can be referenced on the KFF website. Examples of these include Mary’s Free Range Chickens, Beeler’s Pork Products, and Caggiano Company (for fresh and smoked sausages.) Fish and seafood products, fresh baked breads, and fresh quality produce are sourced daily from Monterey Fish Market, ACME Bread Company, and Monterey Market respectively–all of which are local businesses based in Berkeley. Larry informed me that he leaves his Oakland home at 6:30 AM daily and personally picks up the seafood, bread, and produce on his way in to work, usually arriving at KFF by 9:00 AM.
Larry explained that KFF does a very robust lunch business. Lunch options include two freshly-made soups daily, eight Specialty Sandwiches, five Panini Sandwiches, as well as a Make-Your-Own Sandwich option. For the latter option, customers can choose from six different breads, twelve meats (includes tuna or egg salad), and six cheeses. Standard garnish includes lettuce, tomato, red onion, cucumber, mayonnaise and mustard; avocado and/or bacon can be added to any sandwich for an upcharge. Kensington Fine Foods also offers a nice selection of home-made salads made daily from all-fresh ingredients. Available salads include, but are not limited to, Classic Potato, Egg, Tuna, Green Bean, Pasta, and Roasted Beets. On the day I visited, they also had Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Quinoa Salad. Calamari salad is also available, but is sourced from Montery Fish Market. All of the standard salads on the menu are available every day; however, due to the freshness, high quality, and excellent value, most salads are extremely popular and often sell out before day’s end.
When Larry and I eventually returned to KFF, around 5:30 PM, both Javier and Conlan were again busy serving customers who were lined up in no particular order to pick up food for dinner. Rotisserie chickens and ribs were selling fast, as were the freshly made salads. A few customers were selecting fresh meats or seafood, but prepared foods seemed to be most popular—a most convenient option for those on their way home from work who don’t feel like cooking. On Thursdays, KFF offers Buttermilk Fried Chicken as a dinner special, available after 3:00 PM. The chicken is sold by the piece and is served with freshly made cornbread, and customers can buy as few or as many pieces as they want. The fried chicken also seemed to be a popular option with many of the customers that afternoon.
Since there was not an option to sample any of the foods on site, Larry generously prepared two bags of foods to go so that my family and I could enjoy them that evening. You cannot imagine the wonderful aromas that wafted through my car as I drove home! And everything tasted just as wonderful as it smelled! My husband and I both ate the fried chicken and cornbread with a side of Scalloped Potatoes, which had also been freshly prepared and simply required reheating. The chicken was fried to a crisp golden brown, had a nicely seasoned coating, and was juicy and delicious. The scalloped potatoes were excellent—rich and creamy and quite flavorful. The corn bread was the best I’ve eaten in a very long time—moist, with a hint of sweetness that made it very pleasing to me (even when I ate the leftovers a couple of days later!) In another of the “to go” boxes, I was delighted to find half of a meat loaf, an item prepared daily at KFF, prepared by Javier using his own special recipe! I added a slice of meat loaf to my plate, along with a portion of the corkscrew pasta salad with slices of artichoke hearts and other yummy ingredients that made it delicious! (My daughter ate the rest of this the following day and immediately wanted more!) The meat loaf was a favorite of mine—dense, moist, with excellent seasoning and a red ketchup or tomato sauce on top. My other favorite of the evening was the roasted Brussel sprouts which were lightly seasoned and cooked to the perfect tenderness. Larry had also sent home pints of each of the two soups of the day–Curry Lentil with Lamb, and Thai Coconut with Chicken. I was so full that the soups had to wait for another day, though I managed a small taste of each that evening. The Curry Lentil was thick, rich and meaty, while the Thai Coconut was more of a creamy broth. Both had excellent flavor! Informationally, KFF prepares approximately 20 fresh soup recipes on a rotating basis, and occasionally introduces new soup recipes to gauge customer feedback.
Larry invited me to return the next day during the lunch hours so that he could give me samples of some of their sandwiches. Once again, his generosity prevailed, and I took home another veritable feast of no less than 6 specialty sandwiches, 1 Panini, Green Bean Salad, a whole rotisserie chicken and spare ribs. I cannot possibly describe how great all the food was, but will share about a couple of my favorites. Being a huge rib fan, I claimed the spare ribs for myself, and thoroughly enjoyed them! Each was long and meaty, moist and tender, and had a flavorful seasoning. Other favorites included the Cobb Sandwich, made with fresh turkey, bleu cheese, and bacon; the Crabcake Sandwich on a bed of crunchy slaw with a Chipotle Remoulade sauce; and the Pastrami Rueben Panini. The crabcakes are made on-site using fresh seasonal crabmeat, and can also be purchased individually to take home and cook. The Reuben Panini may just be the best I’ve ever had! This grilled sandwich was chock full of tender, flavorful pastrami; sauerkraut, and oozed melted swiss cheese, served on fresh rye bread. This hearty sandwich is one that I would definitely order again! Other specialty sandwiches we tried included the Smoked Salmon; Smoked Turkey; Vegetarian; and Steak. All sandwiches are made to order on fresh ACME bread, using all fresh ingredients. Two of the dressings used on some of the specialty sandwiches, Lemon-Caper Aioli and Basil Pesto, are also freshly made at KFF, and are available for purchase in take-out containers.
I am simply amazed at how three people prepare so many delightful foods; slice, grind, and trim their own meats; process special orders for all types of meat, fish, poultry, and game; and even provide catering services. KFF is open seven days a week, and there is a seemingly constant ebb and flow of customers throughout the day. This team works together like a well-oiled machine, and their customer service is unparalleled. They greet and smile at customers, call them by name, and are extremely friendly and accommodating. Larry and his team will prepare special cuts of meats for any occasion; in fact, a few days after our interview, they received a special order for a whole pig for a roast. During the holiday season, KFF takes special orders for fresh turkeys, hams and other holiday favorites. Larry and his crew will offer cooking tips and will sometimes even cook meats on request. Their catering services usually consist of plattered dishes, sandwiches, and fresh salads; however, entrees and appetizer options are also available. Larry is more than willing to customize offerings to meet the needs of customers’ events. One to several weeks advance notice for catering is required, depending on the size and/or complexity of the orders. Be sure to check out their catering menu available on the website.
Larry lives in Montclair with his wife, Jessica; son, Patrick, who is 19 and attends San Francisco State University; and daughter, Phoebe, age 10. Jessica is an active volunteer of PALS (People, Animals, Love and Support) East Bay, a non-profit animal rescue organization, which also offers monthly free vaccine clinics in Oakland. Larry sometimes assists Jessica with her volunteer efforts; however, KFF keeps him quite busy, to say the least! Larry’s short term goals are to develop and grow their current market in the community, continuing to bring customers fresh and healthy prepared, or easily prepared, foods to make their hectic lives easier. He has some new ideas to expand on this concept, so there will no doubt be new and exciting offerings from this young owner in the not-too-distant future. Until then, I highly encourage you to take a scenic drive up Arlington Avenue to Kensington Fine Foods and try one or more of the wonderful foods I’ve shared in this review. Perhaps pick up sandwiches and salads for a weekend picnic; or maybe some ribs or chicken for a quick and easy dinner. For faster service, orders may be called in ahead of time, and will be ready when you arrive. You will love the food and the service, and it’s a sure bet that once you try KFF, you’ll be back! I know that I will!