Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Under-the-Radar Soup in Oakland Chinatown

By Luke Tsai
Tue, Jan 28, 2014 at 11:55 AM

The Lunar New Year is just around the corner, on January 31, and if you’re like me, maybe you you haven’t got your act together enough to find out the time and place of the nearest Chinatown street festival or lion dance parade. Maybe you’ve been deemed too old, or not Chinese enough, to partake in the straight-cash revelries of a red envelope exchange. Even still, the very least you can do to ring in the Year of the Horse is eat some delicious Chinese food this week, and what better place to do it than Oakland’s bustling, workaday Chinatown?

In the past year, I’ve written extensively about a few noteworthy newcomers — Tian Jin Dumplings, Classic Guilin Rice Noodles, and Hot Pot House. Here’s another under-the-radar pick for your consideration.

The restaurants specialty is its off-menu soup of the day.
  • Luke Tsai
  • The restaurant's specialty is its off-menu soup of the day.
Located just steps away from the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, Best Taste Restaurant (814 Franklin St., 510-444-4983) looks just like any other Cantonese-style barbecue joint — it has the same brisk service and same tableau of ducks and chickens hanging in the window. But if, like me, you’ve been under the weather lately, Best Taste might just cure what ails you: This tiny restaurant’s specialty, listed nowhere on the menu, is its soup of the day, which, at just $1.99 a bowl, is one of the city’s great, little-known bargains.

Actually, the soups at Best Taste aren’t served in bowls at all, but rather in individual-portion clay jars. These are prepared according to the traditional Chinese double-boiling method, wherein the soup ingredients are sealed inside the small jar, then allowed to slowly simmer inside the big steamer at the front of the restaurant. Because of this technique, each portion of soup is kept piping-hot inside of its serving vessel — voilà, soul-warming soup that arrives at your table within a minute.

Walk in during lunchtime on a chilly day and you’ll find just about every customer (all older Chinese customers during my visits) huddled over one of these steaming vessels. Whether it was a soup made with pork spare ribs and goji berries or another that featured “free-range” chicken and a starchy knob of ginseng, each of the versions I tasted were clean-tasting and loaded with flavor, with a subtle sweetness to the broth from having been infused with sundry Chinese medicinal herbs.

The restaurant’s other specialty is its claypot rice dishes, which take some time — maybe fifteen minutes — to prepare. And though I’ve only started exploring that section of the menu, I will offer two pieces of advice: 1) As with the soups, this is a dish that’s worth dining in for, as you’ll miss out on the best part — the thin layer of toasty, crunchy rice that forms on the bottom of the pot while you eat — if you order it to go. 2) Steer clear of the “Chinese Preserved Meat with Vegetable” claypot, which is loaded with frozen-vegetable nonsense and little meat. Opt instead for the “Chinese Preserved Meat” without the vegetables, which does actually come with some Chinese greens, plus a generous helping of assorted fatty, salty sausages.

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