Sometimes, all it takes is a cream cheese wonton to make me feel patriotic. Or red-bean ice cream. As exciting as the highest-end culinary fusion is, what moves me most are all the little signs of how America's subcultures jostle one another, and how our food, music, and language evolve as a result -- though never in ways we expect.
For example, who could have predicted reggaetón, the Puerto-Rican-slash-Panamanian hip-hop that is taking over the Bay Area's Spanish-language radio stations? In every song you hear the influence of ragga, cumbia, salsa, hip-hop, and 1980s synth-pop, as well as a lot of good ol' T&A. This week's excursions, fueled by reggaetón and chile-lime potato chips, were devoted to the fascinating and sometimes surreal products of cultural evolution.
True Northern Chinese food, and not the "Mandarin Cuisine" that passes for it, is still scarce in the East Bay. One of the few places where you can find sesame-paste noodles, pickled-cabbage hot pot ("sauerkraut stew" on the specials board), and cumin lamb is The Ark, on Park Street in Alameda. But that's not why I went. I went for the BBQ.
Chef Jimmy Zhang has won numerous food-carving awards around the world, and photos of his creations and medals encircle the room. His restaurant has been open for eighteen months, but four months ago he added a new "fusion" page to his menu, listing smoked-meat dishes. He says he got inspired to smoke meat by friends who like barbecue chicken wings and ribs. One of them spent a month teaching Zhang how to work a smoker. Zhang then gave the Southern-style recipes a Chinese twist.
The chef won't reveal his methods, but he admits he uses black tea and brown sugar to smoke. He also takes a lighter approach: the smoke glazes the meat, rather than melting into it, with mixed results. Zhang rubs his pork ribs with a spice mix heavy on the cinnamon, then keeps them in the smoker just long enough for the meat to cook through. He leaves thick, translucent layers of fat on top for diners to nuzzle around in search of leaner bits, swishing them through a small pot of bean-paste-based sauce, the precise midpoint between hoisin sauce and KC-style barbecue. Zhang hot-smokes fillets of salmon so deftly that the meat cooks a silky medium-rare. It's lovely. As with the ribs, you can order the fish with two sides (such as garlic noodles and stir-fried vegetables) or as a salad of iceberg lettuce with a sweet soy vinaigrette that's a little aggressive with the garlic.
Located on a back street in Fremont, Los Olivos has gained a word-of-mouth following among Muslims for its lard-free refried beans and tamales made with halal meat (slaughtered according to Islamic law). Angelica Zuberbuhler retired from nursing last year to open Los Olivos with her mother, and her menu mirrors her genes: half Mexican, half Lebanese.
On the day of my visit, Zuberbuhler had taken ill and a couple of workers hadn't shown up, so Angelica's mother was running the place by herself with the help of a friend. In the dining room, the customers were pitching in by running up to the kitchen window to fetch their own plates and helping the substitute waiter add up the checks -- one of the sweetest, if most surreal, restaurant experiences I've ever had.
Zuberbuhler weights the starters toward the Mediterranean side, familiar mezes (appetizers) like baba ghanoush, falafel, and tabbouleh punctuated with straight-from-the-fryer tortilla chips and Frito Pie. Enchiladas dominate the list of Mexican dishes, and we ordered enchiladas suizas stuffed with cheese and coated in tomatillo salsa. Two massive dollops of sour cream overwhelmed them, but it was easy to push away to focus on the salsa verde, a sharp hit of fruit and fire. Although I'm a big fan of lard, Los Olivos' Mexican rice and refried beans proved you don't need pork fat to make them taste good.
On the Lebanese side are Zuberbuhler's sandwiches and kebabs, served with a choice of mezes, rice, or French fries. Though the hummus tasted off-balance and the fries a bit limp, the meats we tried were great -- chicken shawerma dusted with spices and fruity sumac powder, lamb kebabs crusty on the outside and pink within.
Somewhere in the middle of our meal, one of my friends had to go to the bathroom, which was reached through a door next to the kitchen. She emerged, grinning, and insisted that we do the same. It was like turning a reversible jacket inside out: Next to the bathrooms was another door -- the entrance to a honky-tonk, with "Feel Like Makin' Love" blasting from the jukebox and pool players in trucker caps.
Pizza Company and Punjab Palace in El Sobrante are conjoined twins, two cuisines sharing a single kitchen. The strip-mall restaurant has little in the way of decor beyond a big-screen television, a stage, and a dancefloor, and has been written up in the Express for its live Dixieland jazz and Western swing nights (see "Punjabi Polka Pizza Party," 5/25/2005).
Like Los Olivos, the owners of PC/PP aren't so much interested in fusion as they are in doubling their success, and so they also split their menu in half. The Punjab side lists Anytown USA's Indian standards and the pizza side, Anypizza USA toppings. But if you look at the takeout menu -- and not the regular one -- near the bottom of the pizza side, you'll spot a list of "specialty pizzas," all with Indian toppings. There may be a couple of places in San Francisco that serve Indian pizza, but PC/PP beats its competitors for sheer variety.
Saab Kang and his family, who run the restaurant, introduced the Indian pizzas three or four years ago and they've become more popular than the regular kind. Some of the Indian varieties stick close to Italian tradition, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and seekh kebab, a heavily spiced beef sausage. Others, such as the chicken tikka masala pizza, mix it up: a spiced tomato-cream sauce is thickly covered with onions, fresh tomatoes, chopped jalapeños, green bell peppers, black olive rings, and chunks of tandoori chicken breast. Chicken curry pizza does the same, basically slathering braised chicken and spicy gravy on the dough and topping it with fresh vegetables and cheese, and tastes even better.
Even more distinctive, the biriani-stuffed pizza is the lovechild of a calzone and a stuffed paratha. PC/PP fills a double-crusted pizza with spiced rice, vegetables, and meat. It's a little too starch-on-starch for my tastes, but high on the culinary thrill factor. And you won't find it anywhere else. Yet.