Watermelon. Corn on the cob. Rocky Road. Grilled chicken. Every year the food magazines put out summertime spreads that read like paeans to Americana. But the East Bay's huge and varied Asian-American and Latino populations have a few more hot-weather dishes that belong in the canon of foods you should be craving when the mercury tops 90. Strap on your halter top, wave a flag, and go try these new American summertime classics:
Aroma Cafe & Grill, 1515 Broadway St., Concord, 925-825-2800.
In Tagalog, halo-halo means "mix-mix," and every Filipino family and restaurant mixes up their mix of this popular dessert differently. Basically, halo-halo is a baroque assemblage of fruits and sundries (including, on occasion, corn, avocado, and Rice Krispies), mixed with milk or coconut milk, sugar, and shaved ice. Aroma Cafe in Concord makes one of the most elaborately layered and delectable halo-halos in the East Bay: purple ube (sweet potato), red azuki beans, white northern beans, translucent and mysterious jellies, jackfruit, and then a surprising touch: thick sweetened condensed milk, poured over the ice at the last minute, to congeal into thick clumps of soft custard. You mess the rainbow-hued concoction into a gray slush and pick out your favorite chunks with a long-handled spoon. (You can find a similar, though less elaborate, treat at Vietnamese restaurants: Called the "three-bean drink," under the shaved ice you'll find red kidney beans layered with yellow mung beans and green mung-jelly strips.)
Mexican Sliced Fruit
International Boulevard, from 25th Avenue to High Street.
Walking up and down the Central American swath of International Boulevard, you'll pass more than a dozen tall, narrow silver carts whose windows are striped with color -- rows of plastic bags filled with golden mangoes, orange cantaloupe and papaya, green honeydew melons. Point at one of the bags and the attendant will ask you, "Do you want everything?" Say yes. She'll cut tiny little key limes in half and squeeze the juice into the bag. Sprinkle a little salt over the top, followed by a couple of assertive shakes from a bottle of chile powder. Close the bag up, shake it around a bit, and use the little wooden skewer she hands you to pull out strips of the fruit. A blast of citrus hits first, with the salt coming in and opening up all the flavors you normally never notice. Then the fruit's sweetness eases in, bringing with it a heat that grows more present as you chew. Soon you're left with a tingling mouth and a craving to start the cycle all over again.
Sweetheart Cafe (two locations), 315 9th St., Oakland; 2523 Durant Ave., Berkeley.
It goes by the name of boba tea, bubble tea, pearl tea, or tapioca tea. If you haven't heard of this Taiwanese treat you must not know anyone under the age of 25. Five or six years ago, plastic cups of milky tea with mysterious black balls the size of marbles started appearing in the hands of teenagers all over the Bay Area. Now little stands specializing in bubble tea have popped up all over the region. Sweetheart Cafe is one of the best. The original beverage is a milky iced tea, bitter around the edges and sugary-sweet across the tongue. Then there are the cool, crisp juice-and-jelly slushes with flavors like passion fruit and papaya, and the creamy, icy shakes flavored with almond, red bean or, my absolute favorite, taro. Sucking up your first mouthful of the big, chewy tapioca pearls can be a shock -- what are you supposed to do with them? Chew or swallow? But one bemused trial may soon turn into an addiction, and soon you're pushing your way through crowds of fifteen-year-olds to get another fix.
Mool Naeng Myun
Seoul Gom Tang II, 3801 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-597-9989.
Koreans, who love strong sensations -- it's the land of a thousand pickles and chile-and-garlic-saturated stews -- take a different tack during the summer: A noodle dish called mool naeng myun is meant to provide a cold jolt at the height of the summer months. A twirl of stretchy, chewy buckwheat noodles is served cold in a bowl with chilled beef broth; shaved daikon, cucumber, and pear; and ice cubes. At the table you mix in wasabi paste, rice vinegar, chiles, and scallions to taste. Every three bites your body temperature drops a degree. At Oakland's Seoul Gom Tang, which specializes in hot beef-noodle soups and cold naeng myun dishes, you can get your mool naeng myun plain, or for an extra five-spot they'll serve it with a plate of kalbi (grilled short ribs) on the side. Another version, bibim naeng myun, dresses the noodles in chile paste and, if you'd like, tops it with raw fish. Unfortunately, Seoul Gom Tang also turns on the air conditioning, so if you'd like to experience the full effect of the dish without your lips turning blue, order your noodles to go and run outside before the ice melts.
La Costa Mariscos, 3625 International Blvd., Oakland 510-533-9566.
It takes at least two hands to maneuver your bowl of cocktel from the window to the picnic tables outside La Costa: The watery tomato broth splashes over the sides at the slightest fumble, threatening to slosh a precious oyster, quivering on top, onto the ground. The watery tomato broth, jacked with lime and hot sauce, is the perfect foil for the sweet, fresh crustaceans, creamy avocado, bright red onions, and crunchy cucumber. You can get just shrimp or just octopus or just oysters, but the cocktel compechana, at $16 for a massive bowl, is the best splurge of all. Scoop up the tender, mild slices of octopus, barely blanched shrimp, and newly shucked oysters with bits of fried tostada or the classic accompaniment, saltine crackers straight from the diner. And when you've dredged out the last morsel of seafood, the proper ending is to pick up the bowl and down the rest of the liquid in one fell slurp.
Asian markets all over the area.
Every year about this time I get a call from a friend of mine who works one block over from San Francisco's Chinatown. "They're down to $3!" Denise will crow, and I grab the keys and dash down the front steps. June is the height of lychee season, when the Chinese fruit go from $8 to $3 a pound. For the next two to three weeks my fridge is stocked with quickly emptying bags. The translucent, jelly-like flesh of this improbable-looking fruit, which looks like a scaly chestnut and tastes like roses and maraschino cherries, is addictive. Look for reddish-brown skin, firm (but not hard) flesh without soft spots, and none of the white frost of mold. You can peel the papery skin into elaborate, spiraled strips, or do what a lychee farmer once taught a friend of mine: Peel off a little hole the size of a dime at the stem end of the fruit, bring the peeled spot to your mouth, and squeeze. Indian Ice Cream
Raja Sweets & Indian Cuisine, 31853 Alvarado Blvd, Union City, 510-489-9100.
Naz 8 Theaters, 39160 Paseo Padre Parkway, Fremont.
Ice cream has now traveled around the world and come back transformed into something richer and stranger. Marco Polo, a San Francisco brand of Chinese gelato, makes durian, taro, red bean, and lychee. Cupertino and the City have had Indian ice creameries for years, and the East Bay is finally getting its own: Raja Sweets has just become the first place to try rose, fig, pistachio, and everyone's favorite, cardamom ice cream. My personal favorite, though, is saffron, with its dusky, complex aroma. The Naz 8 Theaters in Fremont also offers a limited selection of American and pan-Asian flavors of ice cream, like mango and baby coconut, as well as pista kulfi, a pistachio-flavored frozen yogurt that's denser, tangier, and icier than the stuff you'll find at TCBY.
Bun Thit with Soda Lemon
Pho Hoa Lao, 720 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-451-6888.
It would stand to reason that sweltering, humid Vietnam is home to one of the most perfect summertime noodle dishes. Every Vietnamese restaurant in the Bay Area serves bun at lunchtime. Bun is half salad, half entrée: A pile of snow-white cellophane rice noodles arrives topped with grilled pork (or beef, or chicken). Pour over the bowl of sweet-sour nuoc cham, mysteriously unfishy fish sauce, that arrives with the noodles, and stir with your chopsticks. Bean sprouts, cucumber, lettuce, and Thai basil emerge from the bottom of the bowl to mix in with the rest. The result is as light as a glass of ice water but fragrant and meaty, and quite filling. The perfect accompaniment is a glass of soda lemon with salty plum (warning: don't get confused and order salty lemon soda unless you're really not up for something sweet). Soda water is sprayed into a glass containing a couple tablespoons of sugar and the juice of a lemon. A lone pickled plum floats up and down on the bubbles, sending tickles of its puckery, salty aroma throughout the drink.
Southeast Asian markets around the East Bay. Hua Hin, 2190 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, 510-548-1322.
Eaten all over Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Central America, young coconut has charms that disappear with age: coconut water, clear and lightly sweet, and sweet young flesh as soft as jack cheese. Southeast Asian markets around the area sell young coconut in many forms. The flesh can be frozen in plastic packs, the juice canned in pop-tops, and both flesh and juice sealed in little plastic cups, with tiny forks for picking out coconut bits taped to the side. If you have a machete and you're feeling adventurous, you can find young coconuts to hack up yourself at Asian markets (they're the ones with the exterior hull carved away, leaving a polygon of pith). Or, Hua Hin, a Thai barbecue restaurant in Berkeley, serves young coconut the Thai way. You get a whole coconut with a hole carved in the top. A straw and spoon stick out of the hole. Use the spoon to scrape the inside walls for sweet meat and the straw to make yourself look like an extra on Gilligan's Island.
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