Though Oakland and Berkeley restaurants aren't hurting as acutely as those in troubled San Francisco, one thing's for sure: Restaurants that specialize in take-out food aren't feeling the pain of their sit-down sisters. Chef Edwards, owner of the eponymous Oakland barbecue restaurant, says his takeout business has gone up at least twenty percent in the past couple of months. "Personally, what I think has happened is because of the incident on September 11. People are no longer going to the large restaurants. If you're going to eat out, you're going to eat at some place a little bit smaller."
Others have seen a more recent rise. Christina Ramos, one of the owners of the restaurant/imported foods store La Borinqueña Mexicatessen, on 7th Street in Oakland, saw a drop in business for the past couple of months. "It didn't pick up until last week," says Ramos, attributing the downward spike to the disappearance of the dot-coms in the neighborhood. "We sell food that people tend to eat with their family, so that's what's brought things back." When business comes back, it comes back big: The family-run restaurant had orders for a thousand dozen tamales, a traditional Mexican Christmas food.
Eric Sartenaer of Phoenix Pastificio, a pasta maker with a retail store near downtown Berkeley, says that while the San Francisco restaurant bust has hurt his wholesale business, his retail sales have increased. "People aren't dining out that much; they're taking some pasta and sauce home with them. It's an affordable alternative." Or, as Monier Attar of Albany's Zand Market suggests, "People want to go home and watch the news."
But if people aren't splurging on white-tablecloth dinners, they aren't limiting themselves to Chinese and pizza. To figure out how far thirty bucks would go in gourmet Californian takeout stores, I visited a few, bringing home sacks of treats for me and my roommates. I discovered that it's possible to feed three or four people for that amount, though often the pickings needed to be supplemented. Still, for under ten dollars a meal, single folks and couples on the run can make a trip to one of these stores and stock up on prepared dishes for the week -- they taste better than Lean Cuisine and they're healthier, too. Another tip: What you bring home does not need to be the end product. There's a world of things you can do with a roast chicken. If you think that saag paneer needs a little protein, sauté a little tofu and make it a one-dish meal.
People looking to put in a little work, especially for a larger group or small dinner party, can make a substantial, even impressive meal centered around handmade pasta. Stop one on my excursion was Phoenix Pastificio, a narrow storefront on Shattuck and Hearst. Eric Sartenaer, who founded Semifreddi's with his wife in 1983 and opened Phoenix six years ago, supplies more than sixty kinds of pasta to three-hundred-plus restaurants around the Bay Area. (An attached restaurant offers several of these pastas to lunchtime diners, and weekend dinner service is imminent.)
A sign taped to the front door reads, "Wanted: Meyer Lemons." Using organic flour and free-range eggs, the Sartenaers make pastas with seasonal, local ingredients. All sixty varieties -- which include ravioli and extruded pastas such as fettuccine and rotelli -- can be purchased at the store, though only eighteen or so fit into the display case. Two pounds should feed a hungry family of four -- but at $9.50 to $11.50 a pound for ravioli and $5.95 a pound for extruded pastas, this isn't mac 'n' cheese.
Phoenix also sells sauces. I bought a pungent, garlicky black olive pesto that I saved for spreading on bread and a thin, herb-flecked "pizzaiola" tomato sauce, which didn't adhere to the meaty, rich smoked chicken and ricotta ravioli I tossed in it. Learning my lesson, I just drizzled a fruity olive oil over the fragrant Meyer lemon ravioli filled with ricotta, smoked salmon, and dill, and couldn't have been happier. The almond-paste macaroon I got, one of a number of baked goods made in-house, didn't even make it back to the car -- instead, it left my jacket dusted with powdered sugar.
Driving up and down Solano Avenue to see what I could find, I spotted a new sign. Tangerine, on the corner of Solano and Tulare, advertises itself as a "food bar." Hannie Farrow and her husband Robert Vandongen opened the store in the beginning of December; they currently serve a lunchtime crowd but plan to expand soon to offer breakfast and dinner items. After only three weeks of business, a steady stream of people was already filing into the tiny storefront that contains a salad bar, a refrigerator case, and a shelf of imported foodstuffs from all over Europe and the Middle East.
At the counter, Vandongen, obviously excited about his new venture, offered everyone tastes of soup and the tapa of the day, chunk of roasted carrot tossed in oil and chunks of garlic. For about sixteen dollars, I picked up a pound (three cups or so) of penne pasta mixed with tuna, capers, and sun-dried tomatoes as well as a stack of other dishes in half-pint containers. The pasta had a subtle, complex flavor that just needed a little salt to perk it up. Tangerine plans to specialize in citrus-flavored dishes, such as a lemony, parsley-free citrus tabbouleh and a slightly less successful saffron-orange rice pudding marked with a cinnamon cross. A small fried pastry filled with pureed, spiced chickpeas and peas disappeared quickly when I took it home, as did a tangy, rich salad of beets and pickled herring dressed in sour cream. Both had been seasoned with care.
Together with the food I got at my next stop down the way, Zand Market, my purchases from Tangerine filled the stomachs of three grown men and satisfied a couple of snackers to boot. Zand Market specializes in Persian foods but carries a range of products from around the Middle East. Its owner, Monier Attar, moved the store up the street last year from the other side of San Pablo. "My business has gotten much better" since September 11, Attar told me, "because our food is low-cost, and our location is better. Two people can eat for seventeen dollars, rather than paying fifty with tips and tax."
The market is packed with dried beans, spices, and herb mixes, canned goods, olives, cheeses, and Middle Eastern sweets. Patrons can order sandwiches, savories, salads, and other side dishes at the counter in back. Several of the dishes I took home failed to win over my friends. We found the three-inch-high saffron rice cake (paschin) bland and weren't sure we liked the koo-koo, a grassy-tasting spinach and herb cake held together with egg and flour. But the thick triangles of phyllo-wrapped spanakopita, spinach and feta pie, were among the best I've ever tasted, and an assertive dose of lemon gave the baba ghanouj vibrant flavor. All for twenty dollars.
Several days later, I drove to Market Hall in Rockridge, the one-stop shop for foodies with bucks. My roommate and I had to supplement leftover dips from a tree-trimming party to serve six for dinner. We first picked up a roast free-range chicken from Enzo's meats for $11, and then purchased a few crudités from Market Hall Produce and a large pugliese from Grace before sidling up to the counter at the Pasta Shop. Of all the places I visited, the Pasta Shop had the largest selection -- perhaps twenty salads, a number of casseroles and baked pasta dishes, roast birds of various stripes and coatings, many different housemade pastas, a seductively odorous cheese counter, and innumerable treats to complement the prepared foods.
Twenty-four dollars got me three pints of salad, one gigantic potato latke, and a slab of meatloaf, with mixed results. Plump and nut-brown, our Enzo's chicken was flavorful but dry (it went well with the olive tapenade from Phoenix). My guests ate around the overly soft, bland meatloaf. However, the rest of the items, if not extraordinary, had good flavor: a cabbage and fennel slaw with poached chicken dressed in a Thai lime and fish-sauce vinaigrette; sweet potatoes roasted with onions and mixed bell peppers; a savory, tart lentil salad studded with feta, red onion, cucumber, and tomato.
Before our guests arrived, my roommate unmolded the salads into bowls, laid out the vegetables on a large platter surrounded by bowls of romesco and tapenade, and even dressed the chicken with a sprig of leftover parsley. We all sat around the fire with plates on our knees, planning out our Christmas dinner and sipping leftover beer. A fine night out.
The surge in takeout sales isn't the only restaurant trend I've noticed in the past year. Here are a few others:
1. Small plates. Moving beyond "tapas," which aren't authentic tapas at all but small plates of Spanish food, small-plates restaurants have hit critical mass. We have Asian-fusion small plates (Grasshopper), French and French-ish small plates (Liaison and A Cote), and soon Central and South American small plates (Fonda). Who'll be shrinking portions next?
2. Upscale Asian restaurants. Again, not a new thing but a trend that's gathering momentum. From sophisticated Indian fare of Zaika and Khana Peena to swank Thai food in Albany (Ruen Pair, Thep Naaree) and Rockridge (Soi4), people are paying serious attention - and money - to broaden their knowledge of Asian foods in sleek surroundings. Someday Bay Area diners may be able to distinguish between the cuisines of the Punjab and Goa as easily as we do Tuscan and Sicilian.
3. Macaroni and Cheese. Perhaps it's just the restaurants I reviewed post-9-11, but I've been eating an awful lot of mac 'n' cheese. Somehow it has surpassed Mom, apple pie, and the Happy Meal to become the emblematic American food. But yuppie restaurants take heed: It's just not the real thing without the potato chips crumbled on top.
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