Here's my dilemma. I grok Banyan14's spirit, like what the contemporary Thai and Vietnamese cafe brings to its scuffed patch of downtown Oakland, dig sitting in its earnestly clunky dining loft. Its two early-thirties owners cite street food as inspiration. But at each of three lunches, I've found myself craving more from the six-week-old restaurant — specifically, that electrified fusion of salty, sweet, sour, and hot flavors, the Day-Glo juice that runs through street noshes like green mango slices dipped in chili jam. Fishy and fusty.
The thing about describing your menu as Southeast Asian street food is that you set up expectations that what you're dishing up is going to be vivid, maybe a tad funky or painfully spicy. Instead, Banyan14's Thai Red Curry is mild as minestrone. Tasty, don't get me wrong: chunks of sweet potato and winter squash, red peppers and mung sprouts, in a gently unctuous, pale-brick-colored coconut broth. You can add beef (among other proteins), as I did — which turned out to be ultrathin shavings of flank, I think, stiffened into softly textural nibs.
It's a nourishing curry, well cooked, and the individual elements all sparkled. But the curry itself left me frustrated, like when a head cold locks up your sinuses, except without even that slight burr of chile capable of penetrating even deadened taste sensors. Kind of like eating a Thai curry with your tongue sheathed in a condom.
So maybe I'm being dickish, demanding street-food verisimilitude 8,000 miles from Bangkok's Yaowarat Road market. But there is an essential conflict within otherwise likable little Banyan14, whose aspirations are somewhat at odds with the food its owners think the clientele will tolerate. You can't blame Lejla Borovacs and Amy Torgerson for making so reasonable a calculation. The restaurant sits smack across 14th Street from the Oakland Federal Building. Is it wise to expose hapless bureaucrats to fierceness? To mark them with the aromas of garlic, fried shallot, and shrimp paste, then send them back to open cubes in windowless offices?
"We've taken some of the ingredients that not everybody is used to," Borovacs told me by phone, "basically cleaned up the flavors, and adjusted them to the Western palate. They have to be subtle." Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
Borovacs works the counter (it's quick-serve: you order, find a table, wait for your food); Torgerson, who has experience in corporate catering, mans the range on the open kitchen line. This is a first venture for the partners, who have worked together in other restaurants (most recently at RNM in Lower Haight). A year and a half ago they trekked Thailand for inspiration, and last July they picked up the keys to the 14th Street space. Lacking a sizeable budget, Borovacs and Torgerson leaned on family and friends to help with the extensive buildout.
A whole lot of oriented strand board and VOC-free soy paints later, Banyan14 was born: kitchen and register corralled behind a pony wall clad in black pebbles, sneeze-guard scrim embedded with bamboolike grasses, and a dark, mod-looking dining loft with luminous pools of halogen. Borovacs and Torgerson source biodegradable takeout containers, say they use organic produce when possible, and buy only what they call "natural" meats and wild or responsibly farmed seafood.
Where dishes need to be exuberantly fresh, Torgerson shines. JJ Market Lettuce Wraps pay homage to Bangkok's mad Chatuchak Weekend Market, aka JJ. The make-your-own wraps are delicious — crisp leaves of butter lettuce, into which you bundle slices of cold grilled chicken, rice noodles, bean sprouts, and pickled carrots and radishes. The accompanying peanut sauce is just right: fluid, not Jif gunky, and with nicely restrained sweetness.
Likewise, Banyan14's Mango Avocado Salad is cold and crunchy, playful in a way that seems to draw inspiration, not from Asia, but from California's hippie heritage. Big squares of fruit, peppers, and carrots, and a greens mix composed from scratch, its ginger-lime dressing punched up via toasted sesame oil and sugar.
Sesame Noodle Salad is sweet, too: Fine strands of soba in sweetened wasabi dressing, layered casually with baby spinach leaves and apple slices (on the day I tasted it they were Fujis, not the Granny Smiths of the menu description; but hey, what do you want from a place still finding its legs?). The kitchen had forgotten to toss in squares of grilled marinated tofu; when I told the food runner, she bounded downstairs, returning with a plate of the stuff, which was delicious. No harm, no foul — except with strands of house-candied ginger, which somehow clumped together in the tossing, yielding distracting sugary clusters.
The Vietnamese Sandwich, Banyan14's take on banh mi, seems pointless — in nearby Chinatown, you can get a more satisfying version for a quarter of the price (though, granted, it'll have been made from cheaper materials). You choose your filling from the specials board; the chicken version brings slices from a grilled breast on an authentic Viet roll, smeared with basil-cashew pesto and sambal aioli. The results are hoagie-like: neither textural, vinegary, nor spicy enough to pack that refreshing little shimmer you get from a bite of proper banh mi.
I like Torgerson's Pad Thai — tangy tamarind-laced noodles, tossed with what happened to be the house vegetables of the day, a mix of bok choy and broccoli cooked long enough to coax out the latter's cabbage-y richness.
In the same way, the kitchen handled the Grilled Fish of the Day (it happened to be mahi-mahi) with something like the mixture of confidence and balls-out blast of garlic and ginger reminiscent of, well, street food. Bathed in soy and lime juice, garnished with avocado slices and cilantro, the fish arrived with deep black grill marks — they made it taste, I don't know, like something cooked on a little brazier in a market stall.
And here's maybe the best part: I found myself burping up the garlicky memory of its marinade for the rest of the afternoon. "Damn," my husband said when I got home, waving his hands as if he were swatting flies, escaping to the far side of the kitchen. "What do you want?" I said. "I had Thai food."
Keep making people stinky, Banyan14 — you just might pull it off.
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