There's a shocking dearth of late-night restaurants in the East Bay. It's not as if we're one huge subdivision, but the lack of places to eat after 11 p.m. -- hell, in some neighborhoods, after 9 -- makes us look like a bunch of stay-at-homes. With all the late-shift factory workers, college students, beer-sodden hipsters, and restaurant folks in the area, there must be enough hungry folks to keep fifty or sixty restaurants open past bedtime. Here are three suggestions for the partyers, the insomniacs, and the Spanish for cheap holes-in-the-wall open after midnight -- besides Denny's.
From Poughkeepsie to Modesto, there are few towns that don't have an all-night diner to supply the after-bar crowd with bottomless pots of coffee, steak and eggs, and hamburgers. The East Bay has Nation's Burgers, which all close at 3 o'clock; Merritt Bakery, which keeps a 24-hour schedule; and Pring's.
Pring's has been cooking up hamburgers and apple pies in San Leandro since 1941. The strip of East 14th south of 150th Street feels vacant by nine, but Pring's keeps late hours on weekdays and all hours on weekends. On one late-night weekday visit, the inside of the restaurant felt a little forlorn, too -- a few teenagers and old women sat down at well-spaced intervals. The room feels a little like a 1960s den renovated in the late 1980s, stone bricks alternating with sage and taupe walls. We got the prime seat in the house, a round corner booth smack in front of the TV, where we watched the Cartoon Network with our mellow, funny waiter.
It's a sad day for a restaurant critic when he has to tell readers to order the food he didn't. I've heard from an acquaintance that we should have gotten the fried chicken or beer-cooked prime rib. We passed them over for lackluster chicken-fried steak and "baby beef" liver and onions. We also shouldn't have started with the shrimp cocktail, but my friends thought it went with the decor. The ammonia smell of the bay shrimp did disappear when you doused them with enough potent cocktail sauce. The liver was fine if you liked the way your mom cooked it (well-done) -- I only like liver when it's sliced thickly and seared a maroon and silky medium-rare -- but the toasty-edged onions on top went well with the meat. As for the chicken-fried steak, it was thickly coated in breadcrumbs and slathered in brown gravy. That's all I can say.
I only had eyes for the Monte Cristo, a rare sight these days. I can't tell if this 1950s-era sandwich is a work of genius or a gastronomic faux pas. Back in the days of culinary innocence, some California cook decided to re-create the croque monsieur, the ubiquitous Parisian cafe snack. But instead of press-grilling a ham and cheese sandwich, this food pioneer dipped it in egg whites and deep fried it. Since what came out of the fryer looked so much like French toast, he or she sprinkled it with powdered sugar and served it with jelly. Why the sugar and jelly works, I don't know, but it doesn't set me gagging. Pring's Monte Crisco isn't the crispest version I've tried (yes, I've had more than one) but the cheese was oozy and ham, salty and savory. The fries rocked, too.
After the Radio Bar and Bench & Bar close down, the drinkers head over to Sun Hong Kong for something to soak up the booze. There are better, and cleaner, Cantonese restaurants in Oakland's Chinatown, but not many stay open until three. Midnight's the time to hit Sun Hong Kong, when you'll find the tables full and the waiters rushing. Well, they may be serving too many raucous drunks to rush to your table, but they're sure moving fast.
Sun Hong Kong's menu dwarfs Pring's magnum opus, offering everything from Chinese-American standards to Cantonese classics, with a bank of murky tanks supplying most of the crab and lobster that appear on the tables of most Chinese-American patrons.
The sorry end-of-the-night birds hanging in the window should have warned us off the stew noodles with roast duck, but we ignored them, and then gnawed salty, dry meat off the bone in between bites of plain egg noodles.
After this rough start, our meal improved. The dark meat on the "crispy chicken" stayed moist under its papery, cherrywood-hued skin. The kitchen did little to the Chinese broccoli except pour over a little oyster sauce, which served it well. And I thought the shredded pork tossed with shredded vegetables and salty preserved cabbage passed muster, even if it didn't generate much excitement. Our favorite dish of the night consisted of slices of scallops coated in ground shrimp and formed into juicy, pink hockey pucks. The mucilaginous black bean sauce underneath tasted much better than it looked.
With a menu as big as Sun's, a couple of trips would be enough to teach you what to order. For more reliably better food, I'd have to recommend two other restaurants I reviewed back in 1991. Early birds can go to Yung Kee Restaurant just around the corner on Webster -- open until two -- for roast meats, homey stir-fries, and congee (rice porridge). Better yet, Daimo in Richmond's Pacific East Mall dishes up noodle soup and top-notch seafood until three.
Since I'm partial to Korean food, I'd have to give Telegraph the prize for after-hours eats. Koryo Wooden Charcoal Barbecue, near 43rd Street, stays open until two on weekends, and Koko House, at 61st Street, doesn't shut down the kitchen till 1:30 a.m.
And then there's Korean sushi. Starting at 8 o'clock, Koryo Sushi fills up, and the clientele doesn't thin out until closing time approaches (11:30 on weekdays, 2:30 on weekends). The drama crowd comes here after performances, something Express theater critic Lisa Drostova and I discovered one night when we came to Koryo to dish post-play, and had to whisper about the performance because all the actors were sitting two tables away. The tiny restaurant -- six tables and a sushi bar -- looks like the inside of a wooden jewel box lined with colorful Japanese paper.
All the appetizers and sushi we tried on a recent visit were prepared with care. The ohitashi -- steamed spinach -- was pressed into an emerald cylinder standing on end in a pool of soy-enhanced dashi and showered with feathery pink bonito flakes. Slivers of dried seaweed garnished plump cubes of agedashi, soft tofu submerged in oil until its skin bubbled up and crisped. Crunchy-skinned fried gyoza circled around a pool of spiced-up soy sauce.
The sushi rice was molded a little too loosely, but the fish on top, from the hamachi (yellowtail) to the tai (snapper), was all thick and sweet. Half of the maki, like the sweet braised kampyo (gourd) or the ruby-hued tekka (tuna), stayed true to Japanese simplicity, while the other half aimed for American grandiosity. I just couldn't get behind the cream cheese in the Philly roll (smoked salmon and cheese), but I appreciated the precise construction and the real crab in the dragon roll, a giant California roll with avocado and unagi scales. If you don't do sushi, Koryo makes tasty but less-impressive tempura, teriyaki, and noodle soups.
It's not like most people have high standards after midnight, especially when they've downed a few pints, but it's still good to see that you don't always have to load up on grease and burned coffee if you're hungry in the wee morning hours. A few dozen more places like these to fuel all-night hipsters, laborers, and miscreants, and the East Bay might rub the sleep out of its reputation.
What late-night restaurants did I skip? E-mail me with your favorites at firstname.lastname@example.org, especially places on the other side of the Caldecott.
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