Rice cube at Baby Cafe.

Luke Tsai

Rice cube at Baby Cafe.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Two New Oakland Chinatown Cafes are Food-Focused Islands in a Sea of Bubble Tea

Plus, Aztecali gives way to Chica Oakland.

By Luke Tsai
Tue, Nov 1, 2016 at 6:00 PM

Slowly but surely, Oakland Chinatown's empty storefronts have started to fill up — but almost exclusively with a new wave of bubble tea shops with confusingly similar names: i-Tea, Shiny Tea, T4, 50 Tea, and so on. While this might be a boon to the boba connoisseur, it doesn't do much for the neighborhood's diversity of offerings, to say nothing of the need to appeal to folks who don't want to eat their lunch through a straw.

It is fortunate, then, that Chinatown does have a handful of notable new food options, the best of which might be Baby Cafe (358 11th St.), the cutely-named Hong Kong-style cafe whose bargain-priced afternoon "tea time" I gave a shout-out to in the October 26 Express happy hour guide. As great as those tea-time specials are (with a boatload of surprisingly hearty dishes in the $2–$3 range), you'll have to stick to the regular menu if you want to try the restaurant's most popular items.

Chief among these is the cafe's signature "rice cube" — a bowl's worth of rice molded into the shape of a hollow box, scorched until all of the exposed surfaces have turned crispy and golden-brown, and then topped with chicken curry ($12.95) or beef stew ($13.95). The thing was somewhat awkward to eat, especially with the addition of a lettuce leaf that helped the structure maintain its sog-free integrity but felt superfluous unless you are a person who likes to mix salad into your beef stew. But the crispy rice alone was worth the price of admission — like the gloriously toasty crust that forms on the bottom of a stone-bowl bibimbap.

With apologies to the cardiologists of the world, I was also stoked to find one of my favorite Hong Kong snack foods on Baby Cafe's menu: a Cantonese "pineapple" bun served with a thick pat of butter stuffed inside. They heat the bun up until it's very warm, and the butter is served very cold — two thick pats of it brought to the table, with some ceremony, in a bowl of ice for you to add to the bun yourself. The overall effect is the rare experience of eating cold butter as though straight from the stick, so that each bite of the soft, sweet bread contains the viscous chew of the butter in addition to its salty richness. Trust me, though, when I tell you: It is heaven.

My other recent Chinatown discovery is that one of the aforementioned bubble tea shops, T4 (1068 Webster St.), is actually a full-fledged Taiwanese restaurant in disguise. "Full-fledged" is perhaps putting it a bit strongly, as this is still your standard order-at-the-counter boba spot in almost every respect, down to the large gaggles of teenagers who are usually sprawled out at most of the tables, flirting or playing League of Legends. (This can be a plus or minus, depending on where you fall on the "Proud-Millennial" to "Get-the-Damn-Kids-Off-My-Lawn" spectrum.)

But the food menu goes well beyond a boba shop's usual array of fried snacks — though the Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken is well above average. I was more surprised, however, to find a passable version of lu rou fan, or braised ground pork rice, that would have been perfect if it were a little bit fattier and less salty. Better still was the tomato-based beef shank noodle soup, which had just enough beefy depth of flavor to balance out the sweetness of the tomato.

This isn't destination food that you'd want to travel far out of your way to eat. It's akin to the kind of run-of-the-mill fast-food noodle joint that you can find on every street corner in Taipei. Here in Oakland, that's still enough of a rarity to be worth celebrating.

Taqueria Turnover

Let's start with the bad news: Aztecali (303A Oakland Ave., Oakland), probably the most promising new taqueria to open in Oakland this year, has closed for business. Co-owner Claudia Mercado told What the Fork that she and her partner, Juana Ojeda (the chef), made the decision because of a family emergency in Mexico. Thankfully, everyone is okay, but the need for frequent trips to Mexico, at least in the short term, made it infeasible for them to hold onto their sublease.

That said, Mercado said she hopes Aztecali will be able to reopen in a new location: "We definitely are not finished." Home to some of Oakland's tastiest chicken tortas and Guerrero style pozole verde, the Cal-Mexican restaurant quickly emerged as a neighborhood favorite on a mostly residential stretch of Oakland Avenue with few dining options — and certainly no other Mexican food of this caliber.

The one silver lining is that Mercado has found someone to take over the spot and keep it going as a neighborhood Mexican restaurant. Maria Esquivel is an East Oakland resident who last appeared in What the Fork in 2012, when she had a popup called Bueno Eats. Now, Esquivel runs a takeout window called Chica in Levi's Plaza in San Francisco that specializes in mix-and-match bowls — carnitas, chicken, or a seasonal veggie medley served over rice, quinoa, or salad greens.

When Chica Oakland opens in the former Aztecali spot, it will have that same basic menu format, plus a few other items such as tacos and ceviche. The restaurant is slated to open in late November or December.

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