What the Fork

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Don’t Call It a Goodbye

After five years reviewing restaurants for the Express, I’m hanging up my critic’s hat — at least for now.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 9:38 PM


When I first ditched my career as a burned-out high school English teacher to try my hand at freelance journalism, there was one job I coveted above all others: the food critic gig at the East Bay Express. So, I could hardly believe my good fortune when I was offered the position a few years later. How many people get that chance?

By the same token, it’s hard for me to believe what I have to tell you now: Five years after filing my first review — of a Thai restaurant that doubled as a slot-car racing venue — I’m hanging up my critic’s hat and leaving the Express. And it isn’t even because I’ve been priced out of Oakland (yet) or eaten myself to an early grave (yet).

The reason is fairly straightforward: Next week, I’ll start a new job, and begin tackling a new set of challenges, as the food editor at San Francisco Magazine. I’m excited about that, but it would be an understatement to say that the decision is bittersweet. The Express was the first publication to accept one of my freelance cover-story pitches (shout-out to Steve Buel) and, eventually, the first to offer me the rarest of unicorns in the food-writing biz: a full-time job with benefits (shout-out to Robert Gammon). Its newsroom has been home to the most talented, idealistic reporters I’ve ever worked with. And the Express is where I’ve done all of the work I’m proudest of — including the “City of Immigrants” Taste magazine that’s inserted into this very issue.

The truth is, I had never really written a restaurant review prior to starting my job at the Express. So, I hope it isn’t too self-indulgent or humble-braggy, dear reader, if I take a minute to thank you for bearing with me for all these years — bearing with my long-windedness, my enduring love of the em dash, and all the times I inadvertently showed my ignorance about a regional cuisine or crucial piece of historical context.

If you read my reviews regularly (following my “trail of breadcrumbs” each week, as one reader flatteringly tweeted), maybe it’s because you share my basic philosophy toward restaurants — in short, that the liquor-store arroz con gandules joint and the roadside Sonoran hot dog cart aren’t any less worthy of our respect, enthusiasm, and full attention than the trendiest name-chef fine-dining establishment.

Let’s not call this a goodbye, then. I’m not moving away from Oakland, and I still hope to write about my beloved East Bay mom-and-pops as much as possible. For now, you can keep in touch by following me on Twitter at @theluketsai.

And even though I don’t know yet who will replace me as the Express’ restaurant critic, I hope you’ll keep reading these pages, as well. I know I will. Lord knows, with all the culinary riches we are blessed with here in the East Bay, there won’t be any shortage of worthy subject matter.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Six East Bay Restaurants Where You Can Score Killer Fish and Chips for Lent

Fridays are for fish fries — or shrimp tacos, if you prefer.

by Jasmine Guillory
Wed, Mar 1, 2017 at 6:00 AM

Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 1 this year, marks the beginning of Lent. For Christians, the forty-day religious observance has different emphasis and meaning depending on what denomination of Christianity a person belongs to — and how Christian they are. But for more than half a million East Bay Catholics (and many more former Catholics), Fridays during Lent mean one thing: fish and chips. Luckily, the East Bay has a wide variety of fried-seafood purveyors to keep us guilt-free for the next six Fridays.

Pub Style
Do you want your fish and chips at a pub where Guinness and Boddingtons are always on tap and the Union Jack waves proudly? If so, you can get your fix at Kensington Circus Pub (389 Colusa Ave., Kensington). Right in the heart of tiny Kensington, a city on a hillside smack in between Albany and El Cerrito, the Circus Pub is a neighborhood bar with a British bent. The fish and chips here are very traditional: beer-battered cod that’s deep-fried until golden; fries that are a little soggy but still good; and tartar sauce, lemon, and vinegar as accompaniments. The fish and chips are good, but the vinegary coleslaw that comes on the side is the highlight of the plate. Its tartness is the perfect contrast to the fried food. Bring the whole family. The kids will love the kids’ menu, and the parents will love the many British, Irish and local beers on tap.

Cocktails and Crowds
If you’d prefer a cocktail with your fish and chips, head to Ben ‘N Nick’s (5612 College Ave, Oakland). You’ll get big pieces of surprisingly flaky and tender cod encased in a thick, crunchy batter, with a pile of French fries underneath. To drink, you could stick with a classic gin and tonic or martini, but the bar has a wide range of cocktails and a big local beer list, so you have lots of options if you want to indulge in a beverage or two while you make your way through all of those fries. Ben ‘N Nick’s can get pretty crowded, especially on Friday nights or any night when there’s a Warriors game on, but the fish and chips (and the drinks) are worth the wait.

Fish Market Takeout
Hapuku Fish Shop (5655 College Ave, Oakland) is mostly a fish market, but on those nights when you can’t deal with cooking, you can buy cooked-to-order fish and chips right from the fishmonger. The fish is local rock cod, deep-fried with a thin panko-battered crust. It’s well seasoned and moist inside, and the lemony house-made tartar sauce pairs well with both the fish and the fries. And these are French fries to go out of your way for: crisp and golden on the outside, creamy on the inside, and a generous enough portion that you can gobble down a few handfuls on your way home and still have plenty once you get there.

Catfish for a Party
Fried fish comes in many styles, and there’s no reason to restrict ourselves to the British style of fish and chips. Those of us who love cornmeal-battered catfish are lucky that we have a place as good as Mississippi Catfish (12440 San Pablo Ave, Richmond) nearby. The catfish (you can also get snapper or prawns) is fried in a thin, Southern-style batter, with enough spice to pack a punch in every bite. The fries are your basic fried potatoes, but the hush puppies, which come with every order, are the best in the greater Bay Area. Get a big order to go — you can get twenty pieces of fish with a side for $50. You’ll be hailed as a hero when you walk into the party.

Fish Tacos, Anyone?
If your version of fish and chips is fish tacos and tortilla chips, don’t fret — the East Bay’s got you covered. In Temescal, Cholita Linda (4923 Telegraph Ave, Oakland) always has fish tacos on the menu, and they’re some of the best around. For $3.50 per taco, you get big chunks of deep-fried fish topped with cabbage slaw, spicy salsa, and crema, all on top of two warm corn tortillas. And the tortilla chips are thick and well salted, and are excellent with a side order of salsa or guacamole.

If You Prefer Shrimp Tacos …
Okay, it’s not fish, but no discussion of deep-fried seafood is complete without mentioning Cosecha’s (907 Washington Street, Oakland) shrimp tacos. Available only on Fridays, these tacos start with huge shrimp that are individually battered and deep-fried until they’re puffy and golden. A few of those shrimp, a spicy crema, and a bed of slaw go on top of Cosecha’s handmade corn tortillas. If you get the shrimp taco special, you’ll get two of those tacos with a side of pinto beans and avocado for $15. Along with some chips and salsa, and a margarita or two, you’ve got a perfect meal for a Friday afternoon or evening — at Lent or any other time.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Grocery Cafe Gets a Second Life in Jack London Square

The popular Burmese restaurant bounces back after a health department shutdown.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Feb 21, 2017 at 9:47 PM

Nearly every week, some Bay Area restaurant ends not with a bang but a whimper — or, in the case of the well-loved East Oakland Burmese spot Grocery Cafe, a single all-caps Facebook status posted in early January: "Dear all we are closed indefinitely. Thank you for your support."

When modest, mom-and-pop, immigrant-run restaurants like Grocery Cafe close down, they often never get a second chance — even if their tea leaf salad is the best, and most pungent, version in town. So it was a nice surprise when chef-owner William Lue contacted the Express last week with the news that he has already secured a new location for his restaurant. He has signed a lease to reopen the restaurant in Jack London Square, at the 2,500-square-foot former Hahn's Hibachi spot (63 Jack London Sq., Oakland), which had been vacant for the past year and a half.

If all goes well, Lue hopes the resurrected Grocery Cafe (he hasn't decided yet whether he'll change the name) will open for business in the early spring.

Lue wound up closing the original Grocery Cafe just a few weeks after the Express reported that the restaurant had been shut down by the Alameda County health department, and that prospects for reopening were dampened by the likelihood that the building would require upgrades in order to comply with fire code. Indeed, Lue said that renovating the old space would easily have cost upwards of $100,000, so he cut his losses and moved on.

As luck would have it, one of the executives at the CIM development group, which owns many of the buildings in Jack London Square, had been a regular customer at Grocery Cafe, and reached out to Lue with a deal he couldn't refuse: Lue said he wound up signing a nine-month "pop-up" lease for the Hahn's space that includes two months free rent and an option to sign a  five-year extension on the lease at the end of the trial period.

In almost every respect, the space itself should be an upgrade from the old Grocery Cafe, Lue said. It'll seat about a hundred diners inside, plus another 24 on the patio outside. And while Lue had toyed with the idea of installing a barbecue grill at his old location, the Hahn's kitchen comes with charcoal grills already installed, so the restaurant will be able to offer Burmese grilled-meat skewers on a regular basis.

He plans to serve loose-leaf teas from Fabula Tea and coffee from the Emeryville-based Ubuntu Coffee Cooperative and, eventually, to obtain a beer and wine license. Eventually, he hopes to launch Sunday brunch service that will coincide with the nearby Jack London Square farmers' market. And while the fancier digs will necessitate some adjustments, Lue promised that he "won't raise the food prices too high. Maybe a buck or so."

Lue said the larger kitchen also means he'll be able to regularly offer some of the more unusual — and, to the Western palate, stinkier — items that he'd started experimenting with before he had to close down: fresh durian, alligator stew ("like pork spareribs") with pickled mango chutney, and a kind of bean called dogfruit, which he pickles and serves with belachan (shrimp paste) for dipping.

There's little doubt that the new Grocery Cafe will be the only place in Jack London Square, and maybe all of Oakland, serving all of that.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

East Bay Coffee Shops Are Helping to Lead the Resistance

As the Trump administration attacks marginalized groups, socially conscious cafes aim to provide a safe space.

by Rayanne Piaña
Tue, Feb 14, 2017 at 7:01 PM

Four weeks into a Trump administration that has clouded the political climate with anti-immigrant rhetoric and threats to marginalized communities, East Bay progressives are finding solidarity at an unexpected place: local coffee shops.

Whether by aiding refugee resettlement or combating the impacts of mass incarceration, more and more cafes are adopting some kind of social mission. In that way, sipping a good cup of coffee might be one of the simplest ways to contribute to the resistance.

Located near the UC Berkeley campus, 1951 Coffee Company (2410 Channing Way) uses its business as a platform to assist the resettlement of refugees through job training and employment, while also educating the surrounding community about refugee issues. For instance, two weeks ago, community members gathered at the cafe to write postcards to senators, urging them to push back against Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee executive orders.
Doug Hewitt, the company’s co-founder, was first introduced to refugee issues while working at a Starbucks during graduate school. There, Hewitt befriended a barista who shared his perilous story about fleeing Eritrea, sailing across the Mediterranean Sea, and eventually entering the United States as a refugee.

“[His story] opened my eyes up to an entire community of refugees living right here in the Bay Area that I didn’t know a lot about before,” Hewitt said. Shortly after, he began volunteering for the International Rescue Committee in Oakland, where he would meet Rachel Taber, 1951’s eventual co-founder.

Since it opened in late January, the cafe has become a safe space for its refugee employees to meet and become a part of the Berkeley community.

“Since we opened just a couple days before Trump’s executive order, we found that people are coming in as a way of supporting refugees. We’ll overhear customers asking, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’” Taber said.

In Uptown Oakland, the Coffee Box (2327 Broadway), the shipping-container storefront for Red Bay Coffee, aims to promote diversity in the sourcing, roasting, and retail sides of the coffee industry by making sure its staff represents the community it serves. Founder Keba Konte’s team of employees is composed entirely of people of color, women, and the formerly incarcerated. And the Coffee Box’s business model of “radical” sharing gives 100 percent of retail profits to its employees, on top of their hourly wage.

Given the country’s current administration, Konte feels that his desire to promote inclusivity, equity, and fair trade is more relevant than ever. One of Red Bay’s in-house coffee partners, Port of Mokha, focuses on developing coffee from Yemen — one of the seven Muslim-majority countries Trump attempted to ban in his recent executive order.

“It’s hitting home, right here in our coffee house,” Konte said. “We stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and we’re going to keep doing the work we’ve been doing for the last twelve years.”

Just down the street from The Coffee Box is Tertulia Coffee and Sanchez Contemporary (1951 Telegraph Ave., Oakland), where Tim and Maria Sanchez have combined their passions for coffee and art to create a combined cafe and art gallery that combats displacement by preserving the cultural legacy of Bay Area Latinx/Chicanx artists and other artists of color.

The gallery has showcased work by artists ranging from pioneering Chicana artists, including Ester Hernandez and Patricia Rodriguez, to 6th–12th grade students from Oakland School for the Arts. According to Sanchez, it’s important to give these young artists a safe space to have their voices heard.
“Art is medicine,” Sanchez said, “because it heals the artist when they’re creating a piece, and when they’re ready to let it go, it can heal others.”

The list goes on. Hasta Muerte, another Latinx-owned cafe set to open in Oakland’s Fruitvale district early this year, will focus on providing space for people of color, queer folks, activists, and undocumented communities to share stories and stand together in solidarity. And in Antioch, John Krause, a former inmate at San Quentin State Prison, started Big House Beans with the goal of helping formerly incarcerated individuals by offering employment opportunities and supporting rehabilitation programs.

So, the question remains, why does coffee make such a fitting platform for social justice causes? According to Hewitt and Taber, it’s the conversational culture of cafes that make them a suitable space for critical dialogue and change.

“Cafes have always been a place where people gather for discussion,” Hewitt said. “Usually when [customers are] consuming something that’s pleasing, like a warm cup of coffee, it tends to open you up to conversation.”

As Red Bay Coffee’s Konte put it, “The Bay Area has a rich, dynamic legacy of activism and great culinary experiences. So anytime something is done that combines those things, it works for the community. That’s why you see these cafes coming up, and I predict you’re going to see a lot more of them — especially in today’s political climate.”

Back at 1951 Coffee, one customer, a UC Berkeley student named Anna, pointed at a wall where a large graphic outlined every step of the 17-year resettlement process that refugees undergo after being forced to flee their homeland. At the top was this statistic: “107,100 refugees were resettled by the UNHCR host nations in 2015. That’s 0.5 percent of the 20.3 million living as refugees.”

“I didn’t know about most of this,” she said. “And the way things are these days, I think we all need to know more so we can help more.”

“Is that why you came here?” I asked. “To learn how to help the cause?”

“Well, I came for the coffee. But I’m going to come back for the cause.”

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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Hayward's Dirty Bird Lounge Gets an Argentinian Facelift

Plus, Cambodian street noodles find a home in Emeryville.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Feb 7, 2017 at 7:00 PM

The old Dirty Bird Lounge was a neon-lit oasis in a vast expanse of barren lots on Hayward's Mission Boulevard. Now, the dive bar is moving into nicer digs in downtown Hayward, shedding some of its dive-bar trappings, and, for the first time, adding real food — i.e., more than chips and peanuts — to the menu.

The food comes courtesy of Argentinian chef Javier Sandes, whose empanadas are a fixture at several watering holes in Oakland. At Dirty Bird, Sandes' company, Javi's Cooking, will have full run of the kitchen, essentially operating as a permanent pop-up.

The revamped Dirty Bird will open for business on Wednesday, February 8.

Dirty Bird owner Aric Yeverino explained that the bar's old location is being torn down to make way for condos. But he said that even though the new, 5,000-square-foot bar at 926 B Street won't be quite as "divey" as the old Dirty Bird, he wants to make sure the place remains accessible to Hayward's diverse, blue-collar population: "You don't want to be charging an arm and a leg for cocktails." So, for instance, the price of well drinks will go up just a tick, from $5 to $6.

Meanwhile, Oaklanders might recall Sandes' last major gig at Mad Oak, the downtown Oakland bar where the chef ran an extended pop-up for ten months, selling Argentinian street-food-style sandwiches and empanadas until last spring. In keeping with the Argentinian style, the empanadas are baked (not fried), have a soft, chewy crust, and come with a little tub of Sandes' excellent, zippy chimichurri sauce. At Dirty Bird, Sandes will serve eight to ten different varieties, including the classic version with seasoned ground beef and pieces of green olive and hard-boiled egg. Sandes said he plans to run dinner specials on Tuesday nights — say, a ribeye steak dinner for something in the ballpark of $15–$18.

Eventually, Yeverino and Sandes plan to turn the bar's front lounge area into a small Latin cafe that will serve pastries and sandwiches during the day.

Readers who are familiar with Sandes' cooking may recall that he used to run a mobile food business that served Argentinian barbecue. In fact, one of his long-term dreams is to open a restaurant specializing in the Argentinian tradition of al asador-style outdoor grilling — whole animals splayed out on crucifix-like racks and cooked over an open flame.

Alas, the Dirty Bird doesn't have the outdoor space for that kind of extreme grilling. But if you're hosting a big wedding or birthday celebration and want to hire a caterer to cook a few whole deer over a fire? Sandes wants you to know that he's your guy.

Mall Noodles Redux

When Nite Yun started her Nyum Bai pop-up series last year, her goal was to shine a light on aspects of Cambodia that not many people in the Bay Area know about — the country's legendary psychedelic rock scene, for instance, and, especially, its vibrant street-food culture.

Now, Yun will have her biggest platform yet: For at least the next six months, Nyum Bai will have its own stall in the revamped Emeryville Public Market food court. Reached by phone, Yun told the Express she had been keeping the news under wraps, but the food stand opened for business, semi-stealthily, on Fri., Feb. 3.

Nyum Bai's main focus is on three noodle soups, including kuy teav Phnom Penh, a pork and seafood rice-noodle soup that has been Yun's signature dish. The other two are kuy teav koh-ko (a beef stew served with egg noodles) and a vegetarian rice-noodle soup. Yun will also serve at least one rice plate, which she's calling Pork Nyum Bai — pan-fried pork with black pepper and a crispy egg served over coconut rice with a side of pork broth.

Yun said she's still working on some dessert offerings, as well as a list of rotating specials that won't be street food per se, but more along the lines of what she calls "Cambodian country food" — say, fish with green mango salad or a variety of stews.

"It's the food I grew up eating," Yun said.

As Inside Scoop first reported, the arrangement is for Yun to operate what the Public Market is calling its "turnkey pop-up stand" for six months, at which point she'll have the option to extend her stay for another six months or sign a long-term lease on a different stand in the food court. The idea is for the restaurant at the "turnkey" stand to rotate periodically, offering up-and-coming food businesses a relatively affordable foot in the door. (If you're entering through the Public Market's main entrance, the stall is located in the still-mostly-empty corridor to left, Yun said.)

Yun, who started her business with the help of San Francisco's La Cocina kitchen incubator, has said her ultimate dream is to open an intimate 40-seat diner where she can blast Cambodian pop music. This isn't quite that, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Once Nyum Bai finishes its soft-opening trial run, the restaurant will be open daily 11 a.m.–8 p.m.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

On the Closing of Hawker Fare

If James Syhabout’s pioneering Lao-Isaan eatery wasn’t safe, no restaurant in Oakland is.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Jan 31, 2017 at 8:00 PM

Restaurants close all the time. If you write about food for a living, that’s par for the course. Still, my jaw dropped when the news broke a couple of Fridays ago that the Uptown Oakland location of Hawker Fare was closing permanently. Its last day of business will be February 18.

The reason behind the decision is a tale as old as time: A group of investors bought the Webster Street building and are rumored to have plans to build housing on that block. Given the going commercial real estate rates in that neighborhood, chef-owner James Syhabout anticipated that his rent would likely more than double. He decided to get out before he was forced out.

You may have heard some version of the story of how Syhabout, a refugee kid who grew up in Oakland, trained under some of the world’s most famous chefs before returning to his hometown, where he opened Oakland’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, Commis, on Piedmont Avenue. But the real homecoming was when Syhabout took over the lease on his mother’s old Thai restaurant — which he reopened as Hawker Fare in May 2011. It’s the kind of story Oakland’s civic leaders like to tout as one of the city’s great successes.

So, if Hawker Fare can get displaced from Oakland, what hope do the little mom-and-pop restaurants without widespread critical acclaim and a Michelin pedigree have?

Part of my surprise also had to do with the personal connection I felt with the restaurant: I ate lunch at Hawker Fare on the day it opened and filed a blog post about the meal — one of the first bits of food writing I ever did for the Express. “You’ll eat well, and relatively cheaply,” I wrote. “And, if your experience is anything like ours, the smell of fish sauce will linger on your fingertips for hours afterward.”

Over the years, I watched the restaurant grow up from being a place that only sold crowd-pleasing rice bowls to one that pivoted, about three years ago, toward the fiery and funky Lao-Isaan family-style meals that Syhabout grew up eating. Suddenly, Hawker Fare became the place where many Oaklanders first learned how to eat sticky rice the proper Lao way, using it to scoop up the assorted larbs and chili dips with their hands. My Asian-American friends and I would marvel at the amount of daring you had to have to serve some of this stuff to the mainstream American dining public — the kind of food that many of us grew up on, but were scared to ever eat in front of our white friends for fear that we’d be teased.

And so, even though I’m neither Lao nor Thai, I felt some small sense of pride that a restaurant like Hawker Fare existed — not only that it existed, but that people seemed to like it as much as they did. It’s one of the reasons Hawker Fare was on a very short list of Oakland restaurants that I always recommended to out-of-town visitors. Almost without exception, they would report back that they loved it.
Of course, any sense of “safety” in the restaurant business is always an illusion. Popular restaurants close all the time; restaurants with name chefs close all the time. Still, it’s hard not to feel some sense of injustice to see the familiar pattern. When Hawker Fare opened, it was part of a wave of new restaurants that, along with the art galleries and the monthly First Friday festivities, helped make Uptown a cool and desirable place to live or set up a business. It certainly won’t be the last restaurant to get driven out, in part, by its own success.

“Money’s driving Oakland right now,” Syhabout said. “That’s going to trump all. What can you do?”

The newer San Francisco location of the restaurant will remain open. Eventually, Syhabout would like to open another restaurant like Hawker Fare in Oakland, but for now he said isn’t ready to start thinking along those lines. Instead, he’s focused on giving the Uptown Oakland shop a proper sendoff.  

“We should go down with guns blazing,” Syhabout said. He said he wanted to bring back some of the occasional specials he took off the menu because they were “too Lao” — because customers would complain about how stinky and intense-tasting they were. For these last two weeks of business, he’s thinking about putting a beef bile larb on the menu, and maybe some different whole-fish preparations.

“We’ll try to make a statement. It’ll be our closing statement, I guess.”

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

How to Eat Cheaply and Well at Oakland Restaurant Week

Our critic recommends his favorite prix-fixe deals for the promotion.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Jan 17, 2017 at 6:00 PM

It's that time of the year again: Oakland Restaurant Week, that annual bonanza for prix-fixe bargain lovers, will run from Thursday, January 19 to Sunday, January 29.

To drum up interest in the seventh edition of the promotion, the Visit Oakland tourism bureau, which organizes the week, is emphasizing a "Lucky Number Seven" theme, with related raffles and prize drawings. Otherwise, you know the deal: Participating restaurants will offer some combination of $20, $30, $40, and $50 lunch or dinner prix-fixe specials during the promotional period.

Berkeley will host its own restaurant week during the same eleven-day window of time, with 27 restaurants signed up to participate, offering a $20 lunch prix-fixe menu and/or a $25 or $30 dinner prix-fixe. You can browse those menus at BerkeleyRestaurantWeek.com.

Oakland, on the other hand, has around 100 participating restaurants this year — a large enough number that there are bound to be some duds. And it almost goes without saying, but my guiding principle is to recommend restaurants that I think readers would actually enjoy eating at, not just the ones offering the biggest discounts. After all, life is too short, and Oakland has too many amazing taco trucks, to waste time eating at a bad restaurant just to save $5 or $10.

So, as a service to you, my readers, I read through all of the Oakland Restaurant Week menus that have been posted online so far and culled a few of my favorites. All of them clock in at the $20 or $30 price point.

1. Many of my favorite deals are when a single $20 or $30 prix-fixe meal is meant to feed two people. Case in point: the $30 lunch or dinner prix-fixe at Curry Up Now (1745 San Pablo Ave.), the popular local chain/food truck that recently opened its first Oakland brick-and-mortar. That $30 will buy you an order of samosas, two of the restaurant's signature Indian-fusion burritos or bowls, and gulab jamun for dessert — a $34 value before you even factor in the two mango lassis or Kingfisher beers that come with the meal. (Update: Because the Uptown Oakland location's opening was delayed, Curry Up Now is no longer participating in Oakland Restaurant Week.)

2. Over in the Jack London District, Dragon Gate (300 Broadway) is offering prix-fixe family-style feasts at all four of the available price points for both lunch and dinner. Unless you're dining with a big group, though, I see no reason to order anything beyond the $20 prix-fixe, which starts with a soup of the day and finishes with three iconic Taiwanese dishes: grilled Taiwanese sausages (served, as is traditional, with raw garlic), Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken, and the best (and spiciest) Taiwanese beef noodle soup in town. All that should feed two diners comfortably, even if they have truly monstrous appetites.

3. The chief complaint that folks tend to have about Restaurant Week menus in general is that, in order to meet the prescribed price point, they offer very few choices and include none of the restaurant's best dishes. So you have to appreciate The Half Orange's (3340 E. 12th St. #11) approach this year, which is to offer a whopping seven different $20 preset lunch or dinner menus, each organized around a theme that makes some kind of culinary sense — e.g., "Nachos & Chili," or "Fried Chicken Two Ways," or "Cheese Upon Cheese." For an extra $3.80, you can upgrade the iced tea or lemonade that comes with the meal to a draft beer.   

4. Picán (2295 Broadway) remains one of Uptown Oakland's more expensive restaurants, which is why I homed in on its $20 three-course lunch prix-fixe, which offers diners a choice between "Bayou" and "Lowcountry" menus. Look: You get your money's worth based on the regular prices for the entrées alone — $20 for the braised short rib sandwich and $24 for the Gulf Coast "Pastalaya" (like a jambalaya with fideo pasta instead of rice).

5. Juhu Beach Club (5179 Telegraph Ave.) is running the same $20 dinner prix-fixe it ran last year, and it's just as good a deal now as it was before, especially if you choose the non-vegetarian entrée: the (delicious) Curryleaf Coriander Shrimp would normally cost you $23 all by itself.

6. Miss Ollie's (901 Washington St.) rounds out the list with a luxurious $30 prix-fixe that includes a welcome cocktail to start, a Caribbean rice porridge infused with sea egg (aka uni), braised oxtails, and cardamom-and-raisin bread pudding. It's hard to calculate exactly how good a deal that is, given that most of the dishes are seasonal offerings that only occasionally appear on the restaurant's regular menu. Maybe it's enough to say that, deal or no deal, this is the food I'd want to eat.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

AS B-Dama's Chicken Paitan Ramen Is the Perfect Antidote to Winter

For the noodle slurper who wants to go beyond tonkotsu.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Jan 3, 2017 at 6:00 PM

These chilly winter nights beg for bowls of hot noodle soup, but there's a certain sameness to the East Bay ramen scene — everyone doing their own take on the same handful of mostly pork-centric Japanese soup styles.

I was intrigued, then, to hear that AS B-Dama (907 Washington St., Oakland) is serving chicken paitan ramen, a style rarely seen in the East Bay, as a weeknight special.

Paitan translates as "white soup," and refers to the cloudy, milk-white broth that results from boiling the bejeezus out of a large quantity of bones at a high enough temperature so that all of the fats and collagens in the marrow and cartilage break down and emulsify into the broth. Tonkotsu ramen, which is made with pork bones, is the most well-known example of this style — indeed, tonkotsu is arguably the most popular style of ramen in the United States.

What you'll see less often is a chicken-based paitan ramen; in fact, the "White Bird" ramen at Shiba Ramen in Emeryville is the only other version I can recall eating in the East Bay.

The version AS B-Dama serves is a collaboration between chef Asuka Uchida and line cook Allan Wan, who worked at Oakland's Ramen Shop for three years before his current gig. Reached by phone, Wan explained that to make a chicken paitan, you take the same approach that you take with tonkotsu, simply substituting chicken bones and feet for the pork bones.

The result? A deeply flavorful soup that was rich and velvety in much the same manner as a tonkotsu ramen broth, but a little lighter on the palate, and less salty too. Still, on a warm day, the broth would almost be too heavy and intense to finish. On a recent rainy Thursday evening, it was exactly what I needed. (Wan said they'll likely switch to a different style of ramen once the spring and summer come around.)

The other components were also on point — the noodles perfectly springy, the yolk of the marinated soft-boiled egg cooked to just the right creamy consistency. Soft seaweed, bean sprouts, green onions, and a handful of raw greens provided the finishing touch.

Oh, and pork lovers need not fear. Even though the soup is entirely chicken-based, the paitan ramen comes with a thick slice of proper chashu (braised pork belly) — as soft and tender as any I've had, with a surprising prickle of citrusy yuzu kosho heat.

Apart from the unorthodox addition of yuzu kosho chili paste right before the chashu is added to the bowl, Wan explained that the pork owes its depth of flavor to one of Uchiko's guiding principles — to never, under almost any circumstance, cook with soy sauce. So, in a departure from the conventional wisdom, she braises the pork belly in sake and mirin (sweet rice wine), only adding the soy sauce to the braising liquid at the very end, and then allowing the cooked pork to marinate in the mixture.

The best part is that at just $12, this is one of the best bowls of ramen you'll find in the Bay Area — for a solidly middle-of-the-road price. AS B-Dama's chicken paitan ramen is available in limited quantities — about 25 bowls a night — Monday–Thursday during dinner hours (5–10 p.m.). Often, though, it will sell out by 7 or 8 p.m., Wan said. Make your plans accordingly.

Correction: The original version of this report misspelled chef Asuka Uchida's last name.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Where to Buy Christmas Tamales in the East Bay

Plus, a roundup of holiday desserts.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Dec 20, 2016 at 6:00 PM

Depending on your cultural background, staples for the winter holidays might include mulled cider, ugly sweaters, or Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. And in many parts of Mexico, and elsewhere in Latin America, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a huge steamer full of tamales.

Given Oakland's wealth of kick-ass Mexican food, it should come as no surprise that the city has numerous reputable tamalerias. Not every enterprising tamal cart has the capacity to crank out an entire holiday party's worth of husk-wrapped goodness at the drop of a dime, but several of the city's Mexican restaurants do. Here are three options to consider if you're trying to feed a crowd:

Tamaleria Azteca (5751 Market St., 510-200-3190)

Formerly known as Tamales Unicos de Cuernavaca, this no-frills takeout window has long been my go-to spot for everyday tamales. The tamaleria has gone through several management changes — Sergio Gomez, the owner as of the Express' most recent review, has departed; instead, someone who identified himself as Juan now appears to run the business. But through each incarnation, the tamales have remained excellent: light and fluffy, surprisingly spicy even without salsa, and probably 50 percent larger than your average street tamal to boot. The best part is the masa, which is extra-savory thanks to the addition of lard in all but the vegetarian versions.

Tamaleria Azteca sells pork, chicken, cheese, vegetable, and sweet corn tamales priced at $3 each, $5 for two, and $25 for a dozen. Call ahead at least two days in advance for large orders. Note that Tuesday, December 20 was the last day to put in your order if you want to pick up your tamales on Christmas Day.

Tamales La Oaxaqueña (2608 Market St., 510-501-3969)

If you would like to have mole in your tamales, you won't find a finer option than this tiny West Oakland tamaleria, which specializes in Oaxacan-style tamales. These are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks and often feature mole as part of the filling. For Christmas, Tamales La Oaxaqueña will offer three varieties of the banana-leaf-wrapped style (chicken or pork, both with mole rojo, plus a vegan option) and three of the more common corn-husk-wrapped variety (chicken with green salsa, pork with mole rojo, and a vegetarian cheese-and-poblano option). The only downside is that there's no bulk discount, and, at $4.50 a pop for the banana-leaf-wrapped tamales ($3.50 for the corn-husk variety), the bill can add up. That said, co-owner Carolina Santos said she's willing to work out a deal for huge orders. Give at least five days' notice for large orders, which means you should have called Tamales La Oaxaqueña, well, yesterday. The restaurant will be open for business as usual on December 24; on Christmas Day proper, it will probably only be open for customers picking up advance orders.

Cosecha (907 Washington St., 510-452-5900)

If you prefer Mexican food with a Californian sensibility, look no further than this Swan's Market standby, where chef Dominica Rice-Cisneros serves her handmade tamales as an occasional seasonal special. For the holidays this year, Cosecha is taking orders for banana-leaf-wrapped chicken mole tamales ($26 for a dozen), as well as regular braised-pork ($26) and green chile and cheese tamales ($24). Fill out an order form at least one day in advance. You can also add a salad platter, rice and beans, and other side dishes. Pickup days are every Thursday and Friday in December, which means the last day to pick up tamales before Christmas is Friday, December 23.

Take the Cake

The year is coming to one helluva rocky end, so you can be excused if you've been too preoccupied to finalize the dessert plans for your upcoming holiday party. Never fear, fellow procrastinator: Here are three East Bay spots that should have you covered, even at this eleventh hour.

I included the stellar mochi muffins from Sam's Patisserie (2080 Fourth St., Berkeley) in my "Best Bites of 2016" roundup (see p. 34), which are available in a nicely wrapped package of a dozen for $32. In addition, pastry chef Sam Butarbutar is offering a couple of more traditional European holiday treats: Viennese sable cookies ($20 for a dozen) and a classic panettone (Italian fruit cake) flavored with candied citrus and orange blossom water ($30, or two for $50). Order by phone (909-991-6268) or email (SamsPatisserie@gmail.com) by December 23 for pickup on the 24th or 25th at Butarbutar's wholesale bakery in Berkeley (located inside the Catahoula Coffee Co.) — or have your cakes delivered, locally, for a small charge.

In the realm of classic French desserts, Alameda's Crispian Bakery (1700 Park St.) is selling a chocolate Buche de Noël ($45), aka yule log, shaped traditionally like a log you might put in your fireplace and decorated with mushroom-shaped meringue. Crispian's version features layers of chocolate cream and raspberry jam on the inside. Crispian also has a version of croquembouche ($45) — choux pastry cream-puffs arranged to form a wreath, as a festive alternative to the more typical Christmas tree-shaped tower.

Finally, I have a soft spot for the German Christmas cake known as Stollen — particularly the not-too-sweet version at Gaumenkitzel (2121 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley), which offers two-pound ($25), one-pound ($15), and individual-portion mini ($6) versions of the cake. You can get the standard Dresden-style Stollen, which features almond, candied citrus, rum, and raisins, or hazelnut or poppy-seed versions as an alternative. According to chef Anja Voth, the best thing about the Stollen is that they'll keep for months in the fridge.

"The Stollen is like a good wine," Voth said. "The longer it sits, the better it gets."

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