Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Scouring the Oakland Coliseum for a Decent Meal

Plus kitchen fires take popular Chinese restaurants out of commission.

By Luke Tsai
Wed, May 23, 2012 at 4:00 AM

A couple weeks ago I headed over to the Coliseum to catch an A's game, taking advantage of the $2 ticket deal they have on Wednesdays. While I was there, I hoped to snag something decent to eat and, for the love of Billy Beane, I didn't want to pay "big-market" prices.

Alas, times are tough for fans looking for even an adequate meal at the ballpark. It's not just that options at the Aramark-run concessions stands are mostly limited to overcooked burgers, limp hot dogs, and sad little frozen pizzas. And it's not just that everything is overpriced.

No, the most depressing part was the overwhelming sameness of it all. Walking through the field-level "food court," I passed stand after indistinct stand — one that was only labeled "Heineken" sold French fries and popcorn chicken; another that was marked "Dreyer's Ice Cream" specialized in barbecue. There wasn't any rhyme or reason to any of it.

But the fact remained that I needed some lunch. So I ventured upstairs to the West Side Club for a glimpse of how the other half lives — you know, the other half that can afford tickets that cost more than $2. Here, the clientele gave off a genteel, white-collar vibe, and the overall atmosphere was reminiscent of a Holiday Inn lobby, complete with tinkly piano music. Along one wall were black-and-white photos of great moments in Oakland sports; on the other side were tables that overlooked the field, affording diners a view of the action below — to sit there, you need to eat at the Club's full-service restaurant.

Instead, I took my chances at Deli 215, a takeout counter whose advantages included the fact that the line was significantly shorter than the ones downstairs. The prices weren't cheap, but I figured I'd rather pay $9 for cold cuts than fork over a comparable amount for greasy mystery meat downstairs. I opted for the classy-sounding "Piedmont": a basic turkey sandwich. To round out my meal, I picked up an order of garlic fries ($6) downstairs.

The verdict? The fries were rubbery and stone-cold, having sat, pre-apportioned, for Lord knows how long. The chopped garlic was the kind that comes from a jar. But I won't lie; I ate about half of it — I'll eat anything that's smeared with enough garlic.

The sandwich was, above all else, dry. It featured the kind of turkey meat that turns straight to dust in your mouth. This was topped with lettuce, tomato, grayish pickled red onions, plasticky Swiss cheese, and an avocado spread. The spread sounded nice, but honestly, I couldn't taste it. My kingdom for a dollop of mayo.

Anyway, if you set Subway as your bar, you won't be too disappointed.

I went home reasonably sated and "only" $15 poorer, but determined to learn from my mistake: Next time I head to the ballpark, I'll pack a picnic.

Recovery Slow for Fire-Ravaged Chinese Restaurants

Did someone anger the gods of Chinese cookery? How else to explain the spate of kitchen fires that have knocked out three of the East Bay's better Chinese restaurants?

It started with the oft-overlooked L & L Chinese Seafood Restaurant (10140 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito), which had been one of my favorite spots for low-key dim sum (including some of the tastiest turnip cakes you'll find).

But in late February of last year, an employee accidentally locked himself inside the restaurant's walk-in freezer after he'd put a pot of oil on the stove. The subsequent fire destroyed the kitchen and shut L & L down indefinitely, according to El Cerrito Patch.

Next to get hit was longtime Berkeley fave Great China (2115 Kittredge St., Berkeley), purveyor of maybe the best Peking duck I've had on this side of the Pacific. In January — a couple days into the Chinese New Year, of all times — hot oil got into the restaurant's kitchen flue system and ignited, The Daily Cal reported. The Berkeley Fire Department got the flames under control, but not before extensive damage was sustained.

Finally, at China Village (1335 Solano Ave., Albany), Sichuan specialist extraordinaire, a fire started in March during the restaurant's semi-annual cleaning and degreasing of its kitchen.

All in all, it's been quite the series of unfortunate events, and the restaurants have been slow to recover. Though China Village had planned to reopen within weeks, the restaurant eventually put a message on its answering machine alluding to an extensive three- to four-month remodel. But Tien Yao, wife of chef-owner John Yao, told me that permit requirements by the health and building departments have pushed the project back even further. Now, a September re-opening is most likely, she said.

At L & L, an employee who answered the phone when I called last week said the restaurant planned to reopen by the end of June — after having been closed for well over a year.

Meanwhile, James Yu, Great China's wine guru and second-generation co-owner, is working as a manager at the nearby Revival Bar & Kitchen while his own restaurant is out of commission. Yu told me repairs haven't even begun — only design work. The problem is that the building itself is old and not up to code, and that needs to be addressed before construction can begin in earnest. 

Realistically, Yu said, Great China will likely reopen in the fall.

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