Top Ten Under The Radar East Bay Eats
By: Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano, Design by Eli Myers
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
In 2007, Yoko and I started Umami Mart, an international food and drink blog. Umami Mart contributors, who live all over the world, share knowledge on subjects as wide-ranging as cocktails, baking, Japanese recipes, food packaging design, shochu, and beyond – all with a slant toward Japanese culture and cuisine.
Yoko and I both moved back to the Bay Area a few years ago – Yoko from Tokyo and myself from Brooklyn. We recently opened a brick-and-mortar shop in Oakland, which specializes in kitchen and barware from Japan, but our soulful discussions about food and drinks are updated on the blog daily.
Of course, we go out to eat a lot, but when we dine out, we gravitate toward the little-known mom and pop shops in the East Bay where we both live. For us, eating out is not just about satiating a craving (do we want noodles? spice? tacos?), but also about exploring new neighborhoods and diverse menus. This is the heart of the Umami Mart spirit – to keep alive the sense of discovery and adventure, especially when dining. And a sense of humor is always important when trying out new places. From Albany to the far reaches of Oakland, the East Bay is a hub of memorable, distinctive eateries that won’t burn a hole in your wallet, and will keep you coming back to try something new on the menu.
Incidentally, the original Umami Mart slogan was, “Everyone eats, let’s talk about it!” and to this day, that's just what we do – on the web, in the shop, everywhere.
In the heart of Berkeley’s “international district,” Indian restaurant Kabana has a new, more spacious outpost, only two blocks away from its original location. Chicken Tikka Masala is a favorite among diners here, but the Saag Paneer and lamb specials are also not-to-be-missed. With better lighting and more tables, the 1025 University spot is an upgrade, but the service is still nonchalant.
After a long search for the best xiao long bao (soup dumplings) in the East Bay, we finally found it at Shanghai Restaurant. Just a block away from Umami Mart in Old Oakland, this is where we go for a take-out lunch or afterwork meal. The juicy jewels of pork and broth are on the smaller side, but will certainly satisfy any XLB cravings without having to trek to the Outer Richmond in SF. The tall, friendly gentleman working here will surely convince you to order the fish soup with mustard greens and the Shanghai-sautéed shrimp. Check off all the treats on the smaller dim sum menu, where you can also find a great bowl of preserved vegetable and shredded pork noodle soup (a personal weakness).
To avoid the wait, eager diners of this El Cerrito sushi spot should try their luck on a weekday at 5:30 p.m. or at 8:30 p.m. The gorgeous sushi bar, designed by chef Aki-san himself, is as attractive as the nigiri that are placed on it. The simplicity of the menu and freshness of the ingredients are all part of the master sushi chef’s plan. And while the fish glistens, the otsumami (small plates) should not be an afterthought. In fact, one of the many sunomono (cucumber and wakame in a vinegar dressing) or the velvety ankimo (steamed monkfish liver) should be high on the priority list of things to order.
Cosecha is one of the best things Oakland has to offer any time of the year. With robust pieces of hominy and strips of chicken garnished with herbs and spices, Cosecha’s piping hot posole is a fitting remedy on a cold day. And the outdoor/indoor communal tables adorned with fresh flowers are inviting during the summer months, especially when there’s a fried shrimp taco special on the menu. After a satisfying meal, grabbing a pastry also made by chef Dominica Rice is advised – the lime cookie is especially memorable.
Under regular circumstances, the average diner would have very little patience for an establishment that has unpredictable service and inconsistent availability of its most popular dish: roasted chicken. But, the food at Zaki Kabob House brings diners back for more, over and over again. From the chicken livers to the lamb shawarma and the steak cut fries, this family business has some secrets that Albany should be very proud of hosting.
After a late night at work, we always head over to Kiraku, an izakaya joint in Berkeley for a nightcap and a light meal. We call ahead to make sure the kitchen is still open, and if it’s not too busy a table will be held for us. Once we get there, the menu is long but the ordering is easy – a bottle of shochu, an order of isobe age (fried fish cake),aburi mentai(seared spicy cod roe), some cold house-made tofu, a Popeye salad (spinach with parmesan and sautéed mushrooms), and the duck gyoza. If you’re lucky there will still be sashimi available from the special menu, and seasonal dishes like duck hot pot or the grilled beef tongue. The fries are a must, and we always finish the meal with the yaki udon (sautéed udon with basil sauce). Chef Daiki always walks around his restaurant to make sure everyone is eating well and having a good time – say hello and offer him a glass of sake.
Amidst the wild chaos of East Oakland, the sign for El Paisa on International Blvd. stands tall like a beacon in the night. Offerings include the requisite burritos and enormous quesadillas packed with piles of meat and cheese. But we come here for the tacos. The al pastor, lengua, and tripe are phenomenal (and cheap!), with all the fixins of cilantro and onions, raw and grilled. Ask for the Campechano taco, which is a mixture of the suadero (a thin cut of brisket) and chorizo. This combination will blow your mind. Add green salsa with caution – you have been forewarned.
Don’t be fooled by the frilly lace-and-flower-patterned wallpaper that adorns Sura’s spacious interiors – this place is the bee’s knees. This Korean spot on Telegraph in North Oakland has hand-pulled noodle specials every day, but the real prize is its tart, icy-cold naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in broth), piled high with sliced Asian pears and sprightly cucumbers. On a cold night, there is nothing more satisfying than a bowl of sundubu (hot tofu stew) and the kimchi al sotbap, a stone rice bowl filled with kimchi, beef, and generous spoonfuls of flying fish roe. Be patient, and let the rice crisp on the bottom before diving in.
Pho King delivers an excellent bowl of noodles on the long stretch of Vietnamese joints on International Blvd. The broth for pho has tantalizing hints of star anise and the bun bo hue is knee-deep in fish sauce umami. I always order the pho with beef balls and eye of round steak on the side, and all you rare steak nerds will be happy to discover that the steak gets its own piping hot broth bath for dipping. The imperial rolls are not as stellar as Pho Ao Sen’s down the street but the pho outshines any bowl in the area.
Good things come to those who wait. Closed for over a year due to a kitchen fire, China Village in Albany is set to reopen sometime next month (April 2013) – we hope. The menu is long and full of tongue-tingling dishes containing healthy doses of Sichuan peppers. The fish fillet in chili sauce is a perfect example of China Village’s offerings. Tender fish boiled in a bath of red Sichuan peppers – this soup is addictive. Rice is available for calming the fire. For lunch, the special spicy vegetable noodles dish is a mouthwatering tease with a spicy-sourness that will require many glasses of water.
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