Crispy Ginger Shrimp @ Huong Tra Restaurant, San Pablo Avenue, Richmond

Crispy Shrimp with Ginger and Onions.

Crispy Shrimp with Ginger and Onions.

There are lots of Vietnamese restaurants around the Bay Area, and quite frankly, finding a decent bowl of pho is far less daunting than trying to find a decent bowl of ramen. I’d also say that there is also a fair amount of banh mi to be had. But what about something beyond soup and sandwiches? For me, Huong Tra in Richmond is one of my favorite places to explore the other facets of Vietnamese cuisine.


Five-Spice Pork Shoulder @ China Village, Albany


Steamy goodness: The Five-Spice Pork Shoulder @ China Village, Albany

The photo for this entry may not do the size of the dish any justice: The five-spice pork shoulder at China Village is a massive chunk of flesh meant for at least two people (priced at $18.95), and the spoon at the upper right is actually the large serving variety. Alas, I consider the “serves two” caveat as a dare, especially when it comes to pork shoulder. I entered China Village on a mission to check this signature dish off of my Bay Area bucket list, and I was not disappointed.

China Village specializes in Szechuan cuisine and its other signature dish is probably the West Style Spicy Fish soup, which brings quite a bit more heat than Five-Spice Pork Shoulder (at China Village, the intensity of any dish can be increased upon request, so I’m basing this comparison on [… read more …]

The Katsu Curry @ Muracci’s Japanese Curry, Berkeley


The Katsu Curry @ Muracci’s: Panko-crusted pork cutlet, steamed rice, plenty of curry sauce, and of course, a sunny side egg added on.

When I used to live in West Los Angeles, I learned to take full advantage of the wonderful Japanese eateries that dotted Sawtelle Boulevard. Since I’ve left Southern California, the scene along Sawtelle only seems to have improved over the last 10 years, with some killer ramen shops now in the mix. I wish Tsujita and Daikokuya had been there during my post-collegiate years.

Back in the late 1990s, my favorite restaurants included Hide Sushi and Hurry Curry of Tokyo, the latter of which offered a terrific pork cutlet that became a weekly staple throughout my early 20s. I was thrilled to find something similar when I discovered Muracci’s in San Francisco several years back. The only problem was that Muracci’s was deep in the Financial District, which is probably [… read more …]

Al’s Chop Suey, Oakland Fruitvale, 1950s


In Oakland, East Fourteenth Street became known as International Boulevard in 1996, so the former home of Al’s Chop Suey is currently occupied by Canchola’s Restaurant.

I discovered an old menu for Al’s Chop Suey while visiting an antique shop in Berkeley this afternoon. I dig this sort of thing, especially since the idea of “chop suey” denotes a very specific period in American food culture, namely the mid-20th century. Several myths surround the origins of chop suey, which has been referenced in the United States as early as the 1880s. However, despite the many stories regarding the genesis of this dish, chop suey was most likely inspired by the Cantonese dish “tsap seui” (meaning miscellaneous leftovers, according to Wikipedia). These days, it’s easy to dismiss chop suey as a Chinese-American bastardization, but I still regard this dish as an important gateway to Chinese cuisine. We had to start somewhere.

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The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga


The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga. Served with huckleberry sauce and pine nuts.

In my experience, people from Napa tend to discuss Calistoga with an air of levity. Is this fair? I’m not sure, but there may be a few reasons for this attitude. Perhaps it’s mainly because Calistoga has remained somewhat rustic, despite the tourism boom that seems to have affected the rest of the valley. Or maybe it’s because Calistoga is the very last stop to the north before you cross from Napa County over into Sonoma County (surprisingly enough, Calistoga is actually two miles closer to Healdsburg than it is to the City of Napa, which says quite a bit about our geography).

As the culinary centerpiece of Solage Resort & Spa, Calistoga’s Solbar is easily the town’s finest restaurant, having maintained its Michelin star since 2009. Though Solbar can easily be overlooked because [… read more …]

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Tadamasa, Union City


Tonkotsu Ramen @ Tadamasa, Union City.

I could be wrong, but I believe that my visit to Tamadasa last week might’ve been the first time that I’ve ever set foot in Union City. To be honest, the entire Hayward-Fremont area of the East Bay remains kind of a blind spot for me. As many times as I’ve made the drive from Napa to San Jose, the 680 whisks me past Hayward and Fremont before it bends westward and drops me into Milpitas.

My reason for stopping through Union City was to taste the ramen at Tadamasa, which proved delicious, with its relatively light, very clean-tasting tonkotsu broth. Tadamasa offers a Sapporo-style ramen, which is typically heavy on the vegetables, though I still ordered chasu (roasted pork) with mine. I also noticed a miso-coconut broth on the menu, which I’m tempted to try on my [… read more …]

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Himawari, San Mateo


The Tonkotsu Ramen @ Himawari, San Mateo.

I’ll just cut to the chase. San Mateo boasts a quartet of reputable ramen shops: Ramen Dojo, Santa Ramen, Ramen Parlor, and Himawari. These are the four noodle joints that dominate the San Mateo landscape. Three of these restaurants (all but Himawari) are owned by the same chef, Kazunori Kobayashi, who launched his mini-empire with Santa back before ramen was a thing (the original Santa location was where Ramen Dojo is now).

In some ways, Kobayashi is what Thomas Keller is to Yountville, though that might be a stretch. I guess it all depends on how much you obsess over ramen. I enjoy it quite a bit, myself.

With Kobayashi quietly dominating the ramen landscape in San Mateo, Himawari is kind of the independent option in town, which is absolutely welcome. Even under the best circumstances, you don’t want all of your ramen [… read more …]

Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley


Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley. Before…

I was at a wedding on Sunday, and my lovely date was surprised to hear me mention that I wanted a cold beer. I realize that she’s only known me to drink wine thus far (which is always how it is in the beginning), but I do enjoy a cold beer, especially on a warm afternoon.

The groom at the wedding was a good friend of mine from our Martini House days. Back in 2007, the kitchen staff would habitually drink “Tecate Tea” after work: That’s a one-quart plastic deli filled with ice, a liberal squeeze of lemon and lime juice, and Tecate poured to the brim. It’s impossibly refreshing after a night in a sweltering kitchen.

A beer aficionado may criticize this whimsical concoction, perhaps the same way that a wine aficionado may sneer at sangria. But I don’t [… read more …]

The Kubideh @ Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House, Oakland Chinatown


The Kubideh @ Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House, Oakland Chinatown.

I might argue that the best restaurant in Oakland Chinatown isn’t actually Chinese, but is in fact, Afghan. I suppose that Afghan cuisine might be a tough sell in this political climate, especially since Afghanistan has been portrayed rather (shall we say) negatively in the Western media. Of course, the same exact thing can be said for Syria, or just about any other country in the Greater Middle East. It’s a shame that this region has become the epicenter of so much upheaval, although it’s hardly anything new. Religious wars have been waged in this area since the Crusades.

From a culinary standpoint, the Greater Middle East boasts tremendous historical importance as the site of the Silk Road, the earliest commercial link between Europe and Asia. Cities such as Kanduhar and Kabul occupied key positions on the Silk Road’s [… read more …]

The “Bay of Pigs” Cuban Sandwich @ Best Lil’ Porkhouse, San Rafael

The "Bay of Pigs" Cuban Sandwich @ Best Lil' Porkhouse, San Rafael.
Served with mac and cheese.

The “Bay of Pigs” Cuban Sandwich @ Best Lil’ Porkhouse, San Rafael. Served with mac and cheese.

Two people with normal appetites could probably split the “Bay of Pigs,” pictured above, and leave San Rafael’s Best Lil’ Porkhouse feeling plenty full. It’s an utterly massive sandwich, dense with pork, and although it may not boast as many ingredients as, say, the torta cubana at That’s It Market, the “Bay of Pigs” can certainly match its Mission counterpart pound for pound. BLP’s spin on this classic sandwich is its pulled pork, which accompanies the typical trio of ham, pickles, and melted Swiss. The pulled pork is abundant and delicious; the ham is sliced almost thick enough to be a steak; and the house-made pickles are substantial coins in their own right. Mustard and mayo are standard, and BLP offers four different varieties of house-made barbecue sauce. A side of [… read more …]