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

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

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

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 their default preparations). Both dishes are presented with a bit of table-side ceremony, with the tender pork shoulder arriving as one solid piece before it’s parsed into the broth with the aid of a serving spoon.

China Village’s Five-Spice Pork features a slight hint of sweetness that brings the dish into balance, and the sauce is garlicky, plentiful, and addicting. It not only elevates the pork, but the bok choy, and an otherwise-ordinary mound of steamed rice.

The Katsu Curry @ Muracci’s Japanese Curry, Berkeley

The Katsu Curry @ Muraccis 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 the least friendly part of the city for me to navigate.

Lo and behold, I’m in Berkeley a couple weeks ago, strolling among the crusties of Telegraph Avenue, when I spot the storefront for Muracci’s latest outpost. I felt like the restaurant gods were looking out for me. What a boon for the East Bay. Not only is Berkeley considerably easier to navigate than San Francisco, but the restaurant is also located between my two favorite record shops, and just one block from one of my very favorite bookstores.

Even better, Muracci’s of Berkeley boasts a much more spacious dining room than the original storefront, and this East Bay incarnation features table service, which proves to be a much more relaxing environment overall (the original San Francisco location is tiny, typically crowded, and take-out orders are the default option for FiDi workers).

• • •

A good friend of mine thinks that Japanese curry will be the next wave of Asian to cuisine to wash over America, once ramen loses some of its steam. I’ve considered this same theory on my own, but I’m not convinced that it’s that simple.  However, I do feel that there’s something about Japanese curry that could catch on here in America.

Although curry finds its true roots in India, curry was first introduced in Japan by the British Navy, and because of this association, curry was therefore considered a “Western” dish (and an example of yoshoku, the Japanese interpretation of Western cuisine).

In general, Japanese curry features a subtly sweet note that distinguishes it from its Indian counterpart, and it’s this inherent sweetness that may ultimately cater to the American palate. Whether or not Japanese curry is ready to become the next Big Deal, I’m at least thankful that it has finally arrived in the East Bay.

Al’s Chop Suey, Oakland Fruitvale, 1950s

Als 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.

I can’t find too many details about Al’s Chop Suey, but some googling does acknowledge that the people of East Oakland were once rather fond of this joint, which was located right across from the New Fruitvale Theater (the cinema burned down in 1968, and was ultimately demolished in 1979). The November 8, 1939 edition of the Oakland Tribune features an ad for the grand opening of Al’s Chop Suey, and the ad also mentions Benny Chin as the new proprietor. Oakland phone directories link Chin to restaurant well into the late 1960s, so Al’s Chop Suey was certainly a neighborhood staple for several decades.

I’m not sure how much the Al’s Chop Suey menu had changed over the years, but this particular version of the menu is divided into an American section and a Chinese section (the latter of which is pictured below). There are few clues as to the specific date of the menu, but the American section does offer a bottle of Coca-Cola for 10 cents, which makes me believe that it was probably from the 1950s.

• • •

Als Chop Suey, Oakland Fruitvale, 1950s

The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga

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 of its up-valley location, it certainly remains a destination worthy of the drive. All told, the distance from Napa to Calistoga is about 27 miles, but this jaunt through the heart of wine country can be a scenic and relaxing commute, so long as you remember to take the Silverado Trail.

As the road less traveled, “The Trail” features just one lone stop sign between Napa and Calistoga. Driving northbound, this stretch of single-lane road offers pastoral scenery, with the Vaca Mountains to the right and the beautiful valley floor to the left. (Conversely, if you take Highway 29 to Calistoga, you’ll still enjoy some great views, but you’ll have to deal with several stop lights in St. Helena, much lower speed limits through Oakville and Rutherford, and much more tasting room traffic in general.) However you decide to get to Solbar, a memorable plate of lemon ricotta pancakes will be the reward for your journey.

And if you’ve driven almost 30 miles just for breakfast, then you might as well add on a side of biscuits and gravy while you’re at it.

The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Tadamasa, Union City

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 return.

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Himawari, San Mateo

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 from the same chef, and Himawari proves noteworthy in its own right. The restaurant’s ace-in-the-hole is its steamed pork belly, a generous block of tasty pork that’s even more tender than tofu. Steamed pork belly is traditionally a Chinese preparation, so it’s appearance in a bowl of ramen is unique. Best of all, it’s a thoughtful contrast to the braised pork belly (also delicious).

Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley

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 ever want to party with those kinds of people.

If I’m in the East Bay and I happen to crave a fancier beer, then that’s my opportunity to visit Gaumankitzel in West Berkeley. I’m a fan of Gaumankitzel’s whole brezel and sausage concept, so I like to pair that little plate with a big, tall German bier.

The last time is visited Gaumankitzel, I stayed on for an early dinner of Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce, pictured above and below. Most of us will probably recognize this green “walnut sauce” as pesto, especially here in the Bay Area, where pestos were ubiquitous during the California Cuisine movement.

Although pesto originates in Northern Italy, Gaumankitzel’s substitution of walnuts for pine nuts offers a Germanic twist that works well for this dish. The spätzle’s prodigious nest of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is an even more literal (and more decadent) nod to Italy.

I wondered, foolishly, if perhaps there was TOO much cheese on this dish, but it actually melted into the fresh, house-made spätzle with terrific results. Now I’m wondering: Has pesto and Parmigiano-Reggiano been slowly infiltrating German cuisine all these years?  Or is this Italo-German mashup purely a Berkeley thing?

Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley

… and After: Spätzel with Herbed Walnut Sauce (Redux) @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley.

 

The Kubideh @ Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House, Oakland Chinatown

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 Southern Route, and the spoils of the spice trade are thus reflected in the Afghan cuisine. I’m a junkie for food history, so I may be somewhat biased in this regard, but I think that there’s something mesmerizing about these ancient flavor profiles, especially in the right hands.

To put it succinctly, Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House floors me every single time. I had a great meal there about a year ago, and my most recent visit last month was equally stellar. Back in June, I ordered Kamdesh’s kubideh, pictured above, and this deftly-seasoned ground beef kabab was succulent, sophisticated, and just an all-around pleasure to eat. Kamdesh’s fare may be the best Middle Eastern cuisine in the Bay Area, though I’m still on the case.

Like most entrees at Kamdesh, their kubideh comes standard with a generous portion of their “brown” rice, which is not to be discounted as some sort of flavorless health food. I wouldn’t send you down that road. Look closely, and you’ll notice that Kamdesh’s rice is actually basmati, which turns brown after it’s simmered in a rich, broth-based cooking liquid. This rice isn’t just some starchy afterthought, it’s serious sustenance.

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

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.

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 macaroni and cheese, garnished with minced bacon, ups the ante considerably.