Archive for the ‘Places to Go: NoCal’ Category

Dim Sum Demystified

In Places to Go: NoCal on November 2, 2009 at 2:30 am

Just a quickie since I am back on the west coast this week and had brunch at Legendary Palace Dim Sum in Oakland’s Chinatown. I was very lucky that growing up, my mother demonstrated for us that you can always get what you want at a dim sum place, you just have to be willing to ASK. Don’t be meek or act intimidated just because everyone else seems to know what’s going on, eventually you will too. In the meantime, if you’re not quite a regular or want to gain a little dim sum independence, this little postcard set on flickr may help. They have pictures, ingredient descriptions and pronunciations for some of the most typical dim sum offerings. Worse case scenario, just hold up a card and pretend not to notice that the cart ladies are giggling at you.


Delicious Simplicity: Caffe 817

In Places to Go: NoCal on November 17, 2008 at 6:56 pm

I love a good morning at the farmer’s market. It’s not just because I’m a geek for fresh produce and proponent of buying directly from small farms, it’s also because there are often little preparPoached Eggs at Caffe 817ed food treasures to be sampled as well. Since you are surrounded by all the healthy, nutritious food you will eat all week, it also makes the malassadas (fried portugese donuts) at the Eastern Oahu market or the overstuffed breakfast burrito at the Santa Monica Promenade market seem like justified indulgences. Last week, we had the unexpected pleasure of breakfast at Caffe 817 in the midst of the Downtown Oakland farmer’s market.

Caffe 817 is nestled on one end of the market, and has a casual outdoor seating area that is the perfect place to land after strolling in our unseasonably warm November weather.  Their breakfast and lunch menu leans Italian, and they turn Illy coffee into widely heralded cappucinos and lattes. Though they are also known for their polenta-centered breakfasts, we opted for poached eggs with prosciutto and toast this time. Acme Bread in San Francisco supplies their bread and the harmony of a silky egg yolk with the rugged crust and crannies of the toast was wonderful. My latte was smooth and strong (brew strength in the Bay Area is a near sacred topic), topped with an airy but firm foam. Foam quality is not exactly a pressing social issue, but the chains just don’t turn out coffee like that most days and I really appreciated it. Small touches like that, combined with a menu that incorporates simple dishes with high-quality ingredients, made Caffe 817 a place we can imagine returning to again and again.img_0224

Tastes: Blackberry Cabernet Gelato

In Places to Go: NoCal on September 5, 2008 at 5:09 am

     When I lived in Houston, that bastion of heat and muggliness, there were some days that simply demanded gelato. You would think that in a place that hot and uncomfortable 325 days out of the year, there would be a lot of great icy treats. There were lovely raspadas and the local devotion to Amy’s ice cream, but otherwise, cool desserts were hard to come by. I considered myself blessed to live in the same neighborhood as a strangely out of the way Italian deli/specialty food store called Nundini. I bought a lot of unneccessary pancetta at Nundini, all as a cover for visiting the Gelato guy. An exuberant man in his early thirties, the Nundini Gelato guy greeted me every time I came in with a “My dear! You have to try this creation I came up with this morning!” What followed was typically a pure, silky, bliss: cucumber basil, pear chianti, prosecco raspeberry…heavenly. Gelati and sorbetti are ideally fresh, daily changing treats, based on whatever is beautiful and in season around the gelato maker. The vast majority of gelato made in the United States is pre-packaged and pre-flavored. While that can be good, nothing can replace the rare jewel that is a seasonal gelato case.

     For the past two weeks, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the taste of a sorbetto I had recently in Oakland. Tango Gelato’s Blackberry Cabernet made the pining for my Gelato guy in Houston a little less acute. In every spoonful, a range of flavors moved through my mouth, each with their own distinct personality. The tart sweetness of the blackberry asserts itself from the beginning and just when I began to wonder if this would be yet another one-note disappointment, the cabernet began to slowly unfurl. Suddenly the blackberry was tempered by an oak tone, slight vanilla and other signature cab notes.

    According to our scoop master, Tango Gelato prides itself on innovative flavors and a greater degree of freshness than most other U.S. gelato joints, though it’s not made fresh daily. Titling themselves an Argentinian style gelato establishment (Argentina hosts a large Italian diaspora, and consequently, lots of gelati), Tango nevertheless reaches into other corneres of the world for flavors including Thai Iced Tea , Olive Oil and Dulce De Leche Almond. I can only hope that someday soon, they look a little closer to home and try out a flavor based on a great Argentinian Malbec.

Blissful Day in the Bay: Act II: Afternoon Delights

In Places to Go: NoCal on August 17, 2008 at 11:40 pm

     Festivals present a beautiful trifecta of activities: widespread sampling, dining al fresco and a modicum of exercise as you wander from booth to booth, building an appetite for more. Cruising through one is a great way to pass an afternoon. Hitting two in the same day is like a happy dream.

     Our first stop after breakfast was the Pistahan Filipino Festival in Yerba Buena Gardens. Sure, there were other things beside the food, but one of the marquee events of the day was an Adobo Cook-off, so you can tell where the priorities were. A dozen different stands selling traditional Filipino dishes beckoned; pancit (stir-fried savory rice noodles), kuchinta and puto (steamed sweetened rice cakes) and halo-halo (literally “mix-mix;” shaved ice, ice cream, sweet coconut, corn, beans, leche flan and more all piled together in one glass). By the number of stands with signs claiming Pampanga’s/Bicol’s/Ilocos’ “BEST BARBECUE,” it was clear that the real deal was barbeque pork sticks. Our choice was the stand with the longest line; Pampanga’s Best #1 Barbeque. When the line is that long, either the food is really good, or there is something hilarious going on behind the counter that makes the wait worthwhile anyway.

     Pampanga’s Best #1 clearly falls into the former category. The tent had the happy buzz of a family operation, with the cook at the grill yelling directions to his nieces and nephews at the front counter while simultaneously asking his brother-in-law to grab more sauce. We walked away with paperboard trays of a few starchy sides and two 16-inch skewers heavy with aromatic, glistening meat. The bite-size chunks were a study in the harmony of contrasts. A salty and sweet soy sauce-based marinade makes the center of each piece juicy and savory, while the meticulously basted exterior is sticky with caramelized sugars and ribboned with crispy, slightly charred edges. Each bite transported me to childhood memories of the Philippines, dragging my grandmother over to the tiny street grills on the way home from piano lessons, begging for a stick just this once.

            Standing next to a family with young kids, I listened in on their discussion of the competing ice cream stands selling traditional flavors; mango, coconut, cheese and ube (sweetened purple yam). Straightening up from my hunched posture over the last of my barbeque, I wiped my hands (no finger-licking, that’s gross) and headed over to investigate.




            Since we had a blue sky with a cool breeze coming off the Bay (and a second round of Pampanga’s Best #1), we decided to walk the two miles to the Nihonmachi Street Fair in Japantown. This annual festival is a celebration of one of the oldest Asian-American community centers in the U.S. (Nihonmachi translates to “Japan Town”). J-town has thrived for over 100 years, despite the Japanese concentration camps of the mid-20th century and ever-rising real estate costs.

       Sprinkled in between the Japanese crafts, Asian-pride gear, and community organizations touting their services were a host of food stands selling predominantly Hawaiian food. Not surprising, since Hawaiian food is typically a blend of half a dozen cultural influences, including Japanese, and more specifically, Okinawan cuisine.    Meeting up with an old friend we hadn’t seen in a few years, we perused the stands. Kahlua pulled-pork sandwiches, plate lunches with pork tonkatsu and overstuffed maki sushi were all well represented. Since we had eaten our fair share of pig earlier in the day, we elected to buy a couple of handcrafted pints from the Kona Brewing Co. and sit at the long communal tables set up at one end of the street. I’m not exactly a big beer drinker, but it’s absolutely necessary in certain contexts: standing near our grill chatting with my husband, washing down crispy pumpkin tempura, and while sitting outdoors on a beautiful day as the sun goes down.

     I knew from previous encounters with Kona Brewing, a microbrewery based on the Big Island, that it’s pretty good beer. But sitting there, catching up and watching the teenagers preen and grandfathers walk by with perfect posture, my plastic cup of Pipeline Porter tasted like heavenly nectar. As the booth vendor poured my Pipeline, my friend remarked that it looked like it had the heft of an entire meal. Espresso-dark, with a creamy viscosity and latte-colored head, it had a bitter-sweet, almost chocolaty flavor and a slight coffee note at the end. Not your typical summer drink, but the definition of summer in San Francisco is also nuanced and unique, with afternoon highs hovering around 70 and crisp, fresh, ocean air. It was refreshing, with enough liquid sustenance to tide me over until dinner.  

            As I sipped and savored the last of the Pipeline’s velvety texture, we debated our dinner plans and the likelihood of getting tickets to the Giants game. Internally, I wondered if we should kibosh the whole thing and just get another pint.

Blissful Day in the Bay: Act I, The Eater’s Market

In Places to Go: NoCal on August 16, 2008 at 7:05 am

    After living away from the Bay Area for the last decade, every visit to San Francisco feels like a homecoming.  Gas and housing are astronomically priced, traffic jams crossing the 1 mile Bay bridge can take hours and most who don’t live here shake their heads in bemused wonder at the myriad legislation coming out of the gilded city hall. But this metropolis is a great city, composed of other small great cities. Public transportation makes the distinct communities of the East, South and North Bay a seamless blend of amazing neighborhoods. And everyone — from the Aunties in the East bay harassing fish monger delivery drivers for the freshest sea bream, to the macrobiotic-organic-NorthFace fleece crowd — cares about what they eat.  These are my people.


     The start to my perfect food day in San Francisco starts at the Ferry Plaza farmer’s market. Northern California farmer’s markets offer a brief insight into the communities that host them. The Vallejo Saturday market is always bustling, with Filipino and Chinese grandmothers pulling their wheeled shopping baskets up and down the steep street, trailing pea and mustard greens peeking out of their bags. The Davis market is popular with grad student families, hopping off their bikes to pick up local honey and dinner plate-sized sunflowers. The Ferry Plaza farmer’s market holds a special place, being at the heart of such a diverse community. Even though the market caters mostly to eaters with money to spend, there is a pull from the jewel tones of the fruit and vegetable stands that is universal. And, abundant free-sample trays from every producers’ best wares don’t hurt either.


            My morning began inside the ferry building with a drive-by oyster incident. After living on the Gulf Coast for a few years, feasting on succulent $5/dozen oysters every January and February, I was a bit skeptical about a cart selling huge Pacific oysters on the half shell in August. But hey, for a $1.50 a hit, why not.? Loading up my paper tray with two monsters and a squirt of lemon, I felt a new spring in my step. How often can you walk around and eat fresh, raw oysters… for breakfast? These weren’t necessarily the sweetest or most tender I’ve ever had, but the meat had a cool, chewy, slippery texture and just enough ocean flavor to inspire thoughts of coastal living.


             Reaching the restaurant tents outside, we had two main agenda items: a strong cup of coffee and some serious breakfast meat. The 20-person-deep line for the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. tent is a testament to what people will do for a deep, dark, individually brewed cup of coffee. That’s right, in the midst of the Saturday morning onslaught of shoppers and tourists, the Blue Bottle folks cheerfully line up a new brew for every single cup.  With classic Bay Area brew strength – dark, always very dark – this morning’s coffee was hearty with a nice bitterness mellowed by caramel flavors at the end. The perfect accompaniment to reward your long wait was laid out in a tray; complimentary (and sizable) hazelnut macaroons from the Miette confectioners. When you bite into the outer shell of Miette macaroons, you find the same joy as cracking through a delicate crème brulee surface with your spoon. Inside, the “cookie” and filling are sweet and sticky, with a nutty tone to cut the sugar rush. Normally, I believe in only taking your fair share, but I will admit that on this particular occasion, I made off with three.


    We ordered our main breakfasts from the bustling Rose Pistola tent. The French toast was well-flavored but suffered from the morning rush – not enough soaking time for the batter to fully penetrate the thick brioche. A plate of soft scrambled eggs with arugula and topped with a raft of crispy prosciutto was an elegant medley of textures and flavors. The arugula dotted through soft eggs injected a fresh peppery note, nicely contrasted by the salty crunch of the thick-sliced prosciutto.


            Miraculously finding a free bench (ok, we stalked a couple who looked like they were very close to getting up), we settled down to eat, sip and take in the sounds of the morning: Crunch, crunch (prosciutto). Dunk, dunk (macaroon). Can’t wait to hear lunch.