Monthly Archives: November 2015

No Car? Not a Problem – BART Pt.1

It’s no secret that the best Asian food in the United States, regardless of cuisine, is almost always in suburban areas that are only in reach with an automobile. Westminster, the San Gabriel Valley, Annandale, Milpitas; these are places that do not conjure up plentiful options of reliable and efficient mass transportation, especially be rail, even if they may have some of the best Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, or Filipino food you’ve ever had. However, that’s not to say that there is no good Asian food within walking distance of mass transit lines. After all, anyone who knows where good Chinese food is in New York City can direct you to take the 7 line all the way down to Main Street, where the sight and smell of food from all regions of China can overwhelm the senses.

Therefore, I challenged myself this Autumn to eat Asian food that is only accessible to mass transportation. In particular, I decided to take an adventure and go to every station along the Richmond-Millbrae Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) line, only eating at Asian food establishments within 15 minutes walking distance. This is part one of my travel-eating challenge, and for those who use BART to travel, I hope this can serve as a guide of where to go and what to eat even when you find yourself stranded in Daly City.

BART Map (Richmond-Millbrae line in Red), courtesy of Bay Area Rapid Transit

BART Map (Richmond-Millbrae line in Red), courtesy of Bay Area Rapid Transit

Peninsula

Part 1 of this series focuses on the cities on the San Francisco Peninsula south of the city and county of San Francisco. There are 5 stations on the Peninsula on the Richmond-Millbrae line: Millbrae, San Bruno, South San Francisco, Colma, and Daly City (San Francisco Airport is another peninsula stop, but on the San Francisco Airport-Pittsburg/Bay Point Line). I chose to start here first because it was the part of the line I was least familiar with and it meant that I could finish the series in the East Bay, where I live.

Millbrae

Dim Sum at Hong Kong Flower Lounge

Dim Sum at Hong Kong Flower Lounge

The start/end of the line in Millbrae brings a plethora of options. Millbrae has been a leading center of Chinese food in the Bay Area for a while, so it’s no surprise that there are dozens of Asian options to walk to from the station. One of the closest Asian restaurants to the station also happens to be one of the oldest: Hong Kong Flower Lounge where they serve good dim sum at lunch. Of the several dim sum/seafood palaces I’ve been to in Millbrae, Hong Kong Flower Lounge is probably my favorite.

Further up north on El Camino Real you can walk to Hot Pot Garden, which does all you can eat Cantonese hot pot, and Ben Tre, which does decent Vietnamese food at reasonably Bay Area prices. For dessert you can head to Honey Berry where you can have a light and fluffy roti bun. To note, all these restaurants are within just a 5 minute walk from the station.

If you want to head a little further out you can go to “downtown Millbrae” along Broadway. There you can find The Third Eye, an Indian and Himalayan restaurant with great reviews and Broadway Bistro, a Hong Kong style cafe that leans more toward Chinese style western cuisine with a number of steak and pork chop dinners to chose from. If for some reason none of these options tickles your fancy you can just walk to Safeway, where they have a dedicated produce section to Chinese vegetables like Chinese Broccoli and mustard greens. The dedicated section for Chinese greens is the surest sign of how Asian Millbrae is, and given the plethora of options you’ll never go hungry around this BART station.

Just 6 of the MANY Asian options around Millbrae!

Just 6 of the MANY Asian options around Millbrae!

San Bruno

Spam Masubi & Loco Moco at Jake's Hawaiian BBQ

Spam Masubi & Loco Moco at Jake’s Hawaiian BBQ

Of course, not all BART stops are created equal, especially in the more suburban areas. The next station up the line brings us to San Bruno, where there is no Asian food in walking distance aside from the options available at the Tanforan Mall, which has an entrance right in front of the BART station.

Now, just because it is a mall doesn’t necessarily mean it has bad Asian food. Yes, the mall has its Panda Express and Sarku Japan, serving all the Orange Chinese and Teriyaki Beef you can order. However, their is also a Jake’s Hawaiian BBQ in the mall, where I had a great spam masubi and a loco moco that made me feel like I was in Hawaii for a split second. At the same mall food court is probably the only BART accessible Jolibee where you can order Filipino fried chicken, sweet spaghetti, or pancit palabok for pennies on the dollar. It’s certainly not the best fast food, but it’s definitely different than all the other options you have there. If you want a more refined, sit down experience, however, you can go up the escalator to Saigon Cuisine which serves decent Vietnamese food.

South San Francisco

Pancit Bihon and Kare Kare at Max's of Manila

Pancit Bihon and Kare Kare at Max’s of Manila

Even though San Bruno may not have the best Asian options by BART, at least it has options. At South San Francisco you only have one: Max’s of Manila, which is a seemingly long 12 minute walk alongside the cars zipping down El Camino Real at 45+ miles per hour.

Max’s may be the only option, but it is a good one in my opinion. While I did not have their popular fried chicken, I did like their pancit bihon and kare kare, which has decently, but not overwhelmingly, fatty oxtail. If I had more money and more stomach room I would have tried the crispy pata or bangus, but I suppose this means I need to take another trip to South San Francisco soon!

Colma

While the sole option in South San Francisco is a good one, I can’t say the same about any of the options I tried in Colma. Disappointment was around every corner, from the Hawaiian Drive in that sold spam masubi with concerningly thick and gelatinous sauce to the OK Pho which served phở and egg rolls that were literally just “okay”. They were both lacking in much flavor or presence. 

However, I will say that I never did try Pampangas, the take out Filipino place near Hawaiian Drive In that unfortunately was only cash only. the food certainly smelled and looked delicious, and was the only Asian restaurant in the area that had something resembling a line.

Daly City

Mohinga and Rainbow Salad at Little Yangon

Mohinga and Rainbow Salad at Little Yangon

Colma may have a dearth of good options, but that certainly is not so for the last stop in the peninsula (and the end of the line during nights and Sundays). Daly City not only has a number of different options, but all of them are reasonably good as well.

My friend and I first stopped for lunch at Little Yangon, a Burmese place with good mohinga, a tasty but different rainbow salad (compared to other Burmese restaurants in the area) that had warm noodles and a nice, tangy sauce, and a refreshing faluda for dessert. Service was a bit slow, however, so be sure to be extra patient in the restaurant.

Given that Daly City has a large Filipino population, naturally you can find good Filipino food around with Maynila probably being the closest place to the station. While it’s bare bones, Maynila does decent lumpiang shanghai and chicken skewers, even if they are not to the level of Fil-Am cuisine (which is further afield and not as accessible).

For a mid-afternoon dessert my friend and I got some shaved snow with delicious “popping boba” at FrosTea. Like other modern boba shops, it had some board games for people to play, which was a nice way to end a round of eating and the first part of my Asian restaurant adventures on BART.

Shaved Snow at FrosTea

Shaved Snow at FrosTea

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Cinammon Tree, Oakland

Cinnamon Tree
708 Franklin Street
Oakland, CA 94607

Out of the ashes of the former Legendary Palace is the newly opened Cinnamon Tree. Like the former tenant in this space, Cinnamon Tree is a large Cantonese seafood house serving carts of dim sum at lunch and more upscale Cantonese seafood fare at dinner. Given that I liked eating dim sum at Legendary Palace before, with its decent dim sum at reasonable prices, I was excited for the new Cinnamon Tree to open up, bringing back neighborhood competition in the dim sum/seafood scene in Oakland Chinatown.

I went last week on a whim for lunch. I arrived at the restaurant a little after 1:15PM at the place was still bustling with business. Thankfully I was seated immediately and the carts started rolling by. Within a few minutes I got the following items:

Dim Sum items at Cinnamon Tree

Dim Sum items at Cinnamon Tree

  • Shrimp Dumpling – Pretty good overall with fresh shrimp and a wrapper that wasn’t too gummy or dry. Like the vast majority of dim sum places in America, however (even at great ones like Elite) there was too much filling for the wrapper meaning that the skin and filling got detached relatively easily. Also interesting was the use of medium size and baby shrimp.
  • Siu Mai w/ Crab Roe – These were alright with fresh wonton skins and a juicy pork filling. However, the filling was also a little denser than I liked making it too chewy, a sign that it was probably steaming in the cart too long
  • Bitter Melon and Shredded Chicken Rice Noodle Roll – Good news: I couldn’t taste much bitterness in the bitter melon! Bad news: It was likely because it was way overcooked steaming in the cart. While the rice noodles retained the moisture and texture well, the filling was overcooked, drying out, and unappetizing
Stir Fried Sweet Rice and Chinese Broccoli at Cinnamon Tree

Stir Fried Sweet Rice and Chinese Broccoli at Cinnamon Tree

  • Stir Fried Sweet Rice – That said, I did love the sticky rice which was steaming hot out of the kitchen and very flavorful with diced Chinese sausage, bits of egg, and diced mushrooms. Probably one of the best versions of this dish I’ve had.
  • Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce – The Chinese broccoli was blanched and lightly stir fried pretty well. The stalks were tender enough to chew on without being too soft. It was nice to have the oyster sauce on the side instead of the usual lumpy sauce mess when it’s drizzled on haphazardly at other places.

Service was nice and efficient. While some on Yelp talk about the lack of service, if anything I found some of the wait staff hawking dim sum to be a little too pushy. The chair covers were also a bit weird with a stretchy material that never allowed you to sit as properly or comfortably as you wanted in the chair.

All in all, however, I found Cinnamon Tree pretty decent. On the plus side are the larger and more innovative menu items than you would find at rival Peony a few blocks away. However, the continued use of carts instead of revamping into a menu order place means that items fresh out of the kitchen are done well but those sitting on carts are suffering from overcooking. It’s probably the clearest example to date from a restaurant on way menu ordered dim sum is preferable to the old cart style.

While the food can be hit or miss, I do find the opening of Cinnamon Tree to be a good thing overall. Competition against Peony is a good thing to hopefully make both restaurants better. Additionally the restaurant’s busy lunch services still shows that Oakland Chinatown is still vibrant, at least during the daytime hours.