Category Archives: Oakland

Baby Cafe, Oakland

Baby Cafe
358 11th Street
Oakland, CA 94607

Over the past couple months Oakland Chinatown has seen a small wave of new food retail spaces that seem to cater to Millennial urban professionals. While the majority of these new establishments are purveyors of boba, with four new boba shops in the past few months, the trend of new, hip eateries are spreading to Hong Kong style cafes (茶餐廳) as well.

The current leader of Hong Kong style cafes in Oakland Chinatown is Shooting Star Cafe, which has had a new glitzy vibe since it opened a decade ago. With its decor and decently made food, it has drawn a consistent crowd of diners, especially those who are young. However, with a change of ownership and a little bit of remodeling, formerly lackluster Hong Kong style cafes Cafe 88 and Yummy Guide have reopened with updated decor, better food, and higher prices, probably in hopes of gaining the business of young Chinese clientele that live and/or work around Oakland Chinatown.

Baby Cafe 2

New remodel for Baby Cafe

Baby Cafe is the restaurant that took over the old Yummy Guide space. Yummy Guide was previously a very basic Hong Kong style cafe known for its very inexpensive food. As some might guess, the food quality matched the low prices at Yummy Guide. When I saw that Baby Cafe opened in this spot, I was hopeful that the quality would be a bit better so I would have more decent options for lunch. Since it has opened I have been there twice, ordering the following:

Wonton and BBQ Pork Noodle Soup at Baby Cafe

Wonton and BBQ Pork Noodle Soup at Baby Cafe

  • Wonton and BBQ Pork Noodle Soup – The wontons were noticeably better than when they were at Yummy Guide, though still a bit pork heavy. The broth was light but still flavorful though the noodles were cooked a little too long in my opinion. The BBQ Pork slices were mostly moist and flavorful. Overall it was a solid lunch option at a reasonable price.
Hainanese Chicken Rice at Baby Cafe

Hainanese Chicken Rice at Baby Cafe

  • Hainanese Chicken Rice – A standard at Hong Kong style cafes, this version had pretty moist chicken that matched well with the ginger scallion sauce. Unfrotunately, the rice could have used a bit more chicken fat as it was fairly dry and lacking in flavor. At lunch, however, they did serve it with the soup of the day and a hot drink of your choice which made this a pretty reasonably lunch option.
  • Hong Kong Style Milk Tea – Of course, I had to try their Hong Kong style milk tea. Like most places they served the milk tea with evaporated milk. The milk tea was pretty good, though the tea was not a strong as Shooting Star Cafe.

All in all, my initial thoughts are that Baby Cafe is a lot better than the space’s former occupant. However, it’s still not at the level of Shooting Star Cafe. That being said, the quality is good enough and prices are slightly better to be a good alternative for Shooting Star Cafe. I look forward to more lunches at Baby Cafe and hope they continue to improve.

The Best Dim Sum In America (Part 1)

A little over a month ago, when I linked to my blog post on Red Egg on Facebook, I made a half-serious joke about how should I have a “dim sum bracket” akin to Nate Silver’s “Burrito Bracket” on his FiveThirtyEight site. The burrito bracket, as Silver explains, was born out of his love of burritos and his then-recent 2007 move to the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. He then started a food blog to document his search the best burrito in the neighborhood, NCAA March Madness style. However, his work for Baseball Prospectus and start of what would become FiveThirtyEight deferred his search in the middle of the bracket.

I was really captivated by Silver’s relaunch of the Burrito Bracket as a nationwide search to find out what was the “best” burrito in the country. Thus, I decided to actually launch my half-serious joke into a project to find the restaurant that serves the “best”  dim sum in the country (and when I mean dim sum, I mean the Cantonese style food and not others that may market itself as dim sum).

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Of course, I don’t have Silver’s access to staff journalists, researchers, or a veritable selection committee of food journalists and celebrity chefs. However, I did have access to public access to crowd sourcing restaurant review sites, Chowhound discussion forums, and the online publications of numerous rankings of dim sum from various metropolitan areas. So I started similar to how Silver started his revived Burrito Bracket – Yelp.

Yelp scores and numbers of reviews may be a decent baseline, but even Silver himself acknowledges the potential flaws in Yelp. Renown Chinese food eater David Chan goes even further to describe the flaws of Yelp when searching for Chinese restaurants. Thus, I decided factor in other websites in creating my rankings, most notably Urbanspoon. Urbanspoon isn’t without its own flaws, but its another crowd sourcing restaurant view site used nationwide and I thought it would help balance some of the downsides of using Yelp. In addition, I factored in “bonus points” for the number of times a restaurant had been ranked as part of a list of best dim sum places in a metropolitan areas in the last two years by a food journalist and/or Chowhound. No ranking system is perfect, of course, but I thought that might be the best way in having a relatively objective rating system.

Critiques of the rating system (and scores for that matter) will be saved for another post, however, as I want to talk about some initial findings that I think are pretty fascinating in their own right.

In my search for the restaurant serving the best dim sum in America, I did a lot of scouring to find all these restaurants. All in all, I found at least 494 restaurants serving dim sum across 57 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. I got to 57 by searching for dim sum restaurants in both the 50 largest cities in America and the 50 largest metropolitan areas as defined by the Census Bureau. Honolulu falls below 50 in both categories, but has a significant population of those identifying as a person with Chinese descent so I included it too. In total, these metro areas account for 85% of all American residents that identify as Chinese in the 2010 census.

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Afterward, I was curious to see the correlation between the amount of Chinese identified Americans in a metropolitan area and the amount of restaurants in the metropolitan area that serves dim sum. As you might think would be fairly logical, in general there is a pretty big correlation between the two. Using rudimentary and free statistics software by the website Alcula (as I don’t have access to SPSS, STATA, or other more sophisticated software), I found that the correlation coefficient between the two is pretty dramatic at 0.946 as you can see from the scatter plot above.

While that doesn’t come as much of a surprise, I was interested to see which metropolitan areas matched closest to the regression line and which were significant outliers. The two metropolitan areas that looked most in line were Washington, DC, at 13 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 106,721 Chinese people, and Dallas-Fort Worth, at 8 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 55,568 Chinese people. Beyond those two metropolitan areas, I would say a vast majority of the other metropolitan areas were pretty close to the region with just a few major outliers.

The few outliers, however, were pretty significant. The most significant outliers, in fact, looked to have a lot MORE restaurants serving dim sum than their Chinese population would otherwise suggest. The two biggest in this case were the San Francisco Bay Area, with 72 restaurants serving dim sum in an area with just 649,496 Chinese people, and Seattle, with 33 restaurants serving dim sum for an area with just 100,763 Chinese people. This can be explained by the fact that both cities retain significant numbers of people with ancestry from Guangdong Province and/or ties to Hong Kong. Furthermore, both cities not only retain a significant and vibrant Chinatown filled with Cantonese families, unlike their counterparts in places like Los Angeles or Washington, DC, but they also have suburban areas with a significant number of Cantonese families are restaurants, like Bellevue in Seattle and Millbrae in San Francisco.

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

In contrast to San Francisco and Seattle is New York City, which has only 53 restaurants serving dim sum in the metropolitan area that is home to 705,721 Chinese people. This can also be explained by Chinese immigration patterns as the predominant majority of Chinese people that have immigrated to New York since the Immigration Act of 1965 have been from non-Cantonese areas of China, especially from Fujian, Taiwan, and Zhejiang. While the core of what most people see as Manhattan’s Chinatown is still predominantly Cantonese, it is dwarfed by Flushing’s much more diverse pan-Chinese Chinatown and is even smaller in land area than the Fujianese side of Manhattan Chinatown, just east of Bowery and along East Broadway.

Sacramento and San Diego also have less places serving dim sum as their Chinese populations would indicate. As a native San Diegan, my theory is that many Chinese families are willing to drive a couple hours to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, for their fix of really good dim sum on any given three day weekend.

Regardless, I feel the best finding in all my research is that in nearly every major metropolitan area of the United States, you won’t be far from a place that serves dim sum, most of them at least decent. Even in Albuquerque, with just a few thousand Chinese people, I’m never really more than a 20 minute drive from eating dim sum at Ming Dynasty.

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Burma Superstar, Oakland

Burma Superstar
4721 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609

Surprisingly, Burmese cuisine probably was the Southeast Asian cuisine I’m second most familiar to, after Vietnamese. It just so happens that a couple families that attended my childhood church were Burmese and periodically some iconic Burmese dishes were cooked for church functions. I didn’t realize this until I was older, but I’m nonetheless grateful for my accidental introduction to Burmese food.

So considering the numerous raves about Burma Superstar by my friends and family in the Bay Area, I decided to go out to Oakland and have one of my birthday weekend meals there. I met up with a friend as well, who was also generous enough to give me a ride back to Oakland International Airport.

After about a short 15 minute wait, we both were seated. It probably took us about another 10-15 minutes to browse the menu of many exciting and interesting dishes, all of which I wanted to try. Unfortunately, we were a table of two, so we had to limit ourselves to 3 dishes max, or risk a large bill and a huge amount of leftovers. I did know I absolutely wanted a bowl of Mohinga (catfish chowder noodle soup) so I could compare it to the home cooked Mohinga I had as a child. We then decided to order the Lettuce Cups, Mint Chicken, and a side of Coconut Rice as well. Much to the shock of a friend I latter sat next to on my flight back home, I did not order their famous Tea Leaf Salad – something I will hopefully rectify on my next trip to the Bay.

Lettuce Wraps

Lettuce Wraps

The food arrived another 15 minutes or so after we ordered. My thoughts below:

Mohinga (Fish Chowder Noodle Soup)

Mohinga (Fish Chowder Noodle Soup)

  • Lettuce Cups: Delicious filling though they could have more evenly mixed the preserved vegetables. The romaine lettuce “cups” were fresh with a good crisp
  • Mohinga: Great, pungent catfish flavor. Unfortunately they cut the noodles (to tailor to Western audiences?) which made the noodle part of the “noodle soup” to be much less enjoyable
  • Mint Chicken: I loved the flavors that the mint brought out in this dish. Unfortunately, I wish there was a little bit more rice to accompany it
  • Coconut RIce: Absolutely delicious flavor with a just perfect amount of coconut flavor that wasn’t too overpowering with sweetness. Wish there was more!
Mint Chicken

Mint Chicken

The service was okay. They did refill our glasses of water fairly consistently, but we did have to wait 10 minutes for them to bring out serving ware for our dishes. We definitely were able to manage, but it struck me as a little odd given the restaurant’s reputation.

All in all the food was cooked very well with complex, yet not too overwhelming, flavors I remember. The Mohinga, while being excellent in its own right, fell short of my admittedly lofty expectations. I’ll be honest, it probably was the fact that the noodles were cut and a little thick. But such small quibbles shouldn’t deter anyone from tasting excellent Burmese at Burma Superstar.

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