Category Archives: Oakland

Hawking Bird, Oakland

Hawking Bird
4901 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609

A lot of Oaklanders were disheartened when James Syhabout’s acclaimed Hawker Fare in Oakland’s uptown area closed earlier this year to make way for more luxury condos and apartments. While you could go to his 2 Michelin star restaurant, Commis, on Piedmont Ave or venture to San Francisco’s Mission District to the remaining outpost of Hawker Fare, East Bay residents yearning for Syhabout’s taste for Northern Thai were waiting for a huge hole to be filled. Fortunately, Syhabout decided to create a fast casual concept called Hawking Bird focusing on Thai style poached and fried chicken.

Hawking Bird opened on Thursday, when, coincidentally enough, I was doing some research to see where my friends should eat for lunch on Saturday. Given the rave reviews of the Khao Mun Gai (Thai version of Hainanese Chinese Rice) at Hawker Fare, I was excited to try it out and it happened to be a short-ish walk from my house.

We met up a little after 12:30PM. There were still a good number of seats and tables available so I sat down and reserved a table for us. When my friends came over, we took a look at the menu quickly and stood in line to order. A few minutes later, our buzzers rang and we picked up our food at the pick up counter near the kitchen. We ordered the following:

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KMG at Hawking Bird

  • KMG – Hawking Bird’s version of khao mun gai is flavorful with chicken poached just to doneness (though a friend of mine who also ordered the dish feared it may have not been quite cooked through). The meat was tender and the subtle flavor helped the sauce shine through and meld perfectly. The rice itself had the flavor of the poached chicken broth that allowed it to be aromatic without being too rich and fatty. Overall, a pretty good rendition of the dish.
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The Hawking Bird with Garlic Noodles

  • The Hawking Bird, Boxed – 2 of my friends got the hawking bird, one with the rice cooked with chicken fat and the other with the garlic noodles. The difference between the hawking bird and the KMG, as you can see in the pictures, is that the hawking bird itself is fried with a spicy jam-like sauce on top. The chicken was fried perfectly and the jam gave it a slightly sweet and perfectly spicy kick to it. It melded well with the rice but the garlic noodles were even better. The garlic noodles were made with perfectly cooked wheat noodles that had a nice kick of garlic and a very savory soy-based sauce. My one slight quibble with it was that when I ate part of my friend’s leftovers, the sauce of the garlic noodles and the jam of the hawking bird could meld into a concoction that’s a tad bit salty. But otherwise, you can’t go wrong with either dish.
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Tum Style Spicy Picked Vegetables at Hawking Bird

  • Tum Style Spicy Vegetable Pickles – The vegetables included in the pickles were carrots, onions, and green beans. I liked the pickles in that it provided a nice slightly sour kick that helped cut the richness in the other bites of food I was eating. While there was a nice amount of fish sauce, unfortunately I didn’t feel it was very spicy so those who are excited about the “spicy” part of the name are warned before getting disappointed.
  • Fried Tater Tots – The tater tots were pretty good, though I think they could have been fried just a slight bit longer. The seasoning was nice and light and my friends and I surmised that the seasoning is a mixture of seaweed powder, salt, and pepper. It was definitely a hit amongst the table.

All in all I really loved the Hawking Bird and think it’s a good addition to Temescal, providing good food at reasonable prices in a fast casual style. They are still open for limited hours until they get a liquor license for the bar and everything else up and running. However, if you manage to be in the Temescal area for lunch, I definitely recommend taking a bite at Hawking Bird.

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Shiba Ramen’s Ramen, Ranked

Shiba Ramen
1438 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612

As I mentioned previously, I generally try to avoid reviewing another location of a restaurant I have previously reviewed. The two exceptions have been Din Tai Fung (to blog about the original Din Tai Fung versus the one in Glendale) and Tim Ho Wan (to blog about how its first US location in New York City compares to Hong Kong). I do this because chains, in general, vary little location to location. For instance, while the Alhambra location of Tasty Garden might be the best location, the Monterey Park, Westminster, and Irvine locations aren’t too far off in general.

That said, I felt compelled to write a blog post about Shiba Ramen’s second location in downtown Oakland, just across the street from my office. I felt compelled because of two reasons: 1) my review in Emeryville was of one item and felt a bit incomplete and 2) Shiba Ramen has become my favorite ramen place in Oakland. There is also one key difference between their two locations, the use of ceramic bowls in Oakland as opposed to melamine bowls in Emeryville. Ceramic bowls retain heat a little better, addressing the temperature issues I had in Emeryville.

But instead of a traditional review, I’ll do a countdown of all the bowls of ramen they sell, from least favorite to “best”. Of course, this is a highly subjective ranking so your mileage may very based on your taste. So without further ado…

8) Spicy Ramen – It’s not that the spicy ramen is a bad ramen, but I’m generally not a fan of ground pork in noodle soups and I don’t find the broth that spicy. I much prefer the original Sichuanese dan dan mian instead.

7) White Bird – The thickest and fattiest ramen broth of the group, the White Bird adds another level of rich flavor akin to the tonkotsu ramen that many Americans are used to seeing. That said, the rich fattiness quickly cools off, coagulating a little too quickly and not landing well after the first few slurps.

6) Summer Ramen (seasonal special) – The yuzu dressing is light and refreshing and the noodles are great. Unfortunately, I’m not quite a fan of the cold slices of cooked chashu and I’ve never really been a fan of raw tomatoes. That said, it is a great alternative to ramen broths on a hot summer day.

5) Miso – Less thick than the White Bird but still almost as rich, the miso is a very well rounded ramen broth. I love that there’s a lot of vegetables in the ramen as well. I’m just sad that the time consuming nature of the dish means that its generally only available during the evening service (after I leave work).

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Soymilk Ramen at Shiba Ramen

4) Soymilk – This is, without a doubt, the best vegetarian ramen broth I have ever had. The broth is rich and thick with flavor with a soymilk base wile being light enough to balance the various vegetables in the broth. In the summer the ramen is topped off with a grilled romanesco (during the winter they used kabocha squash) which provides something a little crunchy and hearty in place of a meat protein.

3) Clear – Shiba’s shio ramen is perfect in its simplicity. It’s clear and light which allows the pork, noodles, and menma to shine. While the lighter broth is great for when you are feeling less well, it’s lack of a little more umph means it doesn’t quite hit my number 1.

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Dry Ramen at Shiba Ramen

2) Dry – The tender chunks of pork with a little bit of the marinade and dressing mixes so well with ramen cooked perfectly. Honestly, it was almost my number one ramen from Shiba, but it’s definitely one of my go to ramens in Oakland

Clear Dark Ramen at Shiba Ramen

Clear Dark Ramen at Shiba Ramen

1) Clear Dark – The soy sauce base combines with the clear broth to make a shoyu ramen that is rich with umami but still light enough not to feel heavy. It is a perfectly balanced broth and Shiba adds to that with a few leaves of bok choy to complement to the chashu. The Clear Dark is absolutely wonderful and my top recommendation.

Regardless of what you order, however, it is unlikely you’ll be disappointed by your meal at Shiba Ramen. As a bonus, they have a bunch of appetizer items to whet your appetite include delicious chicken wings and lotus chips. If you’ve ever eaten at the Shiba Ramen in downtown Oakland, it’ll be easy to see why I enjoy it as an easy lunch spot.

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Tastee Steam Kitchen, Oakland

Tastee Steam Kitchen
329 11th Street
Oakland, CA 94607

On most workdays I travel to Oakland Chinatown for lunch since it’s a fairly short walk from my office and I can get lunch at a reasonably affordable prices. When I’m in Chinatown, I usually make it to the corner of 11th and Webster where I eat lunch at either Baby Cafe or Shooting Star Cafe for some classic, filling Hong Kong style cafe food. Over the last few months, though, I noticed signs for a new restaurant called Tastee Steam Kitchen.

Since I’m curious about any new Chinese restaurant in Oakland Chinatown, I took a look and was fascinated by a restaurant dedicated to “steam grilling”, which I had never heard before (and seems like a thing in Hong Kong?). I was intrigued, especially since it was opened by the same owners of Shooting Star Cafe, but the price seemed like a pricey hot pot so I decided to wait.

But then came its addition to Michael Bauer’s top 100 restaurants of the Bay Area and I felt compelled to finally go. My aunt was thinking about getting together for dinner too and I decided that it would be the perfect opportunity to try a new place out.

We went on a Thursday night and got seated right away. We carefully browsed the menu which was very similar to an ala carte hot pot place like Little Sheep. There was a list of congee bases you could choose from (the steam and the drippings from the cooked food combine with the congee base to create a congee at the end of the meal). Then there was a list of sauces you could choose for 25 cents each, in addition to the free soy sauce, vinegar, and hot chile oil they have on the table. Then there is a selection of meats, seafood, vegetables, and dim sum items you select to steam at your table. After looking at the menu, we ordered the following:

Marble Beef (before steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

Marble Beef (before steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

  • Marble Beef (肥牛) – Our first plate was marble beef that was steamed to just perfectly done. While thinly sliced, the fat in the beef help give the meat a nice, juicy flavor that matched well with the spicy soy sauce mixture I had. At $5, it was super cheap for the portion as well.
  • Egg Tofu with Ground Pork in XO Sauce (XO滑肉豆腐) – I think we were expecting more of a steam egg/meatloaf like dish but these pork meatloaf bits and tofu were nice, if less than exciting. The meat was juicy, though I was hoping for a little more spiciness and saltiness. It was hard to eat it together with the medium soft tofu. It was alright, if not exciting.
Snow Pea Leaves (after steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

Snow Pea Leaves (after steaming) at Tastee Steam Kitchen

  • Snow Pea Leaves 大豆苗 – I love pea leaves and when these were steaming, it was so great to smell the fragrant, nutty aroma. They were steamed perfectly, and the milder flavor helped absorb the sauces well. I do wish, however, that this came in between the meat dishes.
  • Lotus Root 蓮藕 – There was a LOT of lotus root so if you love lotus root, this is exceptionally good value. The lotus root probably could have used more steam to make it softer, but the crunch was still nice and made for a good vessel for the sauces.
  • Custard Bun 流沙包 – Finally, we ended the meal with a bun filled with runny custard. Like the other items, it was steamed and timed exactly right. The buns were oozing with delicious runny custard that was a perfect end to the meal.
Cordyceps Flower and Chicken Congee at the end

Cordyceps Flower and Chicken Congee at the end

Afterward we had the cordyceps flower and chicken congee. While the rice and chicken cooked beautifully with all that steam and water, the congee was a bit lacking in flavor. However, that’s likely due to the fact that we only had one dish that had major protein juice drippings to help flavor the congee. It probably would have been more flavorful if we got a seafood dish instead of a vegetable dish.

All in all, I liked Tastee Steam Kitchen though I do wish they alternated between cooking vegetables and meat instead of cooking meat at the beginning then vegetables. I’ll definitely have to go again and order more meat and seafood to see how it flavors the congee in the end. There is certainly a lot of potential to this new type of cooking that’s as healthy as hot pot with the ability to have everything perfectly cooked on a “grill”. I’ll just have to go a little bit more before I can confidently say it’s one of the best restuarants in the Bay.

 

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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.

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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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