When I tell people I’m going home for the holidays, I mean to say two things:
1. I’ve booked a flight to Los Angeles.
2. Once I’m in Los Angeles, I’ll get the Hell out and make tracks for the East Bay.
3. My appetite is expanding to Homeric proportions.
I’ll be the first to defend the city of angels against straw man haters, but when it comes to feeling at home, everything that gives me the will to open my eyes in the morning was born, raised and eaten in the Bay Area.
Chef Edwards’ BBQ – Downtown Oakland
Chef Edwards’ is my favorite barbecue joint in California. Zach, who introduced me to this pork smoking, sauce conquering, chittlin loving pit master, will have more to say about this at a future juncture – mostly because all I’m truly qualified to speak to is his hallmark menu item: The Piggly Wiggly sandwich.
The first time I had a Piggly Wiggly, Chef Edwards’ was a single counter hole in the wall on a dead block of downtown Oakland, one block from what is possibly the greatest Greyhound sign in the country. For four bucks and change I was handed a styrofoam container wrapped around a small sandwich bun. Between the pudgy slices of soft, processed white bread were thick slices of expertly smoked pork – the kind of barbecue that requires no sauce, but truly sings when smothered in John Edwards’ thick, spicy-sweet red and layered with his tangy, neon yellow vinegar slaw. Only in this memory can I say with pride that a sandwich birthed my taste buds.
As development dollars continued to trickle downtown, the good chef decided to invest in grander digs. When he resumed operations across the street from his old storefront, I returned for a Piggly Wiggly. It was served on a diner plate, and the bun had been replaced with uncharacteristic but delicious hunks of ciabatta. Every time I’ve sat down since for a Piggly Wiggly, its composition has changed to something less reminiscent of that moment of smoky clarity in 2005. Slices of pork crumbled into the more popular form of chopped pork, and size began to overtake flavor. When the chef’s sandwich hit my table last week, it could no longer be eaten by hand.
So: the Piggly Wiggly has proven itself mortal. This certainly doesn’t mean that Chef Edwards has lost his way – he does, after all, still serve the sandwich, engorged as it is, for $5.50 and allows no substitutions for that heavenly yellow slaw. As much as I wish for certain things to stay the same, I’d be a damn fool to turn my snout at what is still much more a signature than it is a trademark – my real problem is that a sandwich this weighty leaves no room for an order of beef ribs.
Jodie’s – Albany
No trip to the East Bay is worth putting on pants for unless it involves breakfast at Jodie’s, which, as my friends recently pointed out, is the closest thing we’ll get to our own Monk’s Restaurant (but with far more bacon). Boykji and I split a full plate of Something Different, and I ordered a Rookie special (two eggs country scrambled, bacon, two pancakes, English muffin and coffee) to round things out. Jodie, reveling in the weekend crowd, was as lively as ever, bustling to and fro with plates and silver as his son Charles commanded the kitchen.
Gioia Pizzeria – North Berkeley
There was no time for a pizza pub crawl this go around, but I’d been meaning to check out Gioia for years, so after a stint at Local 123 (where Flying Goat Coffee gives new context to the word “citrus”) we swung by for a couple slices.
Gioia and Pie in the Sky, still my favorite slice stop in Berkeley, both have a skilled finger on the pulse of the gourmet slice – not quite New York, not quite California and definitely not neopolitan, but affordable and altogether tasteful. While the crust of Gioia’s slice lacked complexity, it maintained a nice crisp all the way to the tip. The sauce here was distinctly tangy but sightly lacking in proportion to cheese, which – to be expected – was just bit heavier than it should have been. The quality and execution of toppings, which is make-or-break for this type of pizza, was superb – roasted mushrooms, parsley, spinach and garlic played point in a way that speaks well for the state of pizza in the Bay Area.
A simple Russian lunch at Zolushka/Cinderella, revolving around overpriced solyanka, fresh black bread, house-made kvas, and baked cabbage piroshki, was the meal I’d been looking forward to most in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the ghost of renovations past and Orthodox holidays present combined forces to present me with (yes):
ZOLUSHKA FAIL – Inner Richmond, San Francisco
Fortunately, not all was lost.
The bakery portion of the restaurant was still up and running, shipping fresh loaves of black bread all over the Bay Area.
Each of us purchased a loaf of the best bread I’ve ever had outside of Russia for $3.25. In the cosmic category of “things that don’t fuck around,” Zolushka’s black bread has Galactus eating soiled chunks of shitty asteroid for breakfast. The crust seems hermetically sealed, shining with a sustaining crunch. The inside of the loaf, however, is a savory Slavic handshake between hearty and fluffy. Entire eras have patiently outlasted history thanks to bread like this. Tragically, bread like this starts to go bad in less than twelve hours, so if you ever find yourself in possession of a loaf, freeze it before the crust goes soft and the insides dry out.
Being stranded in the Richmond is a far more bountiful conundrum than being stranded in a Las Vegas strip mall. We decisively walked up to Clement St. and made our way over to another restaurant I’d been meaning to visit for years:
Burma Superstar – Inner Richmond, San Francisco
Burma Superstar may not refer to John Rambo, but it is a massive hit with many a Bay Area eater, including two food bloggers I know and love. Spices! and Spices!2 were both tempting barriers to Burmese entry, but after suffering Lotus of Siam Fail, an upping of the Southeast ante took precedence over any “Bandit Style” nostalgia.
Our table, seven strong, started off with vegetarian samusa soup, an exemplary bowl of subdued spices simmering in a deep brown South Asian curry. Chunks of fried samosa and other smatterings of legume and grain granted just the right level of heartiness for a soup meant to prime the appetite. The platha, a layered and fried paratha-like pancake, was a bit of a rip-off at $3, but it was admittedly a glory to consume.
Eyes darted quickly to the lettuce cups, which threw tiny cubes of pork, pickled radish, carrots, water chestnuts and spices into the frying pan to emerge as a hot, crunchy, crispy, juicy, savory stuffing for fresh leaves of romaine. Tea leaf salad, the herald of the appetizer menu, handily one-upped the lettuce cups with a rainbow of citrus, garlic, and of course tea, the brute forces of which were forced to play nice by crisp lettuce leaves and the inclusion of peanuts.
Pea shoots “stir fried with wine and garlic” + “staff favorite” = Yes! I question the sanity of anyone who sees pea shoots on a menu and doesn’t order them. Flanking that vegetable was the Vegetable Curry Deluxe, a somewhat tangy, tomato-infused red curry mix of everything good under the sun (though not everything included was seasonal). I don’t know much about Burmese cuisine, but like most of the dishes we tried at Burma Superstar, this one was a nicely understated kaleidoscope of ingredients that found all the right intersections of flavor.
Fiery tofu with lamb exemplified the subtle “sweet heat” connection in many B-S*’s dishes that really makes me reconsider the volcano-blasting of a good Thai meal. This dish was also a highlight because it treated bean curd as a partner to, not substitute for or distraction from, meat. Thick slices of dark bean curd, interspersed with shreds of slightly chewy, slightly crunchy, well done lamb – unlike my love life – proved that a lack of game can indeed yield victory. Stir fried with crisp string beans, bell pepper slices and some well roasted red chiles, the combo wasn’t fiery, but it was the superstar of my day.
Braised pork belly with mustard greens: Beautifully conceived, immaculately executed, but in the end only delicious by default. I know this outcome to be inevitable, yet I can never say no to a new offering of pork belly. Our final choice, bun tay kauswer, was more joyful: A cousin of Thailand’s khao soi, this dish tosses soft flour noodles with a short order of different textures (in this case, split yellow pea, cabbage, eggs, fried onions and something that I swear was wonton) in a creamier-than-thou coconut curry. Rich but still noticeably light, these noodles were almost a palate cleanser after the hot and heavy stylings of our other entrees.
After lunch, we stood up. I think.
Then, we walked one block over to:
Green Apple Books – Inner Richmond – San Francisco, CA
This is one way in which I love San Francisco.
Dinner on my last night in Oakland merits its own post, so I’ll end this one with one way in which I love Berkeley.
Acme Bar – Berkeley, CA
After leaving the City, Tabak and I hung a left to Acme, an establishment that might be all dives to all people. I took the opportunity to reunite myself with a pint of Death and Taxes.
Nothing short of a man on the prowl, Nate got acquainted with a Sunday special called the Meatshake: a double-to-triple strength bloody mary, mixed with no shortage of brine and spice and topped off with pickled green beans, pickled olives, a pearl onion, and one slice of carne asada.
The shot of High Life on the side is more emblem than irony – live it up, not down, my friends.
902 Masonic Ave
Albany, CA 94706
1586 Hopkins St.
Berkeley, CA 94707
|Zolushka (Cinderella Cafe)
436 Balboa St.
San Francisco, CA 94118
309 Clement St.
San Francisco 94118
2115 San Pablo Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94702