Author Archives: Kate Williams

Bakers, cooks, cakemakers thrive at Berkeley Kitchens

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This month, the final nails will be hammered into the walls of The Berkeley Kitchens, a revolutionary new hub for artisanal food manufacturing in West Berkeley. Conceptualized by local sculptor and real-estate developer Jonah Hendrickson, the building is home to some 15 local food businesses, from bakers to caterers, and everything in between.

[Take a tour of The Berkeley Kitchens in the slideshow above. Photos by Tracey Taylor]

Hendrickson didn’t intend to make his name building kitchens. His first development project was a collection of artist studios in West Oakland that has been home to the Shotgun Players, Oaklandish, and “all kinds of really neat people,” he said. … Continue reading »

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Kingston 11: Come for the party, stay for the chicken

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Kingston 11 is the perfect place for a party. Take one step into the expansive, friendly dining room of this new Jamaican restaurant in Uptown Oakland, and you’ll feel the warmth, the friendliness, and the smiles emanating from both diners and servers. The food that graces the tables is fun and deeply satisfying. Drinks are generous, and cheap to boot.

On a recent weeknight, there were at least three parties already in full swing. Tables of friends laughed over rounds of cocktails and bowls of hearty meat stews. Smaller groups of two and four were also peppered throughout the room, leaning closely to hear each other over the jovial din that encompassed the space. … Continue reading »

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Easy Creole: Fun, über-casual Cajun joint in Berkeley

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Despite the fact that the Ming’s Chinese Food sign still hangs proudly above the small storefront on the corner of Alcatraz and Martin Luther King, it’s clear that the restaurant is no longer selling stir-fries. Instead of take-out menus and lucky fish tanks, there’s now an array of Mardi Gras beads and hot sauce bottles lining the windowsill. A precociously dressed mannequin stands watch at the door. And several sandwich board signs line the sidewalks up and down the block directing passers-by to the one and only Easy Creole, the über casual restaurant that has been serving informal Louisiana cuisine in the former Ming’s space since last spring. … Continue reading »

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Albany’s China Village is still firing on all cylinders

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I’ll admit it. When I first moved to the Bay Area last summer, I was so overwhelmed by the abundance and variety of Chinese restaurants that I mostly avoided them. I frankly didn’t want to make the wrong choice in Oakland or San Francisco’s Chinatown and sit down at a table of anything less than stellar. Sure, I’ve made a few pilgrimages to hipper-than-thou Mission Chinese, enduring painfully long waits for a table for a taste of Danny Bowien’s famous dish of the moment. I like Mission Chinese just fine, but I figured there had to be a restaurant somewhere in the area where dining was less of an ordeal.

Turns out, the perfect spot was right under my nose. Unfortunately it wasn’t open yet.

At the time, East Bay diners more knowledgeable than I were eagerly waiting for the beloved Albany Szechuan restaurant, China Village, to re-open after a devastating fire in the spring of 2012. Famous for its merciless use of chilies and thoughtful, ingredient-driven menu, China Village has long been recognized as one of the strongest Szechuan restaurants in the Bay Area. I learned of the restaurant shortly after it re-opened in July, and have been eating there at least once a month since. … Continue reading »

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Homestead: Seasonal, effortless cooking done right

Homestead. Photo: Emilie Raguso
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The first thing I noticed when I sat down next to the long, open kitchen at Homestead was the abundance of women in the kitchen. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen four women running the line, let alone the gorgeous wood-fired oven here. Yes, co-owner Fred Sassen was expediting, but otherwise, the only men on staff that night were clearing tables or taking an occasional table order.

It was gratifying. With the exception of wonderfully fun Juhu Beach Club on Telegraph and crowd favorite Miss Ollie’s in Old Oakland, it feels like too many of the popular new East Bay restaurants are for those who like macho, dude-food. Ramen Shop, Hopscotch, Tribune Tavern, and (forthcoming) Box and Bells are all big, bold, loud.

Homestead is subtler in its detail, effortlessly melding California cuisine with Southern comfort and a scrappy, DIY ethos.

Owners Fred and Elizabeth Sassen opened their new restaurant in a prime location on Piedmont Avenue earlier this summer. The restaurant’s name pays homage to Elizabeth Sassen’s family’s plot of homesteaded land in Wyoming, and hints at their intent to produce everything from scratch. It’s not a particularly novel concept, but it can be a great one — as long as these house-made staples are made with care. … Continue reading »

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For the East Bay’s best taco trucks, head to Fruitvale

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Let’s get this clear off the bat: I am far from a taco connoisseur. Growing up in the Southeast, I was exposed to friendly Americanized Mexican joints on a regular basis, but these are more suitable for binging on super saucy cheese enchiladas than sampling an array of pork products wedged in a tortilla. So I’ve considered my year-plus in the East Bay as a gradual taco education, but I must also admit that my education has been stymied by my seclusion in North Berkeley.

Driving south to the Fruitvale area of Oakland (and its immediate surroundings) seemed like the best way to dive right in, but the area feels intimidating, especially to a newcomer. There are trucks on almost every block, each with their own personalities and specialties. Which are good, which are mediocre, and which are hidden gems? And perhaps the bigger question: are any of these taco trucks still relevant in this robust food truck age?

Over the course of three weeks, I visited the bustling Fruitvale district in search of the best tacos I could find. … Continue reading »

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Hutch: Hit-and-miss try at refined Southern cooking

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The South — as a concept, not just as a place — is not an easy image to conjure this far west of the Mississippi. Sure, one can hang romantic sepia-toned blurry photographs of a bygone place along an empty wall. One can serve moonshine juleps in ball jars, fry chicken in bacon grease, and ask obliging servers to speak as soft and slowly as a South Carolina debutante. But these appropriations mean little if the food tastes like it was made far away from the Mason-Dixon. And as a displaced Southerner, I tend to be picky once a restaurant declares itself Southern.

Most of these restaurants fall into one of two categories. They’ll either take the barbeque approach or else they’ll compose a hodgepodge menu of obvious classics. Hutch, the new Southern spot behind the Paramount in Uptown Oakland, takes the latter approach.

The menu consists of around 20 items organized at once by size and cooking style. There are snacks, raw bar items, appetizers, large plates from the grill, a few dishes made with grits, and a standalone regular special of Brunswick stew. On Sundays they serve a rotating prix-fixe three-course Sunday Supper menu whose mains seem to be chosen on a whim. There will be Memphis-style roast pork one week and a big spaghetti dinner the next. … Continue reading »

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Emilia’s pizza in Berkeley: Is it really to die for?

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In Berkeleyside Nosh’s regular “To Die For” column, Kate Williams looks at East Bay’s popular restaurants through the lens of a single, sought-after dish. Is the food is a bunch of hype, or is it in fact “to die for”?  

Pizza. The word inspires at once collective nods of approval and endless nit-picking. New York style or Neapolitan? Hipster or old-school? Coal or wood? Saucy or white? Deep dish or thin? Slices to-go or sliced at the table? One diner’s authentic experience is another’s blasphemy.

But amid the bickering, one thing most folks can agree on is that a well-made pizza (whatever that means) is a deeply satisfying experience. So satisfying, in fact, that many chefs have made it their life’s work to perfect their take on the form. These pizzaiolos create kitchen shrines to the trinity of dough, sauce, and cheese, and then ask customers to bend their own expectations of a pizzeria in order to churn out pies just so. … Continue reading »

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Swirl, sniff, slurp, swallow: Learning to taste olive oil

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In a small warehouse in West Berkeley, a group of experts meets two to four times a month to “swirl, sniff, slurp, and swallow.” The sensory taste panel is evaluating bottles of newly milled oils for the California Olive Oil Council, a trade association which has been based in the city since 1997.

The goal is to certify the California oils as genuine extra-virgin quality products. By the end of this tasting season, the group will have tested around 350 different oils.

These 24 astute tasters have been trained to pick out even the most minute and subtle defects (think: fermented and musty flavors) and attributes, like fruitiness and pungency, in each olive oil. In order to gain a COOC seal of approval, oils must be both defect-free and have a harmonious balance of positive attributes. And, despite what sounds like a test subject to the whims of human taste, the panel has proven to be reliable.

“The reason for the sensory [tasting] is that there is no good lab test that will come up with those attributes. So the humans, with their flaws, are the best tools,” said Nancy Ash, a taste panel leader.

With approximately 2.4 million gallons of olive oil produced between the months of October and January of this past year, it was another banner year for California extra-virgin olive oil. Not only has this bumper crop kept our shelves bursting with local oils, but it has also kept the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) quite busy. … Continue reading »

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To Die For: Banchan at Casserole House

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In Berkeleyside Nosh’s regular “To Die For” column, Kate Williams looks at East Bay’s popular restaurants through the lens of a single, sought-after dish. Is the food is a bunch of hype, or is is in fact “to die for?”  

Let’s get this out of the way first: Korean casseroles are nothing like American casseroles. The Korean dish, called junggol, is most similar to a Japanese hot pot. It consists of a rich broth filled with vegetables, kimchi, thick rice cakes, meat and seafood. Junggol is meant to be eaten family style, slowly, with small bowls of rice. Casserole House in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, serves several versions of junggol, the most adventurous of which contains beef intestines. But it is not the casseroles that earns the restaurant its most praise — or chagrin. Instead, it is talk of the banchan that dominates.

Any Korean restaurant worth their merit will bring out banchan, a series of small bites, to be eaten alongside the meal. Usually there will be a couple of versions of kimchi, steamed vegetables, a stir-fried dish or two, tofu, and, if you’re lucky, preserved fish of some kind. In the U.S. banchan is often presented as a free appetizer, but it can also be served at the same time as the main course and eaten as a collection of side dishes.

The word on the ‘nets was that Casserole House served not only one of the most abundant spreads of banchan, but also the best of its kind in the Korean strip running up and down Telegraph Avenue. In fact, most visitors claim the banchan to be the best part of the meal there, polishing off the many mini bowls even while leaving the casserole pot half full. … Continue reading »

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Good Eggs: The lazy (wo)man’s farmer’s market?

Full Belly Farm's spinach, beets, and dragon's tongue radishes ordered from Good Eggs. Photo: Kate Williams
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By now, many savvy local foodies in the Bay Area have heard of the website Good Eggs. Officially launched last July, the website aims to connect local farmers, ranchers, and food artisans to consumers by providing an Etsy-like online shopping and delivery service. Originally designed to allow small San Francisco-based producers to streamline their production and sales, the site expanded as of March 1 to offer groceries to anyone from the Peninsula to the East Bay to Marin.

Good Eggs holds high standards for their chosen food producers. Not only are they expected to sell organic and local products, they must provide transparency regarding their sourcing and/or growing practices to their consumers. According to Good Eggs, transparency between producer and consumer helps to strengthen relationships across the food community and to bolster the local food system. This, they believe is good for the environment and food politics as a whole. As they explain on their website: “We’re certain that better food is a means to a better world. As people get more of their food from local systems — systems built on caring for the land, the animals and the people in them — we believe that we’ll see real change.”

But these types of standards are nothing new in the enviro-conscious Bay Area, and much of the food found on Good Eggs’s site is also sold in farmers’ markets and grocery stores all around the Bay. For those of us living in the particularly rich food shopping mecca of the East Bay, the big question concerning Good Eggs is: Is the service worth it? Are the groceries that much better than what one could purchase at a moment’s notice from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, Monterey Market, The Local Butcher Shop, or Monterey Seafood Market? Is this service really just a lazy person’s chance to eat farm fresh veggies? … Continue reading »

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To Die For: Kao Kha Moo at Da Nang Krung-Thep

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Much of a restaurant’s popularity in this age of Yelp depends on fanatic online reviews and subsequent adoration of particular dishes. Sometimes these dishes actually reflect the essence of a restaurant’s identity, while other times they are simply too bold and nutty to ignore. In Berkeleyside Nosh’s regular “To Die For” column, Kate Williams looks at East Bay’s popular restaurants through the lens of a single, sought-after dish. Is the food is a bunch of hype, or is is in fact “to die for?”  

Da Nang’s bright red and yellow exterior is an attention hog. Even on a stretch of San Pablo Avenue replete with Thai, Vietnamese, and Laotian restaurants, it stands out. Places like White Lotus and Lao-Thai Kitchen seem to blend in to their surroundings with understated signs and quiet storefronts. On the other hand, Da Nang screams out to passers-by: “Eat here now.”

So eat at Da Nang we will. Once through the front door, Da Nang is more understated. Clean tables are adorned only with paper napkins, industrial silverware, and bottles of Sriracha. There are a few plants and a few pictures, but it is clear that inside Da Nang the food is the real attention grabber. … Continue reading »

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Food trucks expand to bricks and mortar

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Anyone who has had even a bite of a Fiveten Burger knows that Roland Robles, the proprietor and chef, knows more than a thing or two about slinging beef. His cheeseburgers are cooked to order and made with a signature blend of meat ground daily. There are at least three cheese options for melting over the hot patty (usually more), as well as a well-balanced array of toppings stacked together on a North Beach Baking Company bun. An overflowing basket of truffle tater tots sets the meal over-the-top — in a hot, crispy, and salty good way. But this is no fancy restaurant burger. Instead, Robles’ burgers are handed to customers through the window of a food truck.

Robles is banking on his many fans sticking with his burgers when he opens his first brick-and-mortar burger joint this year. The restaurant will be called Handlebar and is slated to open some time in the spring. While the location is still up in the air, the overarching plan is not. “The vibe we intend is a comfortable spot where you can just drop in and have some grub you’ll dig and a cold beverage of your preference. … Pretty much everybody likes a cold beer and a made to order burger,” he said. … Continue reading »

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