Author Archives: Kate Williams

Burmese deliciousness at Rangoon Super Stars

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Most of us in the East Bay have a Burma Superstar story. Usually: a long wait, followed by a good or even memorable meal in a crowded dining room. A first taste of tea leaf salad. An exploration of flavors and textures surprising to a palate primed for sweet Thai dishes or numbing Sichuan flavor. But Burma Superstar is no longer the only game in town. Back in September, U Win Aye, the former executive chef of Rangoon Ruby and Burma Superstar, opened his first restaurant on a stark block of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Called what seems to be a portmanteau of his previous gigs, Rangoon Super Stars, the friendly restaurant is a fine antidote to all of those lines further down the road. … Continue reading »

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Mr. Espresso: A company with roots stays relevant

Di Ruocco Family (from L-R) Laura Zambrano (Sister), Alex Zambrano (Laura's husband), Marie-Francoise Di Ruocco (Mother), Carlo Di Ruocco (Father), Luigi, and John Di Ruocco (Brother).
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You may not know it, but it’s the coffee you drink at the Cheese Board, as well as Café Rouge, Saul’s Deli, Oliveto, Sweet Adeline Bakery, Picante, Lalime’s, Dopo, À Côte, Bette’s Ocean View Diner — and many other highly regarded and much loved Bay Area restaurants. It’s the coffee made by the Oakland-based Mr. Espresso.

I’m touring the Mr. Espresso factory in the hopes of understanding how this company, one of the oldest in the business, has managed to stay so successful while remaining relatively under the radar. Their oak-roasted beans are perhaps less attention-grabbing than their local third-wave counterparts like Blue Bottle, Bicycle and Flying Goat, but, unlike most Bay Area coffee start-ups, their coffee has roots.

The first thing Luigi DiRuocco, the vice-president of Mr. Espresso, says to me as I walk into the Mr. Espresso showroom is “Would you like some coffee?” It’s 2 p.m. — far later in the day than I, generally a non-coffee drinker, normally sip caffeine. We’re standing in a room filled with a playground of espresso machines, some new and practical like top-of-the line Faemas, and others decidedly less so: in one corner stands a giant Rube Goldberg-like gizmo that doesn’t make coffee, but it sure has its share of whirly-gigs, levers, and pulleys. … Continue reading »

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Bauman College grads boost local food community

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On Berkeley’s University Avenue, between Ninth and 10th streets, there is a small oasis of calm amid the honking cars and dollar stores. Tucked between the two imposing Premier Cru buildings is the Berkeley campus of Bauman College, a holistic nutrition and culinary school. It has sat quietly in this space since 2011 when it made the move from a small building on Grayson Street.

Both the college’s natural chef and nutrition consultant programs are certificate programs, and graduates are able to work as chefs and health educators in restaurants, hospitals or as consultants for small businesses. Other graduates go on to work as private nutrition consultants or private chefs.

Chances are good there’s a Bauman grad working nearby; they’ve spread across the Bay Area into myriad fields.
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Berkeley’s Iyasare: A game-changer for the East Bay

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One bite of Ocean Umami and I was hooked.

This dish, a highlight on the stellar menu at the new Iyasare on Berkeley’s Fourth street, is indicative of chef Shotaro Kamio’s intricate Japanese-American cuisine. Its appearance alone is stunning—each colorful element comes together into a bold, oceanic painting. Yet nothing feels arbitrary or decorative. This plate is artistic “tweezer food” at its best: a single bite brings forth the scent of the ocean and the rich, lingering flavor of seaweed. Tart umeboshi plum gel and salty bursts of soy-marinated ikura salmon roe provide a drumbeat of brightness to the tender, fresh scallops. Slivers of rich uni are matched with brilliantly green chive and extra-virgin olive oils. Pickled wasabi leaf and nori-infused ponzu ground the dish. Even after finishing off each individual orb of roe, I wanted to lick the plate clean. … Continue reading »

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Bakers, cooks, cakemakers thrive at Berkeley Kitchens

 

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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