Author Archives: Kate Williams
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
The best time to visit Swan’s Marketplace is early on a sunny Friday afternoon. The Old Oakland Farmers’ Market will be in full swing, and 9th and Washington streets will be swarmed with shoppers, sellers and office workers taking a long lunch break. This usually quiet swath of downtown Oakland will teem with a vibrancy unknown since the construction of the 880 and 980 interstates.
Of course, this energy is only part of the reason to aim for Friday afternoons. Another is that the often-unending line at Cosecha will be mercifully shorter as many visitors will be distracted by the Roti Roti food cart and the roasted nuts tent. Many may scoff at the prices for a taste of the Cosecha tacos. Indeed, $4.00 to $5.00 is quite a steep charge for a single tortilla plus filling, but the quality of the ingredients and composition of each bite is why people are willing to pay it.
Friday’s special shrimp tacos are a prime example. Two shatteringly crisp fried wild shrimp intermingle atop a stately pile of cabbage slaw with a drizzle of brilliantly orange chipotle crema and a sliver of jalapeňo balancing on top. The single warm, slightly sweet house-made tortilla underneath is thick enough to support the fillings without coming close to ripping. There is no need for a double-layer here. This taco is a sight to behold, but a challenge to eat. The gigantic shrimp seem to require an un-hinged jaw with which to attack the taco in a reasonable bite. Tear it apart and eat it piece by piece, instead. … Continue reading »
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 our “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?”
One bite of Adesso’s prosciutto and any omnivore would be hooked. The first sensation is of the smooth, opulent fat melting on the tongue. Then the just-salty-enough pork hits, and the few bites it requires to consume the whisper thin slice are pure heaven. So it’s no wonder that when Adesso opened in 2009, the Piedmont Avenue wine and charcuterie bar was met with long lines and an abundance of praise. The brainchild of Dopo’s John Smulewitz and salumieri Chad Arnold, the bar was designed to function as a casual, free-spirited ode to cured meats of all kinds. Everyone, from the Chronicle’s Michael Bauer to the hordes of Yelperati, sang its praises. … Continue reading »
In the age of instant Internet fame, Wikipedia, and make-or-break online reviews, it is rare to find a truly obscure dining establishment. The Cameroonian pop-up and catering company A Taste of Africa is perhaps one of the few. Sure, it has had its share of press (East Bay Express visited this spring) and has a devoted (albeit small) Yelp following, but the restaurant remains a bit of an enigma. A Taste of Africa has only a meager Facebook page with no pictures; a rarely answered phone number and an address are its only paper trail. Few diners are familiar with the subtly flavored, gently stewed meat and vegetable dishes that make up the cuisine of Cameroon; indeed, many mislabel the food as Caribbean or Moroccan in their Yelp reviews. These visitors express delight and excitement at “discovering” a restaurant and chef who has, in fact, been feeding hungry diners for years. … Continue reading »
New restaurants are popping up like wildflowers in now hip Oakland neighborhoods like Temescal, Rockridge, and Uptown, and the foodie frenzy has descended on the city like a swarm of ravenous bees. But what many of these eaters forget is that Oakland has never lacked for good food, perhaps only Internet glamour. Tacos and barbeque are good bets for a taste of pre-hipster Oakland, but one of the best ways to eat in Oakland is a huge platter of soul food.
Arguably one of the few true American cooking styles, soul food is a multifaceted blend of cuisines borne in the Southeastern US. Most of the dishes one associates with soul food today could be traced directly to the resourcefulness of poverty-stricken slave cooking: pork scraps and fatback were used to flavor greens discarded from plantations and corn from the native soil. Ingredients like okra, sesame seeds, yams, and peanuts were introduced to the Southern American diet from direct imports from Africa, and techniques like alkalizing corn to make hominy grits were borrowed from the Native Americans scattered across the South. Frying in rendered lard was a cheap and easy method for cooking a filling meal, and it provided a convenient technique for preparing celebratory dishes like fried chicken when there was an abundance of food. … Continue reading »