Author Archives: Kate Williams

Farm Burger brings Southern flair to East Bay scene

Farm Burger did a popup grill serving burgers at the grand opening of Gilman District on xxx. Phot: courtesy Farm Burger
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Think the East Bay has its fair share of burger restaurants? Think again.

Starting early next month, West Berkeley will welcome the fifth location of Farm Burger, a grass-fed burger franchise from Atlanta, Georgia. Farm Burger will join Philz Coffee, Doughnut Dolly, and Whole Foods in the brand-new Gilman District development at 10th and Gilman.

Farm Burger started with a stroke of luck. Founders George Frangos and Jason Mann originally met when Frangos ran a reference check for one of Mann’s old employees. At the time, Mann was at the helm of the Athens, GA farm-to-table restaurant, Farm 255, and Frangos was managing restaurants in Atlanta, GA and Portsmouth, NH. After meeting, Mann hired Frangos to consult on his restaurant.

“He and I were just sitting around one day looking at the business model for his restaurant and we realized that what really sold were a lot of burgers,” said Frangos. “At one point I thought, ‘We should just open up a grass-fed burger place, raise all the cattle, and call it a day.’ The idea stuck with me.” … Continue reading »

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Tanya Holland: A soul food pioneer in West Oakland

Tanya Holland. Photo: Jody Horton
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You’d be hard-pressed to venture down Mandela Parkway late morning and not see a line tumbling out of Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen. Since its opening in 2008, the truly soulful West Oakland restaurant has garnered a loyal following. Some slip in for a cup of coffee soon after it opens its doors, others brave the long lines for a brunch of fried chicken and waffles, and still others come in for a late lunch of gumbo or pulled pork. There’s really not a bad choice on the menu.

Holland has been working in kitchens since she was in college at the University of Virginia, and she formalized her skills at a culinary school in France and with a stint at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. While her face may be familiar to some outside the Bay Area after a run on the Food Network’s “Melting Pot” television show, she is most well known here for her transformation of two small West Oakland storefronts — Brown Sugar Kitchen and San Pablo Avenue’s B-Side Barbecue. Holland has just released a new cookbook, Brown Sugar Kitchen: New-Style, Down-Home Recipes from Sweet West Oakland, and it’s chock full of recipes from both of her restaurants.

Berkeleyside NOSH sat down with Holland to learn more. You can meet Holland at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas, organized by Berkeleyside, on Oct. 24 and 25. (Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.) 

When did you land on the soul food concept?

When I was living in New York before I went to cooking school, I never really saw examples of soul food restaurants where the food and the room and the ambiance and the service all came together. I either felt like people would try to put their cuisine in sort of a high-end venue but it didn’t really deliver on all fronts, or else they’d serve their cuisine in a really low-end venue where people just went for the food, not caring about the service or the vibe. … Continue reading »

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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

tacos guadalajara carnitas and pollo 2
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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

Crawfish remoulade, fried green tomatoes, little gem lettuce
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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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