Try yakitori, empanadas, Vietnamese street food at The Crown’s new Saturday brunch series

Tori Man, a pop-up specializing in Japanese chicken skewers, has been appearing at The Crown's new Saturday brunch series. Photo: Benjamin Seto

On weekdays, from Tuesday through Friday, The Crown, Royal Coffee’s lab and tasting room in Oakland serves as a community hub for coffee professionals. Royal Coffee’s tasting room is open to all coffee lovers, but the specialty green coffee importer’s focus is education through tastings, classes and workshops.

But on Saturday, it has a little fun with a new chef collaboration series called “Brunch at The Crown.” Since July, a trio of rotating vendors has been popping up in front of the Uptown space. Until the series started, food was not a focus at The Crown, which opened in March. General manager Richard Sandlin explained the space was designed without food in mind because The Crown’s focus is on coffee, and only coffee.

“If we had wi-fi or comfy couches and flagship pastries, that would have complicated the message,” Sandlin said. “We’re not a coffee shop, we’re a tasting room. And we needed people to understand that.”

Now that The Crown has established itself, Sandlin said there’s a bit of room to expand on its community mission, helping to serve in a way as an incubator for new East Bay chefs.

Tori Man is one of the vendors in the “Brunch at The Crown” chef collaboration series.
Tori Man is one of the vendors in the “Brunch at The Crown” chef collaboration series. Photo: Benjamin Seto

“There’s a demand to do something fun and exciting,” he said. “Saturday, we can really let our hair down, open up our arms to the community, and what better way to do that than with delicious food?”

The participating vendors are a diverse group of chefs. There’s The Damel offering Sengalese-Brazilian empanadas and 3 Bottled Fish serving up Vietnamese street food fare. This past weekend, Nosh dropped in to check out Tori Man, a pop-up serving up Japanese yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and other izakaya fare. Tori Man comes from two employees of San Francisco’s lauded Japanese restaurant Rintaro.

Yuko Asaoka (a server at Rintaro) and Kaito Akimoto (one of Rintaro’s yakitori chefs) have been popping up together for about two years. At The Crown, they set up a grill — fueled by the high-heat Japanese charcoal known as binchotan — outside in a parklet-designated area. The skewer menu included chicken with green onions, chicken oysters, tsukune (chicken meatballs), and sansho pepper chicken thighs (priced at $4 to $5 per skewer).

Grilling yakitori skewers on a binchotan grill. Photo: Benjamin Seto
Tori Man chef Kaito Akimoto grills yakitori skewers on a binchotan grill. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Along with her Rintaro experience, Asaoka knows a lot about running an izakaya because her parents owned one in Hokkaido, Japan, where she grew up. For the pop-up, she supplements Akimoto’s yakitori skewers with a few of her favorite childhood food, including onigiri (rice balls), egg salad sandwiches and Japanese flan for dessert.

The skewers had a great char from the binchotan coals, and the quality of the ingredients is similar to those used at Rintaro because Akimoto sources from the same pasture-raised chicken purveyors. Asaoka’s egg salad was a classic Japanese rendition, but with a hint of citrus from the preserved lemon in the mayonnaise, and her egg custard flan in a jar had a silky texture like soft tofu.

The Crown’s Sandlin said the vendors have sold out each time they’ve popped up for Saturday brunch. Admission to the event is free and diners can RSVP on The Crown’s website or Eventbrite page. Although sign-up isn’t required, making a reservation helps the chefs know how much food to order and gives guests an opportunity to make a donation to the Grounds for Health charity, a Vermont-based organization that works to reduce cervical cancer among women in Latin America and Africa.

Sandlin said he’s hoping to expand the brunch series line-up, possibly adding a tea specialist and taco maker. The current vendor list is eclectic, and Sandlin admitted there’s no rhyme or reason for who The Crown decides to collaborate with.

“I think that’s what makes Oakland, and the greater Bay Area, so special,” he said. “That you can find these three innovative ideas, with chefs bringing their food to the masses in an approachable and exciting way in a community space like The Crown.”

The next “Brunch at The Crown” chef collaboration takes place Oct. 5 with The Damel. See more upcoming brunch events on the Crown’s events page.

Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.