Here’s my dilemma. I grok Banyan14’s spirit, like what the contemporary Thai and Vietnamese cafe brings to its scuffed patch of downtown Oakland, dig sitting in its earnestly clunky dining loft. Its two early-thirties owners cite street food as inspiration. But at each of three lunches, I’ve found myself craving more from the six-week-old restaurant—specifically, that electrified fusion of salty, sweet, sour, and hot flavors, the Day-Glo juice that runs through street noshes like green mango slices dipped in chili jam. Damn near overwhelmingly fishy and fusty.
The thing about describing your menu as Southeast Asian street food is that you set up expectations that what you’re dishing up is going to be vivid, maybe a tad funky or painfully spicy. To dust off a trope: fierce. Instead, Banyan14’s Thai Red Curry is mild as minestrone. Tasty, don’t get me wrong—chunks of sweet potato and winter squash, red peppers and mung sprouts, in a gently unctuous, pale-brick-colored coconut broth. You can add beef (among other proteins), as I did—turned out to be ultrathin shavings of flank, I think, stiffened into softly textural nibs.
It’s a nourishing curry, well cooked, and the individual elements all sparkled. But the curry itself was so clipped it left me frustrated, like when a head cold locks up your sinuses, except without even that slight burr of chile capable of penetrating even deadened taste sensors. Kind of like eating a Thai curry with your tongue sheathed in a condom.
So maybe I’m being dickish, demanding street-food verisimilitude 8,000 miles form Bangkok’s Yaowarat Road market. But there is an essential conflict within otherwise likable little Banyan14, whose aspirations are at least somewhat at odds with the food its owners think the clientele will tolerate. You can’t blame Lejla Borovacs and Amy Torgerson for making so reasonable a calculation. The restaurant sits smack across Fourteenth Street from the Oakland Federal Building. Is it wise to expose hapless bureaucrats to fierceness? To mark them with the aromas of garlic, fried shallot, and shrimp paste, then send them back to open cubes in windowless offices?
“We’ve taken some of the ingredients that not everybody is used to,” Borovacs told me by phone, “basically cleaned up the flavors, and adjusted them to the Western palate. They have to be subtle.” Thai food, really? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
Borovacs works the counter (it’s quick-serve: you order, find a table, wait for your food); Torgerson, who has experience in corporate catering, mans the range on the open kitchen line. This is a first venture for the partners, who have worked together in other restaurants (most recently at RNM in Lower Haight). A year and a half ago they trekked Thailand for inspiration, and last July they picked up the keys to the Fourteenth Street space (it’d been a chop suey place). Lacking a sizeable budget, Borovacs and Torgerson leaned on family and friends to help with the extensive buildout.
A whole lot of oriented strand board and VOC-free soy paints later, Banyan14 was born: kitchen and register corralled behind a pony wall clad in black pebbles, sneeze-guard scrim embedded with bamboolike grasses, and a dark, mod-looking dining loft with luminous pools of halogen. Borovacs and Torgerson source biodegradable takeout containers, say they use organic produce when possible, and buy only what they call “natural” meats and wild or responsibly farmed seafood.
Where dishes need to be exuberantly fresh, Torgerson shines. Though you might think JJ Market Lettuce Wraps are a reference to JJ Fish & Chicken (the wings-and-catfish joint three or so storefronts down), in fact the name pays homage to Bangkok’s mad Chatuchak Weekend Market, aka JJ. The make-your-own wraps are delicious—crisp leaves of butter lettuce, into which you bundle slices of cold grilled chicken, rice noodles, bean sprouts, and pickled carrots and radishes. The accompanying peanut sauce is just right: fluid, not Jif gunky, and with nicely restrained sweetness.
Likewise, Banyan14’s Mango Avocado Salad is cold and crunchy, playful in a way that seems to draw inspiration, not from Asia, but from California’s hippie heritage. Big squares of fruit, peppers and carrots, and a greens mix composed from scratch, its ginger-lime dressing punched up via toasted sesame oil and sugar.
Sesame Noodle Salad is sweet, too: Fine strands of soba in sweetened wasabi dressing, layered casually with baby spinach leaves and apple slices (on the day I tasted it they were Fujis, not the Granny Smiths of the menu description; but hey, what do you want from a place still finding its legs?). The kitchen had forgotten to toss in squares of grilled marinated tofu, another rookie error; when I told the food runner, she bounded downstairs, returning with a plate of the stuff, which was delicious. No harm, no foul—except with strands of house-candied ginger, which somehow clumped together in the tossing, yielding distracting sugary clusters.
The Vietnamese Sandwich, Banyan14’s take on banh mi, seems pointless—in nearby Chinatown, you can get a more satisfying version for a quarter of the price (though, granted, it’ll have been made from cheaper materials). You choose your filling from the specials board; the chicken version brings slices from a grilled breast on an authentic Viet roll, only its been smeared with basil-cashew pesto and sambal aioli. The results are hoagie-like: neither textural, vinegary, nor spicy enough to pack that refreshing little shimmer you get from a bite of proper banh mi.
I like Torgerson’s Pad Thai (with optional deep-fried tofu)—tangy tamarind-laced noodles, tossed with what happened to be the house vegetables of the day, a mix of bok choy and broccoli cooked long enough to coax out the latter’s cabbage-y richness.
In the same way, the kitchen handled the Grilled Fish of the Day (it happened to be mahi-mahi) with something like the mixture of confidence and balls-out blast of garlic and ginger reminiscent of, well, street food. Bathed in soy and lime juice, garnished with avocado slices and cilantro, the fish arrived with deep black grill marks—they made it taste, I don’t know, like something cooked on a little brazier in a market stall.
And here’s maybe the best part: I found myself burping up the garlicky memory of its marinade for the rest of the afternoon. “Damn,” my husband said when I got home, waving his hands as if he were swatting flies, escaping to the far side of the kitchen. “What do you want?” I said. “I had Thai food.”
Keep making people stinky, Banyan14—you just might pull it off. —John Birdsall
Banyan14. 57 Fourteenth St. (near Jefferson St.), Oakland. 510-251-2753; www.banyan14.com
The open-air former burger stand feels like an urban approximation of a seafood cocktel palapa on the Jalisco/Nayarit coast. Forget the crash of waves: Lunch here is likely to be accompanied by the sound of subwoofer-jacked bass tracks rattling license plates in the perpetually jammed parking lot. Tostada de ceviche camaron y pulpo—a rustic mess of shrimp and chewy octopus on a crisp fried tortilla—is just as lively. Those purple tentacles are everywhere: in the spiced-up, thinned-down tomato juice cocktail (topped with avocado and a raw oyster) called agua chile, and in Campechana, a slurpable cocktel with raw shrimp and a blast of lime and oregano. Take a pass on anything containing crab. Like the bootleg DVDs hawked by the guy bussing tables, it’s fake. —John Birdsall
Mariscos La Costa. 3625 International Blvd. (at 36th Ave.), Oakland. 510-533-9566.
You won’t get a more concentrated hit of Fruitvale than among the sprawling aisles of this supermarket, a local chain. Sunday is family day: young guys in suffocating suits and stiff fauxhawks, out-of-control kids snagging handfuls of free-sample chicharrones, grannies in lacy headscarves and mid-calf nylons—even the odd Romeo in lace-up pirate shirt. And while you’ll find ingredients to cater to diverse Central American constituencies—Salvadoran crema, quail for Michoacanos, and the quintessentially DF herb papalo—cooked foods at the Deli Mex counter skew Jalisco. Don’t expect fine cooking (everything’s calibrated for steam-table survival) but Jaliscense faves like chicken in red mole and the Lenten specialty tortitas de camaron (spongy shrimp cakes stewed with cactus) are rich and saucy, and the in-store panaderia’s capirotada (bread pudding) is fantastic. —John Birdsall
Mi Pueblo Food Center. 1630 High St. (at E. 17th St.), Oakland. 510-532-2654.
In his pueblito 60 miles from Guadalajara, Luis Abundis learned the art of nieve de garafa: ice cream churned via elbow grease alone, working a handheld paddle in a garafa (“carafe”) sunk in ice and salt. It’s an heirloom treat scarce even in Mexico, but Abundis is still wielding his artisan paddle in a corner of Fruitvale’s Transit Village, churning out seasonal flavors that conjure another world. That’s the case with beautifully unctuous avocado, ricotta-like queso, fresh corn with the sweetness of scraped cobs, and changos zamoranos, made with whey (and the odd curd) leftover from cheese making. The off-menu Jalisco drink tejuino is a puckery brew of lime, coarse salt, and fermented corn masa with a limon sorbet float. In summer, ask for tepache, a fermented pineapple cooler. —John Birdsall
Nieves Cinco de Mayo. 3340 E. 12th St., #2 (in the Fruitvale Public Market), Oakland. 510-533-6296.
Thousands of miles from Piggly Wiggly markets, Waffle Houses, and discussions about side meat, Southern cooking shows up through one of two restaurant filters. First, as African American nostalgia food—plenty of home-cooked earnestness without much culinary finesse. And second, as exaggerated vernacular—a corny repertoire of oversized, y’all-come-back-now set pieces with cartoon names: hoppin’ john, red-eye gravy, burgoo. An approach to the down-home table typical of Food Network star Paula Deen, where canned fruit, enough sugar to trigger type 2 diabetes, and Marshmallow Whip coalesce into monumentally scary dishes like Ambrosia.
But a place in West Oakland is managing something rare: a fusion of African American home-style and Southern regional, with the skill of an experienced chef with serious chops and an obvious eye. It makes you think of Bette’s Ocean View Diner on Fourth Street in Berkeley. Already, just over two months after it opened, it’s not hard to imagine Brown Sugar Kitchen (“BSK” from here on out) inspiring the stiff loyalty Bette’s enjoys. Chef and owner Tanya Holland calls the restaurant’s style “new-style down home.”
The restaurant is currently open for breakfast and lunch only—the owner says she wants to perfect those meals first. Holland hopes to begin offering regular supper club nights as a way of easing into dinner service.
Holland puts the lie to any fantasy you might harbor about sapping your 401(k) to launch that little dream bistro. The chef trained in France, cooked at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Manhattan, and designed a French and Creole fusion menu at Le Theater in downtown Berkeley. In 2003 she published a cookbook, New Soul Cooking, and bolstered it with TV appearances on Food Network. The idea for BSK took root when she drifted away from Le Theater in 2004.
“The day I left, one of my colleagues said I’ll invest in whatever you do,” Holland told me by phone recently. She put together a business plan and scoured locations, doing catering I the meantime. It wasn’t until last summer that the space on Mandela Parkway materialized as a real possibility. “It’s been a long journey,” Holland said.
Funny thing is, Holland ended up in a location not far from where she lives. Island Café was a jerk chicken joint at the industrial end of West Oakland, on a broad stretch where a portion of the Cypress freeway structure collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. But Island Café never seemed to be open, and after the business officially folded, Holland inquired about the squat space on the triangular lot. It’s near a forklift showroom and mod-looking new condo developments; inside, it was an all-but-untouched diner, complete with pots, a smoker out back, and a 15-seat counter with bolt-down stools. “Pretty much the only thing I’ve done is paint and buy two waffle makers.”
That last purchase was an inspired one: Holland’s cornmeal waffle and buttermilk fried chicken is simply the best version of the Harlem classic you’re likely to taste. Credit the waffle. Lacy and ethereal, if offers texture without hotcake bulk, like a proper crepe or dosa in a fat, multi-indented configuration—a very impressive achievement indeed. The fried chicken (a wing and thigh, when I tasted it) gets your attention for something other than its craggy breading. The flesh underneath is steeped in a marinade that perfumes it with herbs and blackening spices, and seems to keep the flesh lush and moist.
There’s a plug of brown sugar butter softening onto the waffle, and a side of apple cider, spiced and reduced to slightly tangy syrup (for an extra buck, you can upgrade to pure maple). It’s a dish that reveals Holland’s experience like a resume: an African American dish pulled off with an attention to flavor and technique that’s strictly French. A dish worthy of the late Southern chef and cookbook author Edna Lewis.
Other dishes show similar restraint, the kind of discipline many Southern cooks abandon in favor of regional caricature. BSK’s smoked chicken gumbo ignores fireworks for flavor. The delicately viscous broth balances the earthy burr of brown roux, with the subtly smoky taste of the chicken, and a stock I suspect began with shrimp and crab shells. It contains a hefty flotsam of picked chicken meat, thin okra slices, and a single large shrimp, dipped in cornmeal batter and deep-fried. This is a very grown up gumbo, miles from some spiced-up, showboatin’ New Orleans version.
Cajun meatloaf, a lunch special one day, was more about beef than any blast of bayou seasoning. The big slab of slightly coarse-textured meat actually seeped juices. And although a glaze of spicy ketchup established its Louisiana pedigree, its accompaniments were marvels of restraint: sauteed zucchini, and barely sweetened mashed yams—more like a satiny puree, as if it had been worked through a tamis, a fine French sieve.
A half rack of baby back ribs from the smoker out back were pinkish, plush, and only moderately smoky. The came scattered with a pineapple salsa whose elements had been meticulously diced. A po-boy sandwich of cornmeal-battered shrimp was tasty. With entrees, you get to pick a side. Black-eyed pea salad was remarkable for its legumes, which were thoroughly cooked but without the ubiquitous breakage. Cast-iron skillet cornbread was nicely unctuous.
Of course, the down side of Holland’s light touch is that some dishes seem, well, boring, despite—perhaps because of—their carefully controlled elements. A breakfast sandwich, a thin, flat omelet, cheddar, and either ham or bacon on a soft, whole-wheat bun, was in dire need of a spark. Red-skinned home fries seemed so engineered to avoid the pitfalls of short-order versions (greasiness, and the lingering funk from a crusty griddle), that they came off a tad sterile, despite caramelized onions and a drift of Cajun spices.
But hey, with French press coffee from Blue Bottle roasting company, perfect buttermilk biscuits, and fantastic baked goods from pastry chef Tinna Manansala, breakfast offers plenty of delights. In fact, Manansala alone should put BSK on the map. Her apple cake is a large-crumbed, cinnamon-scented monument to traditional American baking. And just as I was ready for dessert after lunch one day, a baked-that-morning sweet potato pie was deemed cool enough to cut. Its sweetness and spicing didn’t obscure the taste of its yams, and the crust was browned and crumbly even underneath the filling.
Without the slightest risk of inducing sugar shock, it was a slice of pie that could restore anyone’s faith in the Southern kitchen. —John Birdsall
Brown Sugar Kitchen. 2534 Mandela Parkway, Oakland, Calif. 510-839-SOUL (7685); brownsugarkitchen.com. Hours: Tue–Sun, 7:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.
Amazing how resilient the diner is. You can stack it with Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruitys and corporate shift managers with safety-pin nametags and it won’t die. You can blister Bisquick flapjacks on a crusty flattop reeking of onions, brew up watery Folgers in a wheezy percolator, and it won’t die. Nope, we go on loving our diners, even as we demand so little from them, not noticing or caring that they’ve been remade with the impure products of big-box America: frozen choco-chip cheesecakes and chemical whip topping, butter-flavor griddle fat and machine-extruded fries.
And yet, despite all we’ve done to help destroy them, diners abide, like the smell of stale grease in rubber kitchen floor mats. So when a single, small diner somehow manages to get it right — respects the genre but throws in a bit of original flavor, without smacking of forced or fancy — it’s a situation tangled up in awesomeness.
In early 2007, Rico Tiongco pulled the plug on mee krob and geared up to do what he’d always wanted: open a diner. Less than a year before, Tiongco opened Thai Corner (his first restaurant) in an elongated slot of a space in the heart of Oaksterdam. But running a Thai place kind of sucked; Tiongco’s heart wasn’t in it. “The first idea I had was a diner, but I didn’t listen to myself,” he says.
The 38-year-old self-taught chef has a knack for designing and making stuff. He’d already stripped the space down to a condition of slightly austere minimalism. With a buddy he tiled and welded cool glass-panel shelves. He commissioned mid-century-flavor chairs with square chrome legs and pebbly black nauga, chunky walnut tabletops, and mothball pendant lights. For the launch of Rico’s Diner, he tweaked the look with elements that suggested the 1950s and ’60s, the quintessential diner era: a wall of vintage-y auto license plates, and smart-aleck window graphics by San Francisco artist Brian Barneclo. There’s the whistling wiener Hot Diggity, and Burgerman, a squat, mustachioed sandwich flexing a sailor’s bicep to flaunt its “Mom” tat —Mad Men–era whimsy with a shot of skate-shop cool.
Barneclo, whose angular city-silhouette murals perk up the SF restaurant Nopa, creates the perfect frame for Tiongco’s cooking, which straddles retro and modern without breaking a sweat. Rico’s Diner manages to be classic without retreating behind self-conscious nostalgia in the style of Mel’s and Johnny Rockets. Yup, there are shakes (milky, thick, and — in the case of the beige-colored chocolate variety — aching with the corn-syrup sweetness of Hershey’s). Yup, there’s something called Mom’s Meat Loaf — there’s even an actual mom, Tiongco’s mother, Gina, who works the order counter with soft-spoken niceness. And yup, there’s Yankee Pot Roast, which is mouthwateringly salty and stringy, seeping dark, semi-gelid gravy.
And then there’s vegan Vietnamese banh mi. Say what?
Tiongco says he has lots of friends averse to munching on animals and their secretions. His three-page menu comes with a page-long annex of cruelty-free eats: tofu scramble and a soy-protein pulled “pork” sammy, among others.
That gentle-karma banh mi is deliciously fierce. Yeah, its tofu “chicken” is best quarantined within quotation marks, where the unsuspecting won’t stumble onto it by mistake. Wisely, the kitchen buries this stretchy, spongy protein under a stiff heap of tangy slaw, and (if you ask for it hot) searing slices of jalapeno that unleash a thrilling tide of cruelty on the tongue. The warm, toasted Acme torpedo roll makes it all feel comfortably diner, even more so if you opt for a side of Tater Tots. You end up thinking, How could a diner on a funky Oaksterdam corner not have a vegan banh mi?
The burgers evoke no such ambivalence about core proteins. The ground chuck is tasty without being doctrinaire (Niman Ranch beef is too lean for his uses, Tiongco says; if you’re not grilling up rare burgers, it ends up dry). They’re burgers you could make at home, if only you had the BTUs, a sack of Acme buns, and a heavy enough hand with the mustard and mayo to make anything tangy and unctuous. But sorry, dude: no way you could engineer fries as perfect as these in your countertop FryDaddy. The skin-on Idahos have sharply rendered edges that cook up crisp and greaseless. This is one meticulous kitchen.
Breakfast (which you can order till the place closes, at 3 in the afternoon) makes that meticulousness clear. Corned Beef Hash & Eggs is on the opposite end of the scale from the sticky, cat food cohesiveness of many a version. This one’s an original, a kind of chunky griddle-fry where big strips of meat mingle with home fries, and everything’s gilded with melted cheese — another example of Tiongco’s fearlessness about shaking up the short-order canon. Mostly it works because of the potatoes: chunky red-skinned taters parboiled and — instead of a heat-through on the flattop, which is most home fries’ downfall — crisped in the deep-fryer. In lesser hands that could mean a plate sweating Fryolator grease and speeded-up expectations for Plavix, but the kitchen here is a marvel of the steady temperature (which obviates greasiness) and the artful blot.
Hands down, bacon is the apotheosis of Rico’s artfulness. I know, right? Diner bacon: sometimes chewy, with stubborn clots of rubbery fat that failed to render, sometimes brittle and burnt-tasting from over-rendering. But even badly cooked bacon is never really bad — I mean, it’s bacon. Tiongco’s technique is a marvel. He precooks it on the griddle, and then, to order, tosses it in the deep-fryer. What emerges are strips so thin, so delicately crisp, you realize you’ve spent your entire life so far in love with something unrealized, and more or less shitty. Quite simply, Rico’s bacon lifts anything it shares the plate with.
That might include thick and velvety French Toast Sticks (made with Acme levain and garnished, on the day I tried them, with crisp wedges of Fuyu persimmon). Or the Oaktowner, one of those eggs-and-pancake or French-toast-and-meat-of-your-choice combos.
It’s the classic short-order matrix, in a restaurant where the owner’s love for the format combines with local flavor in a way that suggests the possibility of rehabbing a tattered genre. Amazing. —John Birdsall
Rico’s Diner. 400 15th St. (at Franklin St.), Oakland. 510-444-8424. Hours: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon-Fri; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat; closed Sun. Cash only.