Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Cheeseboard & Simple Pleasures

I mentioned Cheeseboard briefly in my last post and decided that it deserves it's own. Cheeseboard is a Berkeley landmark and rightfully so. Their full history can be found on their website but suffice it to say that they've been making pizza for over 20 years now and in the business of bread and cheese 20 years before that although the pizza and the cheese/bread part of the store are two separate collectives now. They serve lunch and dinner five days a week (closed on Sundays and Mondays) and serve only one pizza a day. That one pizza is always vegetarian, always made with high quality cheese and other ingredients and always divine.

Cheeseboard is hands down one of my favorite reasons for living in Berkeley. It's always a pleasure going to Northside and walking along Shattuck, past the epicurean garden and Chez Panisse, seeing the people and the sights like the dog who carries a baguette around and then standing in line listening to live jazz and anticipating the hot, fresh pizza that you know is going to be oh so good.

Most of the time I enjoy the pizza in the store or immediately outside where they have tables and benches. From here I get to enjoy the music of the many jazz musicians who play there daily. When seating isn't available there the median divider in the middle of Shattuck is always popular. And on some special occasions, when the weather is nice enough and I have enough self control not to inhale my pizza and inflict cheese burns on the roof of my mouth, I will take my pizza and enjoy it from atop the Berkeley hills. The view is breathtaking on clear sunny days and it really makes you appreciate living in the Bay Area.

The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective
1512 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA. 94709

Taqueria San Jose

What's better than dining at a three star Michelin restaurant? Not a whole lot. But discoering a new favorite taco shop that'll satisfy your needs for 1/10 the price of the French Laundry isn't bad either.

Last week I had plans to visit the East Bay Restaurant Supply store to do some browsing and maybe pick up a few items with my roommate from freshmen year and long time buddy Tim. Before we went though there was an important matter that needed to be resolved. Where were we going to go for lunch? My stomach said it could go for pizza but Cheeseboard was closed and Zachary's was a bit heavy for my needs. Furthermore, I really felt like trying something new. I suggested Bay Wolf or Dopo but Tim shrugged them off. "Naw man, I got a better idea. Let's go to Fruitvale baby!" Awwww yeah.

I don't know why it took me so long to make my first trip out there, especially given the dismal Mexican food scene in the immediate Berkeley area. Anyway, I was very excited for my first Fruitvale taco. Tim promised that it would rival even those of SoCal. Standing in line I was confronted with a wonderful dilemma: I didn't know what to get because everything looked good.
I love it when this happens because quite often everything is good.

I decided to get three tacos, one of al pastor, one of carne asada and a third with carnitas. I also ordered a strawberry agua fresca to wash it all down. We snacked on the complimentary chips and salsa as we waited. Free chips and salsa are key in my book for a good taqueria.

The tacos arrived, dressed liberally with a red chili sauce and a sprinkling of cilantro and onion, along with limes and radishes on the side. I took my first bite and immediately experienced the fresh flavor explosion that for me characterizes good Mexican food.

All three of the tacos were absolutely delicious but I have to agree with Tim (pictured above as he devours his tacos) that the al pastor, or bbq pork taco, was the winner. I was thinking about my next visit to Taqueria San Jose even before we had left. I still haven't come to a conclusion as to what I will order though. The shrimp super burrito sounds really good but I'm tempted to try out their more adventurous tacos de cabeza or tacos de lengua. Normally I would be skeptical but with the quality of the three tacos I had and with the turnover rate at the restaurant I feel pretty safe ordering these out of the ordinary items. I'll be sure to let you know how it goes when I make it back as long as I don't get sidetracked by the many other taquerias in the area. That might not be a bad thing though. I've always considered hunting out the best taco shop in a given area to be a noble quest and applaud the foodies who have such stamina and determination.

Taqueria San Jose
3433 International Boulevard
Oakland, CA 94601

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Richmond, B.C. Act III

Dinner reservations for the evening were at Grand Honour Restaurant, an establishment that is supposedly renowned for excellence in the preparation of the more unique Chinese delicacies and abalone in specific. Don't worry, none of the dishes that night crossed the RM level 5 threshold.

Another house made XO sauce. This one had the addition of Smithfield ham and seemed to me to be served more as an appetizer than as a condiment. Then again it's possible that the XO could have been used as a condiment but it just wouldn't have enhanced any of the dishes we ordered that evening.

These were some type of pickled greens that were dressed with a bit of sesame oil and sesame seeds. Sorry for lack of identification but I can tell you they were definitely an app and not a condiment and they were tasty.

The last time I could remember having shark's fin soup was around the age on nine. I couldn't remember how it had tasted then so this was an adventure in rediscovery. Served in a thickened superior stock, the shark's fin was delicious. However, I will say that the majority of the flavor came from the stock itself. To me, the shark's fin was much more of a textural element. Some might question why it's so sought after if there isn't much flavor and my best explanation is that in Chinese cuisine there is a great emphasis placed upon texture, balance of flavors and lore behind food.

Nearly all foods carry some significance and importance. I'm not sure the exact significance behind shark's fin but it is generally considered to be a dish served on special occasions such as banquets and weddings and is a symbol of wealth. Additionally I've heard it is considered to be an aphrodisiac. Whether or not that justifies the price tag as well as the controversial practice is tough to say.

The second course was the star of the show. A large abalone served in supreme stock with a hint of oyster sauce and accompanied by pea sprout leaves. The abalone had a texture like a firmer, meatier dried shitake mushroom. Flavor wise they were briny and delicious and somewhat similar to oysters although they really are something quite apart.

I'm usually not a big fan of sea cucumber but this one was done quite well. Sea cucumber can sometimes have an overwhelmingly strong sea flavor. Additionally the chewy/bouncy, resilient texture can be a bit off setting. This one managed to be not to much of either.

Last on the exotic foods list was fish maw braised in superior stock and served with baby choy sum and shredded Smithfield ham. The flavor of the fish maw wasn't very strong and to be honest I can't really remember it now. I think overall I prefer it in fish maw soup rather than braised as it was here.

Much less out of the ordinary but by no means less satisfying was the steamed rock cod. For me this dish is the epitome of a childhood comfort food. Steamed and topped with green onions, ginger and some shitake mushrooms that have been flashed with hot oil and then served with a seasoned soy sauce. A very easy dish to make at home that never fails to please. I could eat this every day and be satisfied.

I'm not sure of the exact style of this chicken as there are multiple preparations that yield similar results. Usually the chicken is boiled twice over the course of an hour, allowed to rest and dry and then seasoned. This one was served with dried ginger oil on the side and was quite tasty.

You can never go wrong with extra vegetables, especially if they were like these. Chinese mustard greens were simmered in superior stock and served with shredded Smithfield ham. It's like an Asian take on a southern classic. Pork and greens are always a winner in my book.

Dessert was a simple bowl of sweetened pumpkin soup. For me it didn't really stand out as something special but I think I generally feel that way about Chinese desserts. More often than not I would rather have another entree or appetizer in place of dessert.

Overall it was a great meal. My favorites of the evening were the abalone, the rock cod and the chicken. Maybe it's just me but I guess I'm not that crazy about the more wild side of Chinese cuisine. I would be much happier eating 10 orders of roast pork over rice than the one bowl of shark's fin soup at the same price. But if exotic is your thing then it's a good bet that Grand Honour Restaurant is your place.

Grand Honour Restaurant Ltd.
110-5701 Granville Street
, BC V6M 4J7, Canada

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Richmond, B.C. Act II

Gong hay fat choy! Happy Chinese new year everyone! I hope it will be a healthy, happy and prosperous one for you all.

If you remember from my last post, I had finished eating a dim sum brunch and was off to the malls to burn off some calories before lunch. I didn't do a particularly good job of accomplishing that goal. After walking through an Asian supermarket (the quality and variety of ingredients available up there is astounding), a Chinese herbal medicine shop and a two looney store, I found myself in the middle of the malls food court. My God, it had been less than two hours! I really have no self control when it comes to food.

Dragon fruit (above) and rose apples (below). I've never tried either and don't recall having seen them in markets in the US. I will definitely be on the lookout next time. I believe I should be able to find the dragon fruit as it's actually grown in South America and is a type of cactus fruit. Don't know about the rose apples though.

Once I was there in the midst of all the food stalls and their wonderful aromas there was no way I could leave without getting a quick bite and I knew just the place. If there's one thing that I look forward to on each Canada trip, aside from the maple syrup, it's the xiao lung bao. Literally these delicacies translate to "little dragon buns". Man do I love me some dragon meat. For about 5 looneys you get 6 of these delicious soup dumplings at Shanghai Shanghai restaurant in Aberdeen mall.

Filled with pork and a super-tasty, rich, porky broth, these dumplings are steamed dynamite that I could go on eating all day, and I have. According to my parents, on one visit to a restaurant in Vancouver that was famous for their soup dumplings I managed to polish off 4+ steamers of 10 dragon buns. I was 7 at the time.

I washed the six dumplings above down with a glass of fresh blended strawberry mango juice. That's something I feel we here in the states are lacking as well. Aside from Jamba Juice, where most of the fruit is frozen, we don't have juice shops. I think someone needs to start opening a good chain of fresh squeezed and blended juice stores. I have a strong intuition that they would thrive in the Berkeley area and elsewhere as well.

Since we are on the topic I thought I would include some other picks for chowing down on soup dumplings. The ones above hail from Northern Dynasty, another restaurant in Richmond, B.C. These ones might be a slight bit better than the ones of Shanghai Shanghai but they also cost a wee bit extra. Honestly, it's a real close call. I haven't had the opportunity to eat them back to back since I'm usually too stuffed from one place's dumplings or the others. Perhaps if I can manage some restraint next time I can provide further analysis. As for now, if you want a sit down meal with a solid Northern Chinese menu go for Northern Dynasty. For a bite on the go try out Shanghai Shanghai.

Though I don't have pictures for them, the xiao lung bao at Top Shanhai restaurant were quite good as well. I prefer Northern Dynasty as a sit down restaurant to Top Shanghai but there's no denying that they both boast delicious bao.

Finally the buns above were from a popular spot in New York called Joe's Shanghai. Overall I was disappointed. After seeing this post I had been really excited to try them out on my brief trip to NYC before Europe last summer. While they were good, I thought they simply paled in comparison to the ones of Richmond. The wrappers weren't as thin and the broth not as rich. The consistency of the pork filling also differed, with Joe's being a bit coarser ground. Don't get me wrong, they were good. I just didn't think they were of the same standard as Shanghai Shanghai or Northern Dynasty. I guess I should also mention that from the looks of EDBM's post I don't think I dined at the same Joe's location. I'm not sure whether they are owned by the some proprietor or whether it's the Chinese version of Ray's pizza. I'll have to wait till the next time I'm in NYC to find out I suppose.

Again, happy Chinese new year to all and join me again soon for the final installment of the Richmond B.C. series!

Shanghai Shanghai
Unit 3010
Inside Aberdeen Centre
4151 Hazelbridge Way, Richmond, BC, Canada
(SW Corner of Hazelbridge Way & Cambie Rd.)

Northern Dynasty Restaurant
1180-8391 Alexandra Road,
Richmond, B.C.

Top Shanghai
120-8100 Ackroyd Road
Richmond, BC V6X 3K2, Canada
(604) 278-8798

Joe's Shanghai

9 Pell Street
New York, New York 10013

PS - Anyone have any good recommendations for xiao lung bao in the bay area?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Richmond, B.C. Act I

Living in the state of Washington for half of my life meant that Canada was always just next door. Growing up, my family never missed an opportunity to take advantage of all the delicious Chinese food to be found up north, not to mention the favorable exchange rate. Today the food is just as good as always, maybe even better, although the same can't be said about the dollar to looney ratio. But it's this fact, along with my current residence being Berkeley instead of Seattle, that makes a trip to British Columbia all the more special and savory.

When my family and I used to go to BC we would go to the Chinatown in Vancouver. Now most of the hot-spots have moved one town south to Richmond where a younger and more affluent Chinese diaspora resides. The town boasts an uncanny number of restaurants/capita. Frankly I'm baffled as to how the population can support them all. But then again, eating is a huge part of Asian culture. In Chinese for example, a common greeting is to ask "Have you eaten yet?" rather than "How are you?" Most likely, whether you answer yes or no to the question, the next place you'll find yourself is gathered around a table.

The table I found myself sitting at was at Kirin Seafood Restaurant. It's been around for over 20 years now and has gathered a bunch of awards over time. What I love most is their dim sum. Unlike Chinese restaurants in the states that seem to be frozen in time, serving the same mediocre dishes without refinement or innovation, Kirin stays on the cutting edge. They rotate their menu monthly, featuring new ingredients, dishes and techniques. It makes for an exciting dining experience where each little steamer brings a new surprise and delight.

XO sauce is an increasingly popular condiment in Chinese restaurants. It's a blend of dried scallops, dried shrimps, chilies, garlic and shallots, all fried together to create a super tasty sauce.
While many restaurants buy their XO, Kirin makes theirs in house and it is much better than anything coming out of a jar.

Chicken feet served with red vinegar. If you have never tried them they are worth a shot. There's no need to be squeamish. They taste like chicken but the texture is like cartilage.

Super crispy, succulent pork paired with roasted duck.

This was my favorite of the meal. Called Gum Sah Doufu, the name translates literally to "Golden Sand Tofu". What the elusive dusting of golden sand was we couldn't tell. When we asked the waiter he said it was simply fried garlic. A very diplomatic answer that served to guard the secrets of the kitchen.

Chinese donut wrapped in a sheet of rice paper.

Tangerine peel flavored meat balls.

Steamed spareribs with tangerine sauce.

Scallop dumplings with peas, carrots and corn.

Jade dumplings with spinach and shitake mushroom.

Classic shrimp dumplings which I believe were enriched with a touch of pork fat.

Shrimp and pea sprout leaf dumplings. These were my second favorite of the meal.

Fried shrimp and Chinese chive spring rolls.

Gigantic shark fin soup dumpling served with bamboo pith. Very tasty.

The best egg custard tart I have ever had hands down. The crust was super flaky like filo dough and the custard was rich and eggy without being too sweet.

Mango coconut tapioca custard with a pastry crust. I'm not big on coconut but it would have been awesome if it were just mango.

This was definitely a solid start for the day. But in order to gear up for the next meal I needed some exercise. So I was off to peruse the shops in the many malls of Richmond. It was there that the next eating adventure ensued. To be continued in Act II.

PS - Where are your favorite dim sum restaurants?

Kirin Seafood Restaurant
200-7900 Westminster Highway
Richmond, BC, Canada
(604) 303-8833