UC Berkeley: Changing the way I think about Cafeteria Food

When I reflect back on the lunch I had on Friday, I realize how much has changed since my college cafeteria days. I intentionally made a point to visit UC Berkeley’s student union dining room for What’s Poppin’, A Pop-Up Dining Adventure. For the month of March, three female and minority chefs from San Francisco’s incubator kitchen, La Cocina each have a space to showcase cuisine from their diverse backgrounds. I went to campus with some friends and tried food from each spot.
Chef Binita Pradhan runs Bini’s Kitchen specializing in food from Nepal. Fans seek out her fresh made momos or dumplings. We sampled the vegetarian combo which included kwati, jeera rice pulao, and momos. Kwati is a traditional Nepalese soup mixed with nine different beans. It was thick like a stew and very comforting. The jeera rice pulao is a cumin flavored basmati rice that was cooked perfectly. My favorite part of the combination meal were the plump, fresh, and juicy momos topped with a spicy tomato cilantro sauce. Check out the Bini’s Kitchen website for more ways to access those momos.
Mixiote is a style of Mexican cooking where meats and vegetables are traditionally marinated, wrapped, and slow cooked. It’s also the name of Chef Alma Rodriguez’s business. I was lucky to have attended a wedding last year where she and her team catered some delicious food. To see her have a spot in the dining room was a happy sight. Their pop up menu allows for a choice of pork, chicken, or veggies served on hand made tortillas or rice bowls. We had the pork tacos which were topped with a roasted pumpkin seed sauce. These were hearty, tender, and very flavorful. Our luck was upon us because they specially made taquitos that day. These fried tacos were stuffed with potatoes and were delicious. Stay tuned and follow @MixioteSF on Instagram because word on the street is she’s raising funds for her first brick and mortar.
I have been following Chef Aileen Suzara’s journey for awhile, since she was a Public Health student at UC Berkeley. Sariwa means fresh in Tagalog and Chef Suzara’s mission is to bring healthy Filipino food to the forefront. 

We tried a variety of food at Sariwa including the amazing homemade vegetarian lumpias filled with sweet potato and vegetables. The lunch bowls allow for a choice of mains including chicken adobo and coconut tofu and pumpkin and choice of vegetable side dishes. I was bummed the coconut tofu and pumpkin entree was sold out as it is the menu item that characterizes Sariwa most. At the same time, it’s proving that Chef Suzara is making a difference in the way people perceive Filipino food and it’s all coming full circle. Read more about her story in a recent interview by Bon Appetit.
This month’s What’s Poppin’ is not only a great opportunity for rising female and minority chefs, but it’s a great way for students to explore new, diverse, and healthy cuisines. These three pop-ups are serving lunch M-F. Contact the MLK Jr Student Union for more information and their hours. Address: 2495 Bancroft Way Berkeley, CA. Phone: 510-664-7976.  


Irenia: Filipino Cuisine in the O.C.

Tonight I had a craving for Filipino food. I have been thinking about a recent lunch that my best friend and I had in Santa Ana, California. I had bookmarked Irenia when I was doing my research on places to eat near Disneyland. Los Angeles food critic Jonathon Gold had included Irenia on a list of Best Restaurants in Los Angeles. Irenia was only a handful of restaurants located in Orange County so my curiousity was piqued.

We were on holiday, so cocktails during lunch was a no brainer. My BFF got the Purple Drank which was made with gin, coconut rum, ube, and pineapple. Although it wasn’t on the menu, I was able to get a Petite Colada. There is definitely something about drinking from a coconut that sends warm vacation vibes.

Our waiter recommended the Dilis, baby anchovies. I don’t know why I was surprised when a bowl of hundreds of tiny fried anchovies were set in front of us. How bad could it be if they are fried right? Right, because I actually really enjoyed these delicacies. It came with some vinegar to dip them in, which I didn’t really need. It was a fun snack that I kept munching on.
I ordered the Chicken Inasal rice bowl. The pan roasted chicken thigh came with sautéed Chinese broccoli and zucchini. The grilled chicken had a nice crispness and the flavor was out of this world. I definitely could taste a mix of vinegar and soy, like you would find in adobo.  
My BFF ordered the pancit which was described as egg noodles with a soft boiled egg, chicken skin chiccharron, fried garlic, and scallion. It didn’t taste like pancit that we are accustomed to. I think it was the sauce that was problematic. The flavors were one dimensional and fell flat. She let the waiter know it wasn’t what she expected and did not like it. He explained that there were different varieties of pancit, but offered to have the kitchen make her something else. Since we had some time constraints, she declined.  
To make up for the dish, our waiter brought us a dessert on the house. The ube brown sugar pie was a nice way to end the meal. Ube is a purple yam. The pie offered a nice caramelization and the fresh whipped cream lightened up the sweetness.
Irenia offers some very traditional Filipino dishes with a modern twist. Minus the pancit, I thought Irenia was excellent. Looking at the full menu, it’s very clear that they aren’t afraid to use vegetables which I can appreciate from a restaurant serving Filipino cuisine. If you are near Santa Ana, I would recommend a visit to Irenia

Lunar New Year at Disney California Adventure

Lunar New Year is February 16 and this year it will be the Year of the Dog. My BFF had mentioned to me that Disneyland has special festivities to celebrate the holiday and we should go since we were born in the Year of the Dog. The festivities are actually held at Disney California Adventure Park from January 26 – February 18. We packed a bag and set out for Anaheim last week.  Most of the Lunar New Year activities were held in the area known as Paradise Pier. The first thing we went to do was to check out the kiosk to shop for Lunar New Year merchandise. It was disappointing to find out that they were already sold out of the commemorative pins. It was only Day 4! They did have special Mickey ears, t-shirts, snow globes, key chains, and lucky red envelopes for sale. 

It was cool that they had food stands serving food from different Asian countries that celebrate Lunar New Year. My BFF and I would attempt to try as many food items as we could. We first stopped at the Korea marketplace. We got the Yachae Mandu which are steamed vegetable dumplings with a sesame-garlic soy sauce. These dumplings tasted like they were from the frozen section of an Asian supermarket. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t very good.
We also tried the Korean dessert, Yang Gaeng, which is a sweet red bean and raspberry jelly. This dessert was beautiful with the gold flake topping. I had a couple of bites and thought it was pretty tasty.  
Our next stop was the China marketplace. I picked up an order of Xiao Long Bao (pork soup dumplings), Sanbeiji (three cup chicken), and a Dan Ta (egg tart). The soup in the dumpling had evaporated and the chicken luckily came with rice to offset the salt and sauciness. The egg tart was the best thing I ate that day. It tasted more like the custard pie that I have fond memories of getting from San Francisco Chinatown.  
We picked up a Banh Khoai Lang Tim from the Vietnamese marketplace. The purple sweet potato macaron was gigantic and quite good. The texture was crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
One of the highlights of the day was Mulan’s Lunar New Year Procession with dancing and performances. 

The star of the show was Goofy who looked amazing all dressed up.
Speaking of dressing up, we also got to see Mickey, Minnie, and Pluto in Asian attire.  

The finale was a special evening water show called Hurry Home.
There are still two more weeks of the Lunar New Year celebration at Disney California Adventure. If you are a Disney fan, I would recommend it. I would suggest skipping the savory foods from the Asian marketplace, but make sure to pick up some desserts.  

Mockingbird Moves Me to La La Land.

Over eighty restaurants participated in this year’s Oakland Restaurant Week (ORW). For ten days, various restaurants around the community were offering lunch and dinner menus with special pricing. I find that ORW is a great way to try out a local restaurant that I haven’t tried yet. I was super excited to try Mockingbird for the first time in Downtown Oakland.

I made reservations for a friend of mine to have dinner there last week. The Golden State Warriors were playing so we agreed to meet at 5pm to grab a drink at the bar before dinner. Mockingbird has a nice Happy Hour menu so in addition to drinks, we thought we should order some snacks to munch on as well.

Perfect to have while watching the Warriors game, we ordered the some fancy chips and dip. The House Smoked Trout Dip was made with trout, cream, scallions, and lemon oil. I could not stop eating the thin crispy potato chips.

We also ordered the deviled eggs which were topped with capers, pickled jalapeños and herbs. Deviled eggs are one of my favorite foods and Mockingbird makes me want to eat more.

Joe was our bartender but he ended up taking on the role of waiter because we were really getting into the game and didn’t want to leave the bar! We were still able to order our ORW dinner. The ORW menu was simple and each course except one had two different options so my friend and I pretty much shared everything.

For the first course, we had soup and salad. The soup of the day was a tomato soup with a dab of crème fraiche. It was creamy, tangy, and  smokey. Lucky for me my friend had been souped out from the week before so I got to enjoy most of it.

The salad offered was a winter fruit and baby kale salad with pumpkin seeds, ricotta salata, and a sherry shallot vinaigrette. This salad was dressed perfectly and really defines the season.

The second course included fried Brussels sprouts. My coworkers have been raving about these sprouts so I was pretty excited about trying them. The Brussels sprouts are tossed with a confit garlic aioli, blue cheese, thyme, and an Italian syrup called saba. After eating these, I completely understand where my coworkers were coming from.

Also part of the second course was a charcuterie plate which came with a duck liver mousse, jam, pickled vegetables, olives, and crispy bread. This was a fun dish to pick on.

The third course was the main entree and there were actually three options. Originally we ordered the chicken and pork and had decided to skip the vegetarian option. The Moroccan Spiced chicken came with roasted rainbow carrots, chickpeas, greens, and herbed buttermilk dressing. Every item on the plate was harmonious and complemented each other. The flavors were even more infused the next day when I ate the leftovers for lunch. I had a few colleagues comment on the wonderful aromatics.

We were really looking forward to the overnight pork sugo which came with crispy polenta, arugula, pickled red onion, and sheep’s milk cheese. The pork tasted really salty so we requested for a wedge of lemon to see if we could cut down the saltiness. At that time, Joe asked how everything was and the truth came out about the pork.

Joe was generous and offered us the third entree, the Winter Vegetable Tagine which was cooked in a rich sauce and topped with lemon yogurt, castelvetrano olives, and cilantro. This vegetarian dish was extraordinary and made me forgot all about the pork sugo. The vegetable tagine reminded me of the food of one of my favorite chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi.

Our fourth and final course was dessert. The first dessert was the Mockingbird Bread Pudding which is described as a traditional bread pudding with vanilla and nutmeg custard, caramel sauce, and whipped cream. To me, this was nothing but traditional and I absolutely loved it. I had more than my fair share of this one.

The other dessert was a citrus almond flour cake with chocolate ganache and candied almonds. I believe my friend preferred this dessert unless she sensed how much I was fawning over the bread pudding and was being nice. Either way, there was not a trace of sugar left on either dessert plates.

After dinner at ORW, I have decided that Mockingbird is a place that I will be adding to my repertoire. The food and staff are great. Joe even told us that he and the chef tried the pork sugo and agreed with us that it was overly salty. I really appreciated this acknowledgement. All in all, it was a perfect evening – the Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and my tummy was in la la land.

Crab Times Three at Le Cheval

Is it Dungeness crab season in the San Francisco Bay Area or is it not? I heard crab season had opened up in mid November and then I heard it was postponed until December, and then it was postponed again until January. It has been very confusing to me, especially when I heard on the news during the holidays that Dungeness crab was expensive and selling out fast. If the season was closed, how could there be local Dungeness crab available? Maybe it was fake news.

When I got invited to a private Holiday Crab Feed at Le Cheval late last year, I was intrigued. It was not only an opportunity to dine at one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Oakland, but I could pig out on crab. I’m all in. I RSVP’d.

The crab feed was in late December and open for 50 people in tables of 10 family style. My friend and I were seated in the “Oakland” table. It was cool to meet and share a meal with new folks and discover that you had more in common than you expected.

The first course was an appetizer of spicy chicken wings which were pan fried in onions, jalapeños, and red peppers. The table seemed to love these. I thought they were good, but not the best I’ve had. However, it came with a tangy black pepper sauce that I can’t get enough of. 

Next we were served a prawn salad which was made up of shredded cabbage, steamed shrimp, jellyfish, lotus roots, mint leaves, and cilantro tossed in a light homemade vinegar and fish sauce dressing. It was topped with fried onions, peanuts, and giant prawn chips. The table seemed less impressed with this dish. I ended up taking seconds because it was there and it was my way of eating a little healthier.

It was the Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Long in San Francisco that popularized crab and garlic noodles. The garlic noodles at Le Cheval are cooked in butter, garlic, and olive oil topped with parmesan cheese. By the time the dish made its way to me on the lazy susan, it was only fair that I take a few strands so the rest of the table could have some. Luckily a second plate came around later allowing me to have a more substantial portion. But the second plate went as fast as the first. Who doesn’t love garlic noodles?

We would be served crab three ways. For each preparation, we would get four crabs meaning that our table of ten would be sharing twelve crabs. The first preparation was ginger crab which is pan fried with ginger and green onions. There was plenty to go around. I enjoyed several pieces and I didn’t need to fight for a shell. I consumed the crab innards, which is sometimes referred to as crab butter. It tasted like a cross between uni and custard and is definitely a delicacy not for everyone.  

The next preparation was the dried fried crab which is lightly battered and then dry fried with onions, bell peppers, and salt and pepper. This is actually my favorite preparation. I pretty much love anything fried, but the fact that it is dry is the reason I like it. You get to enjoy the sweet crab more naturally with the help of a little seasoning.  

The last preparation is the tamarind crab which is pan fried with tamarind sweet & sour sauce. This is the most saucy of the preparations. It had a nice flavor profile, but probably my least favorite of the three. Not surprising to me is that my friend preferred the tamarind and the ginger crabs because she generally loves sauce.

The preparation of the crab were all delicious. It was great to try all three in the same seating to discover my personal preference.

Although this crab feed was an event, the public can enjoy everything we had at Le Cheval including the three crab preparations. They charge market price so that could mean high prices if there is a shortage of crab.

I started to do a little more research about this year’s crab season on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website and it seems to make more sense to me now. It looks like in November the commercial crab season opened to the area south of Sonoma/Mendocino county, but stayed closed for the area north of Sonoma/Mendocino county which caused a shortage of availability of crab. The commercial crab season north of Sonoma/Mendocino county is scheduled to open tomorrow, so that should bring an abundance of crab available and bring down some prices. Start looking for more crab at the supermarkets and menus in the Bay Area!

Get Yourself to Shinmai While You Still Can

Happy New Year! I will begin my first blog of 2018 writing about one of the hippest restaurants in Oakland today. Shinmai opened about six months ago by partners Yingji Huang and Andy Liu. This is their second project together after Kakui, a sushi restaurant in Montclair. Shinmai is touted as bringing the Izakaya experience to the area. Izakaya is the Japanese version of an Irish pub or tapas bar where you go for food and drinks. Sound good already, doesn’t it?

I dined at Shinmai twice last year and have enjoyed the experience both times. My love for Japanese food is a good match at Shinmai because the menu allows me to sample a variety of differently prepared foods.

Their are five categories to their menu — raw, izakaya, robota, ramen, and sweets. The menu itself only changed slightly from my first visit in August to my latest visit last month.

The Raw category appears to stay consistent with two options —ocean trout or hamachi. I had the ocean trout which came with arima sansho, piquillo, and shiso. It was a beautifully presented dish and was quite tasty, but when it comes to raw fish, I may have to consider myself a purist. All I need is a little soy.

The Izakaya options were more extensive. The items on this list are like small plates meant to be shared. We were accidentally served the hand cut potato chips flavored with furikake, hon-dashi, and umami and I was so happy for the mistake. If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for potato chips and these were definitely umami.

The chicken karaage came with two sauces, but again the purist in me just needed a squirt of lemon to balance the crispy delicious fried chicken pieces.

The ebi okura is simply translated as shrimp with okra. It was prepared with brown butter ponzu, onion, and paprika oil. The ebi okura was in many ways a fusion of flavors.

We also ordered the PEI mussels which was prepared in a Thai coconut curry and red peppercorns. This curry was so amazing that my friend didn’t ask for more bread, but requested a side of noodles to soak up every last drop of sauce.

I tried a few options on the Robata or grill menu. Although not available at this time of year, I was able to try the corn with yuzu, dashi honey-butter, and bonito. This is like the Japanese version of elote or Mexican street corn. Note to self to come back to Shinmai in the summer for more corn.

The king trumpet mushrooms were prepared with house-made ponzu and peppercorns. This came on top of a bed of arugula and could have been classified as a warm mushroom salad. This was a hearty dish that I would rank as one of my favorites.

I was not that impressed with the beef ribeye which was grilled with ginger, black garlic, and charred leek. I felt like it was missing something. Maybe this could have been placed on a bed of arugula as well.

Shinmai also serves ramen which is a nice option to have. Typically when you eat ramen it is at a ramen shop and you have your own bowl of ramen and maybe you share an appetizer with it. At Shinmai you can share a bowl of warm deliciousness and still have room for much more interesting food. I shared a bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen with pork chashu, shoyu egg, wood ear mushrooms, onions, and bamboo shoots at both visits and each time it brought me comfort and a smile.
There is a limited Sweet menu. I didn’t have dessert on my first visit, but I did try the panna cotta with vanilla-green tea and candied lotus root on my second visit. It had a perfectly creamy consistency and the flavor profile was wonderful.  

Shinmai has everything going for it. The food is both creative and delicious, the space is hip and trendy, and they carry my favorite Japanese beer with the cat on it. Located in the neighborhood called San Pablo Gateway, Shinmai is West of Downtown Oakland near the Oakland Ice Center. It’s actually hard to find. Make sure you have the address, 1825-3 San Pablo Avenue, and look for an unmarked black door.

Lemon and Mixed Berry Striped Cake

Last month I started cooking out of the Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh cookbook “Sweet” and it has been both fun and rewarding. If you missed it, check out my blog post.  Last week I was alerted that the US/Canadian version of the “Sweet” cookbook had some errors with oven temperatures and baking times. If you have a copy of the book, you can email sweet@tenspeed.com to inquire how to obtain a corrected copy when it comes out. In the meantime, there is a link to a document that you can print out to get the corrections.

My family celebrated Christmas on the Eve and my niece and I made the lemon and mixed berry striped cake for dessert. I call it the vertical cake. In my opinion, it is the most stunning dessert in the entire cookbook. A friend of mine had already made it for me for my birthday in November and now it was my turn.

There are three parts to the recipe. There is the cake, the buttercream, and the fruit purée that is used for the drizzle on top as well as in the buttercream. With my new mixer, prepping has gotten a lot easier with better results.  

I was impressed how light and airy the cake batter was. The batter is spread out as a sheet cake so it’s much easier than a layer cake. The cake is “trained,” meaning it is rolled up while it is still warm.  I suspect that if you didn’t do that, the cake would crack.  When it has cooled down it is rolled back out and cut into three even pieces and spread with buttercream. Starting with one piece, it is rolled and each additional piece is added.  

The large cylindrical cake is turned on its side where the remaining frosting covers the cake thoroughly. Finally, the mixed berry purée is drizzled on top.  

The cake doesn’t actually look all that impressive until you cut into it. It’s like magic and it tastes like magic too. No corrections needed on this recipe!