Paradise Park Cafe: Welcome to the Neighborhood

There is an up and coming neighborhood in North Oakland called Paradise Park that sits on the borders of Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley. I am familiar with the area because I drive through it twice a week when I take my nephews to school at Oakland Military Institute. A new cafe that shares its name with the urban Paradise Park neighborhood opened up last month and I was invited to a media event to check it out.

Paradise Park Cafe serves coffee from local Equator Coffee & Teas from San Rafael. Two thumbs up for the espressos that I have been making with their coffee beans. With opening hours of 7am on weekdays, I am likely to stop by for a morning latte before work. The cafe also specializes in juices. I sampled a few options and using purely fruits and vegetables, they’ve made something vibrant and delicious.
Vegetarians and vegans have quite a few choices at Paradise Park Cafe. They offer a quinoa burger and plenty of salads. I was impressed with their homemade chickpea tofu which is the protein in their vegan wrap and an option to add to their salads. This works really well for the health conscious.
On the other hand, their grass fed burger is served on a brioche bun and topped with Vermont cheddar cheese, fried onions, and a garlic and pepper aioli. It was juicy and packed full of flavor. The French fries held its own.
My favorite item on the menu is the fried chicken sandwich. The chicken breast is marinated, grilled, and then fried in a light tapioca batter. This photogenic sandwich includes fresh carrots, radish, and kale, pickled onions, and a sriracha aioli. It also includes a side of crispy tasty French fries.  
Having a kids menu really speaks to the neighborhood. I would recommend the creamy homemade mac and cheese. For those that care, it’s also gluten free. 
For dessert you can order an ice cream burrito. Ice cream is wrapped in a flour tortilla and flash fried. I would recommend sharing this one and eating it pretty fast, otherwise you might make a hot mess.
I’m sure those in the Paradise Park neighborhood are happy and excited to find a new cafe in town. I would definitely keep an eye on Paradise Park Cafe as they plan to utilize part of their space for pop-ups.  

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Welcome Burger Lounge to the Bay Area

I was recently invited to dine at the newly opened Burger Lounge in Walnut Creek. My friend and I made a special trip out there to see what they had to offer. Burger Lounge is not your typical fast food joint. It is apparent that the focus of Burger Lounge is on quality, sustainable food. The hand crafted burgers are made with grass-fed beef, free range turkey, cage free chicken, and organic vegetables. The service was excellent.  The cashiers and servers were a young and energetic bunch that looked genuinely happy to be there. 
Looking at the posted menu, my friend and I decided to try a bunch of things and share. The most popular burger is the Lounge Burger, which is a 100% American grass fed beef patty with organic American cheese, onion, lettuce, tomato, and house thousand island dressing. Burger Lounge makes their own organic American cheese which does not taste fake like the American cheese from Kraft. We added the optional bacon and had our onions grilled. The Lounge Burger had the qualities I look for in a great burger – a fresh toasted bun, a juicy high quality well seasoned beef patty, and cheese that oozes.

The Classic Burger is similar to the Lounge Burger except it has organic ketchup, mustard, and pickles in lieu of the house made thousand island dressing.
The Crispy Chicken Sandwich is a fried chicken breast with house made slaw, tomatoes, pickles, and herb mayonnaise. It’s hard to believe I could get this from a fast food establishment. For those based in Oakland, this doesn’t have the same star quality as the perfect Bake Sale Betty Fried Chicken Sandwich. If you never had Bake Sale Betty, this might meet your fancy. The chicken patty was nicely flavored and crispy, while the slaw was fresh and tangy.
Burger Lounge also offers Little Burgers for a few of their burger options for a buck less. This is a great idea for kids or if you are into portion control. The manager brought out a “Little,” “Classic” Cage Free Turkey Burger to try. This was her favorite burger and was the reason she decided to work for Burger Lounge. The turkey burger was juicy and seasoned with a good amount of basil. I thought it was delicious, even with the layer of mustard which I’m not a fan of.
You can’t have a burger without french fries. In the case of Burger Lounge, you can’t have a burger without their 1/2 and 1/2 which is a half order of onion rings and a half order of french fries. They make the best onion rings I have ever had and the French fries are pretty tasty too.
To wash all the food down, they serve some unique house-made lemonades at Burger Lounge. I typically don’t drink sugary beverages, but my friend does. She preferred the hibiscus lemonade over the lavender mint lemonade. I actually liked the latter because it was very light and subtle in flavor. For my preference, I would skip these in the future.
At the end of the meal, I realized I had eaten lunch at the original Burger Lounge in La Jolla almost seven years ago. I can recount the exact date because it was a milestone birthday. After all this time, Burger Lounge has made its way up to the Bay Area which I think is a great thing. If you happen to be in Walnut Creek and want a great burger, check out Burger Lounge.

Double Belly is Double Trouble

First came Belly and then came Sweet Belly. In Uptown Oakland, you can find this pair of playful eateries to fill your belly.
Belly is located at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and 19th Street and serves up what I consider a fusion grill. There is a focus on Mexican, Korean, and Japanese cuisine. With an ordinary menu of items like tacos, burritos, burgers, salads, and sides, it’s what they do with it that makes them interesting.  

So I grabbed lunch “to go” with a friend recently. I ordered the popular steak and egg taco which is filled with house marinated sirloin steak, French fries, chipotle aioli, garlic aioli, and topped with a fried egg. Yes, I said French fries and a fried egg. You might call this fusion on steroids. I actually found it to be quite simplistic and enjoyed the flavors and textures.
I also ordered a side of classic fries with chipotle ketchup. These fries were shoestring fries, thin and crisp. They stayed crispy even with the ten minute ride back to the office, so it passed that test. The chipotle ketchup was a great complement to the fries.  
My friend ordered the Korean fried chicken bowl which is a rice bowl topped with spicy fried chicken, slaw, pickled cucumbers, red onions, jalapeños, and of course a fried egg. The chicken had a thick gooey batter, but was somewhat soggy in texture. To me it felt like an unsuccessful bibimbap. Neither of us would recommend this dish.
I went back to Belly with another friend last week to try something else. We both wanted burgers. I ordered the Belly Burger which is a house marinated patty, red onion tempura, sautéed mushrooms, house pickled cucumbers, cheddar cheese, garlic and kimchi aioli, on a brioche bun. The burger was super juicy and tasted amazing. Every ingredient was on point and melded together perfectly. The tempura onion made my burger sing.
My friend got the West Coast Burger combo which came with fries and a drink. Her burger had bacon, avocado, tomato, cheddar cheese, mixed field greens, garlic aioli, and chipotle ketchup. She enjoyed her burger just as much as I did. No doubt Belly knows how to grill up burgers and fries. I am now tempted to try their Belly Cali Fries or their Korean Cali Fries. I’ll let you look that up yourself. 
If you travel about three blocks east on 19th Street, you can find dessert at the recently opened Sweet Belly by the same owners of Belly.  I am sure lots of people were unhappy when Lanas, a long time operating fast food Chinese take out closed, but the opening of Sweet Belly in its place is sure to fill some void.  

On my first visit, the soft serve flavor being served was strawberry. I topped my strawberry soft serve with fruity crunch cereal and an earl grey Valrhona dark chocolate fudge donut. All three items were great. The soft serve was thick like custard and had a subtle strawberry flavor. The cereal was a homemade version of Fruity Pebbles and was light and crispy. The donut was warm and texturally tasted like an old fashioned.  
On another visit, Sweet Belly was serving Matcha green tea flavored soft serve. This time I chose chocolate drizzled popcorn as my topping and a Matcha green tea donut. I actually enjoyed the strawberry soft serve slightly better, but would order either of them again or some variation of them. About a five minute walk from my office, I feel an addiction coming on.

Burger Month at Belcampo

August is burger month for Belcampo, a 5 year old meat company based in Oakland and run by Anya Fernald. Belcampo is a corporation that includes a farm, a processing plant, butcher shops, and restaurants that together supply sustainable and organic meat. The Belcampo farm is located up North in Gazelle, California and the butcher shops and restaurants are located in Larkspur, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica.  
There was a period of time in my past where I only ate grass fed beef. Generally, I enjoyed the taste of corn fed beef more because it was more fatty and flavorful. I think when beef is grounded for burgers, grass fed beef tastes better so I was excited about burger month at Belcampo.

During burger month, Belcampo has been offering promotions to bring in more customers and create awareness. I introduced a friend in Los Angeles to the BOGO week where if you bought one burger, you would get the second one free. My friends participated in the offer and enjoyed their burgers. One review I received was “moovelous!” Another review was “freaking delicious!”  

Photo by Christy Smith

For a company based in Oakland, it’s unfortunate that there is no Belcampo butcher shop and restaurant very close to me. I didn’t want the month of August to go by and not get a chance to get a burger deal. Today was the last day for a 100 Day Dry-Aged Burger, Fries, and a Drink for $15 deal. They were marketing the special for burger connoisseurs so I went for the challenge. 

I drove out to Larkspur with a friend. My 1/2 lb burger was a blend of Wagyu and Angus meat with Raclette cheese, watercress, and caramelized onions on a sesame seed bun. My medium rare burger was served to me on a wooden platter with French fries. It was then spritzed with 100-proof whiskey in front of my eyes. This burger was definitely well thought out, including the use of watercress that provides a peppery bite. The burger was rich, juicy, and full of flavor.  

My friend ordered the Belcampo burger which is their standard 1/2 lb grass-fed beef patty, cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, butter lettuce, house-made sauce. Cooked a perfect medium rare, she ate every bite as well.  
There are still ten days left for burger month and I’m excited to hear what specials Belcampo will offer next. You’ll have to follow them on Facebook to find out. Rumor has it that Belcampo will open a shop in Jack London Square in Oakland, but no date has been identified.

Philly: Not Just Cheesesteaks

My time in Downtown Philadelphia lasted less than 36 hours, but I still managed to have two great dinners. Both were in the Rittenhouse district.

I had to solely use and trust yelp because my last trip to Philly was many years ago and I didn’t have a lasting impression in terms of food. Yelp really came through again.

My colleague and I arrived in time for dinner Friday night. I found a British pub called The Dandelion. The restaurant is beautiful with various rooms that were themed. I call our room the “horse room,” as there were paintings of horses throughout.
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As an appetizer, my colleague and I shared a pint of prawns which came with cocktail sauce and a lemon mayonnaise sauce. A pint equates to about ten large plump shrimp. The prawns come from the Gulf of Mexico and were super sweet.
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I ordered the popular dish from London, beer battered fish and chips. It was a nice filet of cod that was coated and fried to perfection. The batter was crunchy and the fish was flakey, and melted in my mouth. It looked as if each order of fries was one large russet potato that was sliced thickly. They call it triple cooked. I call it triple good.
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My colleague ordered the burger. The photos we saw on yelp looked great. She ordered a well done burger so I was not thinking too much of it. I did have a small bite and thought it remained juicy and was quite flavorful. She enjoyed it very much.
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For dessert, we shared the sticky toffee pudding. The moist cake was drenched in a toffee rum sauce topped with date ice cream. We both enjoyed it although we were quite full.
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Last night’s dinner was at Luke’s Lobster. my colleague and I shared the “Taste of Maine” menu which included half a crab roll, shrimp roll, lobster roll, a bag of Cape Cod chips, a gourmet soda, and a pickle. For an extra $2, we got two lobster claws. We also added two soups, the clam chowder and the lobster bisque. I felt like I was in seafood heaven.
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I couldn’t imagine two better meals on this trip to Philadelphia. I definitely have some lasting impressions this time around.

In Orlando: Blue Zoo

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I just got back from a Business trip to Orlando and stayed at Disney’s Swan & Dolphin Hotel. I was at this same hotel last year for the same conference so was familiar with the property and the food options. Blue Zoo is a Todd English restaurant located in the hotel that I didn’t get a chance to try last time around. I have been to his restaurants in Washington DC and Las Vegas.

It was our first night in Orlando and we were able to get seated at a booth in the bar area. The four of us shared the Classico flatbread which had roasted tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil. This was a nice starter to share. It wasn’t spectacular, but I found the tomato sauce to be really good. Must be the roasting.

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We each ordered our own item, but we did some sharing and I was able to taste everyone’s dish. One colleague who was feeling like crab, ordered the crab nachos which had lump crab, black beans, salsa, and cherry peppers. This is probably the last thing I would have ordered because of the combination, but it was better than I expected.

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Another dish was the raw bar selection platter. It came with main lobster tale, oysters, clams, jumbo shrimp, ceviche, and tuna crudo. The restaurant takes pride in sourcing the freshest seafood. I had a clam, shrimp, and a piece of lobster tale and thought it was excellent. My friend who ordered the dish was happy with it except her last bite. She had one bad oyster and had to spit it out.

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Another dish ordered was the black truffle heritage chicken. The chicken came with truffle potato gnocchi and spinach. Who would have thought the chicken would be the best dish. The chicken breast was juicy and had a crispy skin. But the real star was the gnocchi. It was soft and fluffy with a slight char and the truffle flavor was wonderful.

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I was looking closely at their bar menu and decided to order the burger. It came with delicious homemade potato chips. My gourmet burger was grilled to a perfect medium rare which is what I requested. The meat was extremely juicy and eating it made me feel like I was on vacation. It hit the spot.

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Blue Zoo had a couple of glitches, but overall I think it rates well for Orlando.

Kwik Way Revival

Tonight is the first time I stood in line at Kwik Way in Oakland’s Lakeshore District.  It took me 40 years to eat here.  This retro fast food burger joint first opened in the 1950’s.  Restaurateur Gary Rizzo is behind this revival and has made a number of changes.  They still have burgers, fries, and shakes, but you can also find things like barbecue pork sandwich, pizzas, and cobb salad.  They did however lose the drive through and added outdoor seating.

The lights were on at the Kwik Way, so my friend and I decided to stop by since it was pretty late with few options for late night eating.  Since I couldn’t have the beef, I went for the veggie burger.  My friend ordered the regular burger with cheddar cheese.  We shared an order of fries and onion rings.  I couldn’t resist ordering the coffee milk shake.

I am not an expert on veggie burgers.  I’ve eaten a handful in my lifetime.  After biting into the patty, I found it to be very smooth like mashed potatoes, and I’m not saying it in a good way.  It tasted like a Boca Burger.  I added some of their homemade spicy ketchup to give it a little more flavor.  My friend thought her burger was very tasty, not like a fast food burger at all.

The onion rings were flavorful and crispy, but fell apart as I bit into them.  I really enjoyed the french fries as their version has parsley flakes.  And that homemade spicy ketchup makes it even better.

The coffee shake was the winner for me.  I was watching the guy making it and he loaded it with a lot of ice cream.

Having opened less than 48 hours (I think), I think Kwik Way is testing the waters.  If they are open to feedback, please add a turkey burger.  It makes more sense than pizza or a pork sandwich.

I do think it is cool that Kwik Way has reopened.  I hated walking by and seeing cobwebs and graffiti.  It’s good for the City of Oakland and it’s good for late night eaters.  Maybe someday soon Guy Fieri will come by to feature Kwik Way on his show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.  It does have that je ne sais quoi!