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.

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Ippudo: In My Own Eyes

Ippudo Berkeley opened up in late July and I posted a blog about my friend’s experience on opening day. People waited three hours to get a bowl of ramen at Ippudo. After almost two months since opening, lines can still get quite long especially with school in session. Here’s my account of a recent visit with another friend to Ippudo. After waiting thirty five minutes in line outside, we were led inside and seated.

We started out with Ippudo buns. You can order the soft pillowy buns with either chicken, pork belly, or vegetables. Our buns were spread with mayonnaise and had a thick slice of tender pork belly in a tangy glaze. Biting into these were soft and heavenly.


We were debating whether to get the chicken kara-age or the fried chicken wings. The waitress recommended the chicken kara-age. The flavor was subtle and the chicken did not have much of a coating to give it a textural component. It fell flat and I was disappointed in my waitress.


The ramen came in three flavors and you have a choice of how firm you want your noodles. I was drawn to the description of the Akamaru Modern which is a more bold translation of the original pork broth with thin noodles topped with Ippudo’s secret “Umami Dama” miso paste, pork belly chashu, cabbage, and sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant garlic oil. I added a soft boiled egg and requested my noodles to be bari kata, which means firm. The flavors of my ramen broth and noodle texture were very much prepared to my liking.


My friend loves spicy so she ordered the Karaka Spicy which has the original “Tonkotsu” (pork) broth with an added kick, thin noodles with Ippudo’s special blend of hot spices, topped with pork belly chashu, bean sprouts, sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant garlic oil. She ordered hers kata which is al dente. The bowl suited her as well.

In our minds, we still thought we made a bad choice with the chicken kara-age, so we decided we would go ahead and order the fried chicken wings. The chicken wings are glazed in a black pepper sauce. Unfortunately, the wings didn’t meet our expectations either.

  
I would definitely return to Ippudo for the buns and ramen if the wait isn’t too long. The prices are a bit high for a bowl of ramen, but it’s worth it to satisfy a craving now and then.

Eating Vicariously at Ippudo Berkeley

Ippudo is the name of an International Japanese ramen chain. With two ramen shops in New York City, Ippudo opened its third U.S. location on Friday in Berkeley. My friend dined there on Saturday and gave me a play by play in real time so I figured I would share the details.

She strategically arrived at Ippudo at 3:50pm for a meal (not sure whether to call it a late lunch or an early dinner).  There were close to forty people waiting in line in front of her and she waited 45 minutes to get seated. This was not bad as other patrons had waited up to three hours to be one of the first people to eat at Ippudo.She started with the Ippudo chicken wings. They were well seasoned and had the perfect fried crispy skin. The black pepper honey glaze made them finger licking good. She claims them to be the best chicken wings she has ever eaten.
While she was thoroughly enjoying her wings, her bowl of ramen came out. She had let the bowl sit there and after seven minutes, the manager came over to take it away because he felt the quality was compromised. It wasn’t until she finished her chicken wings that her new bowl of ramen came out. The Shiromaru special was ramen noodles with a tasty pork belly cha sui, a soft boiled egg, and a rich and delicious Tonkotsu, pork based broth. She thought the egg was a little over done. 
She ended her meal with a double scoop of creamy black sesame ice cream.  
All in all, she enjoyed her meal. She does want to return at some point to try some other items, including the spicy ramen. Maybe at that time, I will be done with my thirty day no carb, no sugar diet and will join her. I love me a good bowl of ramen.

Japanese Cuisine in Pasadena

A couple of weeks ago, I took a road trip with one of my closest friends to Southern California to check out the Super Bloom in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It’s a long drive so we stopped in Los Angeles County to split up the drive both ways. Along with the beautiful wildflowers, there were plenty of cactus and Ocotillo. I even got an opportunity to do some four wheeling from one end of the desert to the other.  If you want to see more desert or dessert photos, follow my Instagram account.


On the return home, we stayed in Pasadena for the night. After a few days of mediocre food in the desert, we were interested in some fresh sushi. With some research, I discovered the recently opened Sushi Enya.  

The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so we made our way to Colorado Blvd and were lucky to get seats at the sushi bar. We decided on the omakase dinner which would be a three hour affair and included welcome tea, about twelve pieces of sushi, soup, two appetizers, a hand roll, and homemade dessert.

The meal was very well paced and service was both friendly and impeccable. The waitstaff had eyes like hawks because as soon as you were done with a plate, someone would remove it as quick as lightning. A new cloth napkin would appear if you stepped away. I was getting quite full and made a comment to the sushi chef and he said he would use less rice for my remaining nigiri. I was also impressed to see a female sushi chef, even though she wasn’t ours. I heard women don’t make good sushi chefs because their hands are warmer than mens, which is not good for fresh fish. This was my first encounter with a female sushi chef.  I thought the dinner was excellent. After “slumming it” the past few days, it felt like a worthy occasion.  

Our hotel check out was noon the next day. We both planned to work out in the gym in the morning before check out. We would also have a final meal in Pasadena before the long drive back to the Bay Area. I didn’t really want to work out, but luckily I did. Otherwise, I would never have met San Francisco Giants Catcher Buster Posey! He was pretty cool about taking a photo with me.


After our work out, my friend wanted ramen so I sent a text to another friend, a Pasadena resident for a recommendation. He mentioned a ramen place called Ramen Tatsunoya. It’s special because this is the only Ramen Tatsunoya outside Japan. I was sold. I ordered the favorite Koku Tonkotsu which has rich broth with pork back fat, spicy miso, garlic, and burned onion oil. I added a flavored egg. This bowl was pure comfort. The ramen noodles are a bit thinner than I’m used to, but I thought the consistency lightened it up. This must be how they make ramen in Japan. It tasted different, but felt legit.


We made great choices in Pasadena, Japanese cuisine and hitting the gym!

Noodle Theory Provisions: Oodles of Noodles

Noodle Theory Provisions is an Asian fusion noodle shop that opened a few months ago in North Oakland. It borders the City of Emeryville and is a haven for noodle lovers like me. Noodle Theory Provisions is chef/owner Louis Kao’s second restaurant after many years committed to Noodle Theory on Claremont Avenue. I have dined at Noodle Theory Provisions (Provisions) twice since it opened and the food has been impressive both times.
On the appetizer list, I wanted to be healthy and tried the seaweed tofu salad with bean sprouts and mung bean noodles. This cold noodle dish pleasantly surprised me. I enjoyed the cold appetizer and found it refreshing especially for a warm day. I may even try replicating this dish this summer.
Provisions has a list of soup noodles as well as saucy and sautéed noodles. The soup noodle bowl I enjoyed was the grilled Niman Ranch spicy pork loin ramen in a peanut lime cilantro broth. For some funny reason, the bowl brought back fond childhood memories of eating Top Ramen at home with leftover pork chop. Of course this tasted a million times better, but the comfort felt the same.

On one occasion, I had the Panko crusted Cod over warm ginger scallion noodles. Ginger and scallion produce two of my favorite flavors and together it creates the perfect harmony for the noodles to sing in. With that said, the cod was slightly overcooked and left me a little disappointed.  

After eating the grilled Korean marinated short rib over a kimchee chow mein the first time, I ordered it again on my second visit. I will probably have it on every future visit because it’s so good. I mean, who doesn’t love Korean BBQ short ribs? It is a perfect combination with the spicy and tangy kimchee noodles. I often see kimchee fried rice, but kimchee noodles is genius.  

On my second visit, I had dessert which was the Calamansi Lime Icebox Pie. The extreme cold and creaminess gave it the feel of a frozen ice cream, and the citrus flavor and graham cracker crust reminded me of a key lime pie. The blackberry sauce added another dimension. I was amazed at how delicious this was.  

If you are a noodle fan, check out Noodle Theory or Noodle Theory Provisions.  

The Best Things I Ate: San Diego

I was in San Diego last weekend. A lot has changed since I lived there twenty years ago including the food scene. That’s probably true everywhere. Food has changed a lot in the last twenty years. Another change is that you can easily find the best foods to eat even when you are a visitor.

My trip to San Diego had me searching for some of the bests. The best breakfast/brunch goes to Hash House A Go Go in Hillcrest. People rave about the Sage Fried Chicken and Bacon Waffles. While I thoroughly enjoyed the fried chicken (not so much the waffle), it was the B.L.T. Mary that surprised me and impressed me.
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My Bloody Mary came with bacon, lettuce, tomato, toast, and mayo. I was now able to build half a sandwich as well as have a drink. What a clever and fun concept! Realistically, this was all I needed to call brunch.
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The best place for a bowl of ramen noodles is a hip place called Underbelly in Little Italy. I enjoyed my ramen, but loved the ambiance. At Underbelly, you place your order, pay for your meal, and then take a seat. We were seated at the bar. The walls are made of glass so you feel like you are eating outside.
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I ordered the Belly of the Beasts Ramen which included a soft boiled egg, oxtail dumplings, smoked brisket, and hoisin glazed short rib. When my order arrived, it didn’t come with a soup spoon. The story behind this is that they say that in Japan they don’t use soup spoons for ramen and the soup is meant to be slurped. I followed the rule and after consuming everything in my bowl with chopsticks, I slurped down the remaining broth. Delicious!
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I saved the best thing I ate in San Diego for last. The best thing I had was a donut from the Donut Bar in Downtown. While the Donut Bar also has a version of the donut croissant combination called the crobar, it is not their best offering.
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I tried quite a few donuts and my favorite by far was the strawberry split. They take a deep fluffy sugar donut, cut it in half and stuff it with whipped cream and strawberries. While donuts are typically eaten as a form of breakfast, this one makes for a great dessert. I had the strawberry split twice during my short visit, after all it was the best thing I ate in San Diego.
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The Ramen Shop: Making Ramen Trendy in Oakland

The Ramen Shop joins a long list of Oakland restaurants who’s chef owners trained in the Chez Panisse kitchen. Other restaurants/bakeries include Cosecha, Bakesale Betty, Oliveto, Boot and Shoe Service, Camino, and Pizzaiola.
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Last night my BFF and I arrived at the Ramen Shop for a late night meal. The restaurant has a cool vibe with hip music. On weekends they stay open until midnight. We arrived after 9pm and waited about 25 minutes to be seated at their restaurant bar. It was nice to be able to have a view of the preparation and cooking.
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We started with an appetizer to share. We picked the fried rice which came with pork and sardines. My BFF thought this dish may have been influenced by the Chinese fried rice dish that is made with chicken and salty fish. We both loved it. The flavors were bold and exotic and I liked the consistency and textures of the ingredients.
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We each got our own bowl of ramen. They make their noodles in house. My BFF ordered the ramen that came with clams, pork, seaweed, and half a soft boiled egg. The broth was light and was likely a seafood base.
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My bowl of ramen had a miso based soup which is thicker in consistency and came with black cod, pork, and half a soft boiled egg. The egg in both our bowls were steeped in a soy mirin mixture that gives it extra flavor.
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The bowls of noodles at the Ramen Shop are priced at about $15. Some may say that is not worth the price of a bowl of noodles. You do get high quality ingredients and it is worth the price for me when my alternative is Orenchi in Santa Clara, a long trek away. The Ramen Shop is making ramen trendy in Oakland.