Wordless Wednesday: Sichuan Specialties

Stir-Fried Pea Leaves with Garlic

Vegetarian Rice Roll

Vegetarian Noodle with Chili Bean Paste

Triple “C” Cauliflower (Spicy Caramelized Fried Cauliflower)

Tofu Skin Rolls

Hot & Sour Fern Root Noodles

Mama Ji’s
4416 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114

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Pearls of Wisdom

Some dishes just have no right to be so good. They’re too simple, too ordinary, too easy to yield such spectacular results. No matter how uninspired the ingredients look on paper, a jolt of bold flavor belies such humble components. It’s the kind of dish that makes you wonder what magic has conspired in the kitchen, or perhaps, some secret MSG is spiking the punch.

Such is the case for the curried couscous salad at Mendocino Farms. The creamy, golden yellow pasta pearls don’t even look vegan at a glance, but lo! Clear labels reassure eaters that it’s vegan mayonnaise carrying the torch.

Decadent to a degree that would make the average side salad blush, a large part of me wants to hate it on principle. One should never add sugar to a savory dish, and at such a lethal dose! Mayonnaise should be used sparingly at best, a breezy whisper across a slice of bread, barely detectable by the human eye. Then, to go ahead an add even more oil on top of that fatty spread sounds purely excessive, unnecessary, uncalled for, hedonistic in the worst kind of way…!

But, falling prey to the offer of a free sample, I cast all common sense to the wind, letting go of those ingrained notions of decency just long enough to get hooked. I can’t get enough, and I don’t quite know why.

Perhaps the appeal is exactly for all those reasons. It’s because it flies in the face of preconceived boundaries of health and balance, that somehow, it manages to simply WORK.

I can’t claim to understand the compelling appeal of the curried couscous salad, but I can’t deny it, either.

Continue reading “Pearls of Wisdom”

Closing Time

In the final days of the year, it’s natural to look back, taking stock of the previous twelve months, preparing to move forward anew. Rather than unleashing another navel-gazing list of top ten greatest hits, I want to take a moment to remember the dearly departed. 2019 saw the untimely demise of hundreds of restaurants across the nation, fickle business that it is, but it feels particularly poignant when it hits so close to home. The bay area has lost some bright stars this round, which deserve to be properly honored and mourned.

Early in February, while we were still recovering from winter’s torrential rains, Hella Vegan Eats shocked the east bay with a controversial departure from Classic Cars West. After fighting tooth and nail to graduate from their colorful food truck to a static brick and mortar space, it was a huge blow. No more pot sticker burritos, no more mega babe burgers! The same style of ballsy, down home comfort food has resurfaced in the form of Gay4U, revived by partner Sofi Espice at Garden House in downtown Oakland as a regular pop up.

Meanwhile, chef Adina Butler took up the reins in the freshly vacated space left behind by the duo, slinging hearty sandwiches, burgers, and fried delights to compliment the casual outdoor space. Sadly, that too was not long for this world, folding seven months later under unknown circumstances. What remains is a very vegan-unfriendly menu, and many unanswered questions.

Perhaps most devastating to the dining scene at large was the closure of Sanctuary Bistro, one of the very few high-end eateries that offered an entirely plant-based experience, in addition to a completely gluten-free menu. Owners Barry and Jennifer Jones Horton promise that in time, the sanctuary will rise again in Charlotte, NC, to delight diners on the opposite coast anew. Birth announcements have yet to be released.

Longstanding greasy spoon Saturn Cafe seemed indestructible, weathering the ups and downs of Berkeley politics and pricing for over a decade, proving itself beyond the typical short lifespan of the average eatery. It, too, fell to economic pressures, serving up its last plate of scrambled tofu and pancakes in July. The original Santa Cruz location, established in 1979, still soldiers on, but NorCal denizens are left in the dark for their midnight milkshake cravings.

Eatsa launched in San Francisco back in 2015 as an innovative, tech-centric concept centered around one humble grain: quinoa. Served in cubbies reminiscent of the automat experience of yore, without any human interaction, it was slated to be the next big thing. At its height, the company had six locations across multiple states, but soon ran into difficulties. No amount of pricing incentives and recipe reconfiguration could save it. One by one, all outposts quietly turned out the lights, and didn’t return. Supposedly, in addition to the empty retail spaces, they left behind a reported $24,000 in unpaid rent.

In a world already lacking sweetness, the departure of D&H Vegan Ice Cream comes as a particularly devastating blow. Without warning or explanation, the scoop shop was suddenly wiped off the map overnight. The soy based scoops melted away faster than I had time to get in a single lick, sweetening the Lake Merrit area for just a hot minute.

The prize for shortest run goes to Collective Kitchen & Bar, however, surviving on shaky footing for only three months of operation. A spinoff from three members of Juice Bar Collective, the offerings largely reflected their fresh pressed heritage, squeezing out juices, salads, and rice bowls with apparent success. Landlords don’t care about social media reviews, though, and an irreconcilable dispute forced a premature end for the venture.

Not a restaurant per say, but the source of noodle enlightenment to many, Baia Pasta was renowned for its superlative noodles. Selling directly to consumers from its storefront in Jack London Square and restaurants for their comforting carb creations, the cost of doing business became too much for founder Renato Sardo to bear. Unwilling to sell the company at the cost of quality, the legacy of this peerless pasta ends here, while the master returns to Italy for a simpler life.

Finally, some good news to mix in and lighten all the bad; Pizza Moda, purveyors of fine pies with an eye towards seasonal ingredients and vegan alternatives, has turned off the pilot light on their pizza oven, but not for long. Celebrated brother and sister duo Peter Fikaris and Christina Stobing, responsible for The Butcher’s Son, have taken on the project, seeking to revive the fine Italian dining experience in a fully vegan format. With the promise of even greater eats on the horizon, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2020.

Which losses do you feel most acutely, at home or abroad? Restaurants come and go, but their memories (and Yelp pages) live on forever, if the community remains.

Rooted in Oakland

Dragging a top-heavy and overloaded suitcase behind me, the path beyond the main gate became unexpectedly treacherous. Every tiny crack grabbed at the flimsy wheels, threatening to send us both tumbling into bone dry patches of bamboo. Sharp, pointed sticks poked out like spears, waiting to catch my fall. Stumbling forward in the blinding midday sun, the reward for all my efforts was a slap in the face: The key didn’t work.

I had just arrived at my new AirBnB a day before classes were scheduled to begin, and I was locked out. No amount of twisting, jiggling, or forcing the key would convince it to cooperate. No one was home. No one was answering their phones. Or emails. Or text messages. Anxious enthusiasm for the start of my new adventure faded away until only the anxiety remained, and I sat down, staring at the giant tree in the backyard dripping with crusted sap, and cried.

That was my introduction to Oakland, four years ago. Such a tiny blip on the radar now that it’s barely worth retelling, this moment stands out in my memory with new importance in hindsight. As far as I can recall, it was the one time I ever felt shut out, unwelcome, or for whatever reason, excluded. In this politically tense atmosphere, increasingly sensitive, often divisive, and blisteringly judgemental at times, where we celebrate diversity yet resist radical change, this is exceptional. I am the ignorant millennial, ruinous gentrifier, the ugly American, invading in a treasured place where I do not belong… And yet, from the moment my new landlord returned home from work and we finally got that front door open, I’ve felt like I do. Bundled along with that mailing address, I gained a network of neighbors, making a true community. Some filter through quickly, passing by in search of greener pastures, while others have set down roots that go deeper than the old oak trees themselves.

We smile and wave, stop to chat, catch up like old friends while out on the street. Everyone knows each others kids, parents, grandparents, and dogs- Even the stray cats are accounted for, taken care of in rotating shifts. When the summer heat beats down on unforgiving pavement, bowls of water appear for four-legged friends to stay hydrated. Little libraries proliferate with reading material as unique as the residents of each block. Gardens swell and overflow onto sidewalks, freely offering the overabundance to passersby.

That’s how I found myself loaded down with giant green zucchinis and explosively ripe orange cherry tomatoes. At peak ripeness, a fresher bounty could not be found, and thanks to my neighbors, it practically landed on my doorstep. Glowing orange orbs as smooth and round as glass marbles, sweeter than candy, Sun Gold tomatoes in general need little more than a touch of salt for balance. Honoring the fruit means doing as little to it as possible.

A true flash in the pan, the edible gems are seared until their skins bubble and burst to create a sauce of their own juices. Zucchini noodles are tossed into the hot mixture, just to soften, but not cook, retaining a more toothsome bite and fresh flavor.

No longer a mere AirBnB, I’m still in exactly the same place, but it feels much more like home than any other place I’ve been. I’d like to think I’ve finally put down roots of my own.

Continue reading “Rooted in Oakland”

The Lion’s Share

Do you know where your chocolate comes from? No, not the grocery store, or even the country of origin for the beans. More to the point, do you know who your chocolate comes from?

Most of the world’s chocolate is industrial, highly processed to maintain consistency and low prices, but at the expense of nuanced flavor, to say nothing of the human cost. Only a handful of chocolate makers are producing candy for the mass market, but smaller startups are turning the cacao world on its head by starting from the ground up.

Dandelion Chocolate is a bean-to-bar chocolate maker rooted in the Mission District of San Francisco. One of the very few operations in the US that go through the full process of roasting, cracking, sorting, winnowing, grinding, conching, and tempering cacao beans in small batches, it’s a full three to four days before any bars are even formed or packaged- all by hand, I might add.

Here, the unique properties extracted through fermenting and roasting high quality beans are celebrated rather than muted. Even the sweetest blends minimize the use of sugar, adding just enough to accentuate the inherent flavors of the cacao, and dairy is never a consideration. Notably, neither is additional cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin, or any of the other usual chocolate suspects. Without these typical crutches, everything you taste comes solely from the bean at hand. Finally, it’s chocolate that can speak for itself, and the message is loud and clear: There’s nothing comparable on the market, and almost certainly nothing better.

The real treat is getting to see how it’s all made firsthand, through factory tours and generous tastings if you’re lucky enough to be in town. While the cafe is still light on vegan eats, the drinks are really where it’s at. Incredibly rich, dense, decadent hot chocolate put them on the map years ago, but for a lighter, one-of-a-kind refresher on a hot summer’s day, you really must try the cacao smoothie. If you’ve never had fresh cacao before, brace yourself; this tastes nothing like chocolate. Believe it or not, the tropical fruit is more evocative of pineapple, but mild and with no acidity, blending in notes of sweet Meyer lemon. When given the such a rare opportunity, I would implore you to taste the range of flavors the whole fruit is capable of.

Chocolate is so much more than cheap Halloween handouts. Dandelion Chocolate is working to change that misconception, one handmade bar at a time.