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

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.

Kombucha in a Class of Its Own

To those who can’t ride the wave of kombucha sweeping the nation: I get it. The harsh, vinegary bite of most commercial brews can be matched in hostility only by the aggressive carbonation quick to follow. Frothing angrily in the mouth, searing all the way down the throat, such overbearing acidity obliterates all other sensations. Flavor? Who could discern a flavor from something as pungent as straight battery acid? Those sensitive to the taste know this isn’t such an exaggeration, especially when pairing equally assertive notes of ginger or lemon; an incredibly popular approach.

Marin Kombucha is the brew for you. Before breaking the seal and taking your first sip, forget everything you previously knew about fermented tea, because this is just that: tea first, tonic second. Far more balanced, sweet without being sugary, and altogether more refreshing than any other option in the category, Marin Kombucha stands apart from the pack. Founders Gerit Williams and Brian Igersheim meld their unique passions in food and chemistry to create such an unparalleled beverage right in the heart of the north bay, between Napa Valley and San Francisco.

I was lucky enough to meet Gerit at an event by Sound & Savor, who stocks only Marin Kombucha as the non-alcoholic alternative to beer or wine. Passionate about tea, his lifelong obsession progressed in knowledge, understanding, and exposure throughout the years to culminate in the brand, first launching in 2015. Ask him anything about the process and prepare yourself for a complete education. Reverse osmosis-filtered water meets a mix of dragonwell green and kimon black tea in exacting proportions, but don’t forget about the nuances drawn out by brewing time and temperature, too.

“After 90 seconds, all the bitter tannins begin to leach out,” he explains. “Longer brews don’t yield stronger flavor, just more bitter flavor. Besides that, it destroys antioxidants.”

Both art and science intermingle in every glass bottle, bringing centuries of tradition into the modern age with precise control over every step in the process. Every small batch ends at exactly a PH of 3.5 and an alcohol content of less than 0.01%. The really fascinating thing, however, is that this is truly a live food; given warmth and time, the yeast will reactivate and continue to ferment. It’s one of (if not the) only kombucha currently on the market that could actually grow its own scoby given the right conditions. If you’ve considered adding probiotics to your daily diet, skip the supplements and drink your “medicine” instead!

Marin Kombucha’s signature flavors of oak-aged fermented tea reflect the local harvest: Original Oak, Apple Juniper, Pinot Sage, and Ginger Lemongrass. While these four distinctive varieties are currently bottled for purchase in every Whole Foods in northern California and in many specialty and natural foods stores, rapidly spreading across the country, limited run batches tempt in full kegs. Unconventional combinations like Strawberry Pistachio, Raspberry Cacao, Blood Orange Cardamom, Cactus Agave, and Mojito tease, popping up randomly on tap every now and then. My current favorite, Melon Rose, is happily transitioning to single-serve packaging soon, harmonizing notes of honeydew, watermelon, and a hint of rose on a naturally effervescent foundation.

Currently producing in excess of 15,000 gallons per week, the only barrier to further growth is sheer physical space. Demand is bubbling over because once anyone tries their first sip, they’ll realize what kombucha really should be. It’s hard to go back to anything else.

 

 

 

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.