November 27, 2004

Rubbing Our Heads and Eating Our Dim Sum. Yum, Yum.

Dim sum, the Southern-Chinese style teahouse lunch, has followed the Cantonese people from China and Hong Kong to Chinatowns and now even to ritzy suburbs like Walnut Creek, CA, which is home to the new location of Tin's Teahouse, one of Oakland Chinatown's venerable Dim sum specialists. The new Tin's, occupying one large wing of a strip mall, is cleaner and less cramped than most Dim sum restaurants I have seen. Because of this and the fact that the food is quite good, I am pleased to report that in this case Dim sum suburbanizes well.

Like its urban cousins, Tin's offers a vast selection of Dim sum. Their choices ranged from the standard ha gow (shrimp dumpling), and lotus leaf-wrapped packages of sticky rice to banal potstickers and spring rolls, to the authentic but less-seen chicken feet and tripe. As normal, these wares were served off of carts pushed through the dining rooms by waitresses who yell in Cantonese the names of what's to eat.

In my experience, suburban Dim sum houses, particularly those in the "whiter" suburbs, tend to offer less variety than their urban (and in particular Chinatown) counterparts. Tin's, to my surprise, sold perhaps the greatest variety of Dim sum I have seen in the same restaurant. My dining partner, Angelee Field, and I took advantage of that. We enjoyed shrimp in many ways--steamed in rice-flour dumplings as ha gow; steamed and wrapped in chow fun noodles; minced and stuffed into black mushrooms and stir-fried; minced and stuffed into tofu and deep-fried; and as the often-seen dinner dish, walnut prawns. The availability of walnut prawns as dim sum is probably a concession to suburban white folks because they are already familiar with them. Authentically dim sum or not, all the shrimp dishes featured beautifully pink, tender, high quality shrimp, deftly removed of their gritty intestines.

Angelee and I also enjoyed a few non-shrimp items. I was a big fan of the savory sticky rice, steamed in a lotus leaf and studded with lop cheong (Chinese Sausage), chicken, and (you guessed it!) more shrimp. Finely chopped garlic chives brightened pan-fried scallop dumplings. The only miss was a bland and plain, though not unpleasant dish of chow fun.

Dim sum origins can be traced to free nibbles given out at tea houses, a long time ago. Now, it is flipped around--the tea is free at Tin's, but they charge you for the food. This can lead some lesser dim sum houses to use bad tea in teabags. However, Tin's uses loose-leaf tea. Tea service is up to par as well. When I wanted a new pot of tea, all I had to do was flip up the teapot's top. Within seconds, a member of the waitstaff replaced my empty pot with a steamy full one.

Tin's should be proud to have transported the good parts of a Chinatown dim sum hall out to the happy (and well-fed) faces and open spaces of Walnut Creek.

Co-luncher Angelee Field (right) standing with Mr. Tin, owner of Tin's Teahouse. Those who have lived in Berkeley may notice a striking resemblance between Mr. Tin and the owner of the former Curry-in-Hurry (sic). Posted by Hello

Remnants of a shrimp-laden lunch. (Clockwise from top left) Panfried scallop and chive dumpling, Walnut prawns, Chow Fun, Shrimp in rolled Chow Fun, Deep-fried tofu stuffed with shrimp, steamed black mushroom stuffed with minced shrimp, ha gow (shrimp dumpling). Posted by Hello

To request more tea, simply flip up the teapot's lid. This time, it took only 10 seconds from flip to replenishment. Posted by Hello

November 19, 2004

this column has been stewing for quite some time...

Gentle Readers, I take it upon myself to ask questions that you either would deem unimportant or not even come up with. One such question popped into my this afternoon head as I was gnawing on a tender but bland tandoori chicken leg at Kamal Palace, one of the first Indian restaurants that have emerged to the west of the UC-Berkeley campus. Why are most Indian restaurants buffets? Then the questions multiplied. Why are there so many Chinese buffets? Is there something inherent to these cuisines that make them particularly amenable to buffet-dom? These questions cannot be answered right here, right now, because I have not eaten enough Indian food outside of a buffet setting. I posed this question to Isabel Chon, this Friday's dining companion. She had no idea.

Most Indian curries that I have eaten have been stewed, and thus are particularly well-suited to sit in a steam tray for a while, where they may even improve with a little time. However, I wonder if they are supposed to be cooked with that much liquid. At Kabab & Curry and Naan 'n' Curry (I sense an article about repetitive Indian restaurant nomenclature), which are the two non-buffet Indian restaurants at which I have eaten, the curries were more saucy than soupy, and were decidedly fresher and more boldly seasoned. I could also more easily scoop up these made-to-order curries with naan. Buffet curries tend to run together on the plate and end up tasting like a generic mish-mash of Indian food.

While pondering these questions, tucked into the buffet. We both enjoyed the naan; it was soft and pillowy on the inside, but crisp on the outside. The tandoori chicken legs were juicy and tender, but I doubt they were actually made in a tandoor. They were barely charred on the outside and lacked the typical smokiness that typically draws me to them. I had a servng and a half of a rather anonymous and underseasoned lamb curry. I'm also pretty certain that some of the chunks of lamb were actually chunks of chicken. In any case, the lumps of mystery meat in this soupy creation tenderized because of its long stay in the steam tray.

Assorted Vegetable pakoras, which were mainly thickly battered onions, gave off the flavor of old, oily dough. When dipped in a ramekin of supposed tamarind chutney, they ended up tasting oddly like apple fritters, as the chutney, upon further examination looked and tasted to me like applesauce spiked until dark brown with cinnamon. The mint-based chutney yielded more normal-tasting results.

Also available (but avoided by me) at the buffet were a pan of thick, coagulating, day-glo orange chicken tikka masala, an insipid-looking lentil soup, a couple types of basmati rice, some salad, a few additional very watery vegetable and meat curries, and orange slices.

Though I may not know what good Indian food is, I'm pretty sure it doesn't often manifest itself in buffet form. I cannot be absolutely sure why the food was lacking in quality. Should I blame the chef or the chafing dish?

November 12, 2004

Chicken Secret

As emphasized in earlier Lunch Series entries, there is no doubt to the importance of taking some time out of the office for lunch. However, lunches need not be particularly fancy like at Central Park in order to be restful or otherwise beneficial. The Comeback Cafe, located on Christie Avenue in Emeryville, CA, is such a place. What it lacks in cloth napkins, plush carpets, wood panelling and formalities it makes up for with good food and a clean, cheery atmosphere. Whereas Central Park felt corporate and somewhat austere (though still pleasant), the Comeback Cafe feels intimate--a gathering place for regulars. Being locally owned and family-run also contributes on that end.

Matt Levine and I made our separate ways down from Berkeley and met each other at the MacArthur BART station. Then, we took the free Powell Street Emery-Go-Round shuttle to the Comeback Cafe.

Upon arriving, we were warmly greeted by the owner and the cashier/sandwich maker. The Comeback cafe serves a large variety of dishes. Ranging from breakfast foods like "egg mits" to sandwiches and salads, to daily specials such as chicken pho or other Asian dishes. I sidled up to the counter and ordered one of the specials, the much-hyped Fire-roasted chicken. Served with salad and a choice of white or brown rice, it makes for a satisfying and nutritious lunch. Matt ordered the Vietnamese Chicken Salad, served with a piece of a baguette. We split and order of shrimp spring rolls, filled out with lettuce and thin rice noodles and served with a spicy peanut dipping sauce.

The spring rolls tasted clean and fresh, and the shrimp were surprisingly tender and sweet, as often they are bland and rubbery in spring rolls. Matt's Vietnamese Chicken Salad consisted of shredded chicken, shredded cabbabge and shredded carrots, tossed in a bright soy, sesame and citrus-based dressing. Since the salad does not skimp on the chicken, it makes a good, light lunch.

I had the Fire-roasted chicken upon the cashier's recommendation and the fact that it has a "secret recipe." The chicken is truly a thing of beauty. It was cooked to my liking; the thigh and drumstick were marinated in what I think is a blend of sesame, soy sauce, and maybe a little garlic, ginger and sugar, and then roasted until just starting to fall off the bone. The resulting chicken had reasonably crisp and well-seasoned skin, and luscious, juicy meat. Matt, a fan of Zankou Chicken, which is regarded as some of the best roasted chicken in Los Angeles, if not the West Coast, also deemed the Fire-roasted chicken "excellent." I craned my neck around to look inside the kitchen for a rotisserie, but I could not find one. Thus, the Comeback Cafe's Fire-roasted chicken's origins will continue to remain a delicious secret.

Gentle Readers, it is now time for full disclosure. Toakase Latu, one of my roommates, is the cashier/sandwich/salad maker at the Comeback Cafe. On Sunday, 11/7/04, Toa and I were treated to dinner at Tomatina by the Comeback's owner, Minh. The lunch was not free (I paid). In light of this, I have remained as objective as possible while writing this week's post.

Our meal concluded with a bag of Jelly Belly jelly beans given to us by Toa and Minh. Evidentally, Minh had purchased a large bag of jelly beans earlier in the day. Her mother, who also works at the cafe, did not want her to eat all of them, so she made her give them away to customers. This sort of joyous, humorous tomfoolery probably does not happen much elsewhere.

The Comeback Cafe offers more than a variety of well-executed dishes. It is an alternative to the rest of Emeryville, which is largely corporate-run chain restaurants (Chevy's, Lyon's, Denny's) and big-box retail. It offers a relaxed, friendly atmosphere in which you can enjoy them, and a colorful staff and management.

Fire-roasted chicken with salad and brown rice, Comeback Cafe. Posted by Hello

Shrimp Spring Rolls with spicy peanut sauce Posted by Hello

Vietnamese Chicken Salad Posted by Hello

November 05, 2004

six ingredients are all it takes

Gentle Readers, after two weeks of delay, one lunch on Wednesday, and one dead car battery, Angelee Field and I finally sat down to a club sandwich lunch at Sconehenge. This greasy-spoon diner and bakery occupies the quiet corner of Shattuck Ave and Stuart St in a quiet part of Berkeley. Sconehenge doles out breakfasts and lunches mainly to "real people," as opposed to UC-Berkeley students. Less fancy than other breakfast/lunch spots like La Note, Rick & Ann's, or Venus, Sconehenge more than holds its own as the only source for "normal" unpretentious food. Upon seeing the slightly grimy orange floor to the chipped brown coffee cups, to the bright orange vinyl booths, one would not expect daring culinary innovations from Sconehenge, but rather the familiar tastes and smiling faces of a neighborhood American diner.

In addition to standard diner fare such as egg dishes, pancakes, french toast, and sandwiches, Sconehenge serves up burritos and Mexican breakfast items such as huevos revueltos and huevos con chorizo, as well as a few daily specials, my favorite being the seldom-seen Hangtown Fry (a decadent omelet stuffed with bacon and pan-fried oysters originally served to 49ers who struck it rich). While pretty much all of Sconehenge's food is good, it is their club sandwich that brings me and Angelee back there time and time again.

Angelee and I both ordered a turkey club sandwich, which comes with a choice of an organic green salad or french fries. Of course, we both opted for fries. Club sandwiches, a mainstay of diners, stand peerless in the sandwich world. A well-crafted club sandwich is an excercise in simplicity. Roasted turkey (or chicken), bacon, lettuce and sliced tomato, all placed betwixt three slices of toasted white bread lightly lubricated by a thin layer of mayonaise are all you need. Then, one should cut the resulting double-decker sandwich twice diagonally and then secure the slices with large toothpicks. Served atop a heap of salty french fries, a proper club sandwich makes a lunch that is almost impossible to beat.

There are fancier club sandwiches out there, especially in California, where avocado or sprouts may find their way in. Other breads besides toasted white have been used, and the meats may change. I have seen salmon clubs, dungeness crab clubs, ham and turkey clubs, and even a hamburger club. That being said, if the club sandwich isn't broke, there's no need to fix it. In a well-made club, each ingredient can be tasted individually while simultaneously contributing to the sandwich as a whole. Yet club sandwiches still cannot be explained as merely the sum of their parts. There is some sort of multiplicative effect, a Gestalt, present in club sandwiches and in other finely assembled foods such as composed salads. Sconehenge's clubs present good, clean and clear flavors and textures--the juicy meatiness of the roasted turkey, the rich, chewy smokiness from the bacon, the sweet-tart squish of tomato, the crisp lettuce and crunchy toast, all tied together with the smooth tang of mayonaise. Even with all of that going on, the flavors and textures do not step all over each other.

I find it refreshing to enjoy such a simply created yet complexly holistic sandwich. Sconehenge's club sandwiches are so much more than their six ingredients. When served beside pefectly crisp fries (which the condiment-averse Angelee eats sans ketchup), they become what American cuisine should be--simply flavored but not bland, a little on the greasy and rich side, and above all, comforting. Sconehenge clubs deliver on that end. They gave Angelee and me so much comfort that before getting up, we had to sit and relax and digest and enjoy the afternoon for a little while.

N.B. Sconehenge serves its turkey club sandwiches only on weekdays. If you're there on a weekend, they will gladly make you a club with grilled chicken, which produces (in my opinion) an even tastier sandwich.

Two turkey club sandwiches with french fries, executed with precision, Sconehenge. Posted by Hello