Big wraps from tiny Razan’s Organic Kitchen

Maybe I’m still holding everything in comparison to Texas, and maybe it’s unjust to do so, but South Berkeley is seriously the hole-in-the-wall haven. It’s like the folks here just woke up one day and decided hey I’m gonna swap out the sofas downstairs for some huge stoves, place in a few tiny tables and a few tiny chairs against the walls, and maybe an umbrella out on the pavement for style, a receipt printer, a sign that says “Cash only”, and a drink dispenser (or water pitchers). Voilà, mon restaurant! Or in this case, more humble and descriptive, Razan’s Organic Kitchen! The wraps take center stage on the chalkboard menu, and the snugly enclosure doesn’t invite a serious course, so we opted for two wraps. The veggie one, named Egyptian (did Egyptians not eat meat?), came out as soon as we filled our water paper cups. As far as content goes, I didn’t expect much from a package of falafel, hummus, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, and tahini (sesame paste) wrapped in wheat tortilla, which isn’t really different from pita. But the package did surprise me […]

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Millbrae Pancake House – Old country breakfast with a berry good twist

The most irresistible American meal is the full country breakfast. I know it’s derived from the full English breakfast and all, and it’s probably so irresistible just because who in their right mind would refuse food after a long night with an empty stomach (hence the word “fast” – not eating, in “breakfast”). And yes, there’s nothing speedy about the old country breakfast. Making pancakes, scrambling eggs, frying sausages takes a good hour off your morning, not to mention scrubbing the skillets afterwards. I probably will never make a full country breakfast at home until I have nothing better to do, but thank God for blessing America with countless roadside brick houses opened up just to serve breakfast. And may those like Millbrae Pancake House flourish despite the swamping force of IHOP and the likes, because they serve freaking good breakfast. I said freaking good because I happened to order the one dish that, it turns out for the first time, everyone on Yelp seems to agree to be MPH’s best. The Swedish pancake with lingonberry butter. Have no idea how Swedish this really is, but the pancake is […]

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Chinese candy talking

Sometimes, very seldom, I feel the urge to learn Chinese. There are just too many little Chinese things going around without English labels. In fact, the harder it is to describe, the more likely its name is all in Chinese. Take these sweets for instance. They come in handmade red paper boxes at a wedding. This one shapes like a corn ear, smells and tastes like corn, and aptly has an English name: Corn Flavour Jelly. A nice chew but you gotta git it down fast or you git tireduvit. Continue reading Chinese candy talking

Bangkok Noodles & Thai BBQ – The cheapest deal near Union Square

Don’t know about you, but after I empty out my bank shopping in Union Square, it doesn’t sound right to pick up an $80 tab at one of those restaurants with a uniformed man at the door greeting every passerby and making us feel bad for not dining with them. So as much as I wanted to have frog legs and duck tongues or something not-so-homey of sort, we ducked into this rabbit hole in the wall called Bangkok Noodles & Thai BBQ, under Hotel Union Square and next to some equally tiny sport clothing shop. It is truly, truly, a hole in the wall. But nobody seemed to mind. We had to walk sideway to weave pass the single line of sitting and standing people from the door through a short hall (if the thing between the wall and the divider to the kitchen can be called a hall) to get a table for two. This cookery is the epitome of land conservation. There’s just enough space for one foot at a time between the rows of tables. When the place is packed, like the time I was there, strangers practically sit together, […]

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Careful charging

I’m suffocating myself with two large pizzas from West Coast. The one above is No. 7 The Godfather, with tomato sauce, pepperoni, salami, onion, mozzarella, olives (which I enjoy picking off), pepper rings (the yellow thing, very mild), and green bell pepper. No. 3 Pesto Chicken sounds excellent but turns out dry like hay in the shed, I never knew tomato sauce was so important at keeping it wet. West Coast is good pizza at moderate price in a moderate factory-looking store. There is no chair or table for dine-in, but there’s a wide unadorned counter for orders and pickups, where you can stand awkwardly watching the guys throwing and spreading cheese and sauce on your pies before swifting them into the ovens. There are two big fridges full of soft drinks, a delivery map of the area, a sign that says “Don’t put pizza boxes on the floor” in English and Portuguese, a few Brazilian magazines scattered in one forlorn corner. They only take credit card for purchases over 10 dollars, something I’m not so fond of at local stores around Berkeley. Continue reading Careful charging

Sandwich shop goodies 7 – Bắp hầm (Vietnamese whole kernel grits)

Corn must be my favorite grain. Growing up with very limited access to street food, I used to fix my eyes on the corn carts and baskets of market women near home, secretly drooling. They had a big steamer packed with corn ears still wrapped in their wilted yellow husks and brown silk, sometimes a glass shelf with peeled ones, white and shiny and plump. I was always so happy when Dad bought xôi bắp, sweet corn and sticky rice, for breakfast. Then at night there was corn-on-the-cobs grilled by coal fire and smothered with lard and green onions. It’s better than butter, no doubt. At che stalls there was corn pudding with coconut milk, which I like when it’s warm and gooey. And that was all the Vietnamese corn stuff I knew. Not until recently that I came across another corn thing, a midfielder between chè bắp (corn pudding) and xôi bắp, and porridge too. I hate porridge, but I love this stuff. Some people just call it “bắp nấu”, “cooked corn”, either to make sure that we know we’re not eating raw ones or to confuse questioners with the boiled whole […]

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Old timer Cenare

Colorful Tortellini Toscana at Cenare, College Station, TX How do you write about a place you haven’t been to for ages? The consensus is that fresh memories, like fresh ingredients, are best for blogging. I often find myself writing effortlessly about a meal I just finish or an event from which I just depart, when the details have yet to sneak out the back door. If I wait two weeks, the tastes are still there, the ambiance is still there, but the minute corner-of-the-eye observations are gone. If I wait a month, expectations creep in to fill the fuzzy spots: I write what I think should be true as pictures trigger the taste buds, but reality can certainly outplay expectation anytime. When I wait a year, even the ambiance is nothing but a flimsy strain of smoke. Notes may take care of facts, but when memory fades, so does the flow to glue the facts together into a comprehensible piece. I’m now in such affair with Cenare. Continue reading Old timer Cenare

Sandwich Shop Goodies 6 – bánh dừa (coconut sticky rice stick)

If anything can be called the Vietnamese granola bar, it’s bánh dừa. Coconut bánh. The simple name lends room for innocent confusions with the French Coco au Miel, the Malaysian kuih binka gandum, the coconut cookies, and a whole flock of other Vietnamese coconut treats also known as bánh dừa (with some additives like “grilled”, “honeyed”, or “lemon”). People of the deep south don’t get too fancy with names: when the bánh has coconut milk mixed with sticky rice and is wrapped in coconut leaves, it has every right to be call a coconut bánh. Besides, children identify it by the unique look. A stiff, almost cylindrical case, as long as a palm and almost two fingers wide, is made from wrapping one single young coconut leaf around hours of training, to protect the glutinous rice and bean paste core for days in the tropics’ heat. The one I bought stays good for two weeks in the fridge, unwrapped. Continue reading Sandwich Shop Goodies 6 – bánh dừa (coconut sticky rice stick)

Crixa Cakes – The Old World sweets

By the time we found Crixa Cakes, the bluish afternoon sunlight was tinkling its almost empty glass cabinets. The bakery closes at 6:30 everyday and does not open on Sunday. The menu changes daily and the cakes go fast. But we were slow at making up our minds. Bakeries are worse than quaint bookstores, where you can at least try out something before buying it. Easiest choice: Boston creme pie. Tender chiffon cake with creamy vanilla custard, covered with dark chocolate ganache. The refrigerated sponge is like Choco Pie, only much better and, of course, pricier at $5.85 a piece. (Fun facts: its monetary value is, however, nothing compared to the Choco Pie in North Korean black markets, where a single pie costs one sixth a worker’s monthly wage.) Curious choice: Pave vergiate. Flourless chocolate cake. Slightly bitter, some on and off hint of lizard eggs or herbal tea. I know that sounds weird, and it’s not like I’ve tried lizard eggs, but you’ve gotta trust your instinct, and as weird as it may sound, it’s a nice subtle taste […]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 5 – Bánh khảo (bánh in)

It looks just slightly bigger than a chocolate bar, and about as thick. It has three thin layers, one bright yellow sandwiched between two whites, like a rectangular slice of hard boiled egg. The humble appearance of bánh khảo, like so many other Vietnamese old school treats, masks tremendous creativity and skill of the country’s villagers. And so little is known about it. Some just say it came from the Chinese immigrants, others believe it’s a special fare of the Tày, an ethnic group in the second-farthest-north-border province Cao Bằng, where Chinese influence seeps through the forests and mutates with a mountainous feel. All we know is when you go to Cao Bằng, you get a bar of “pẻng cao” (bánh khảo) for 1000VND (less than 6 US cents), whose middle layer can either be sweet with peanuts and honey, or savory with sliced fatty pork. The savory kind is a staple to the Tày people. The flour from roasted sticky rice grains, let sit overnight, mixed with sugar and pressed into a thin sheet, somehow can stay good for a whole month. Its light weight makes a good dry snack […]

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