Chowing on Oakland's International Ave: a continuing series
- Ruth Lafler
There was a review of a newish restaurant called El Huarche Azteca (3824 International -- directly across from the famous El Ojo de Aguas taco truck) in the SF Chron a couple of weeks ago, and I've been dying to try it.
I finally made it over there for a late lunch yesterday, and was disappointed. I really wanted to like this place: it has a nice atmosphere (Aztec-themed mural on the walls) and the menu is quite different from either a standard Bay Area taqueria or cantina. I'm still willing to go back and try some of their other specialties, but I'm not encouraged by what I sampled.
Since it seems to be a specialty, I ordered a huarache (a thick piece of griddled masa roughly the size and shape of the sole of the sandal for which it is named), topped with chiccarones, slasa verde, lettuce, shredded queso fresca and crema. This version had a layer of refritos in the masa itself, which apparently kept the top layer of masa from setting completely -- it was gummy and unappetizing. The toppings were unexciting. I kept comparing it (unfavorably) with the huaraches at La Torta Loca down the street.
I also ordered a suadero (beef rib meat) taco. The meat was okay (a little dry), but the tortillas were saturated with oil.
A basket of chips and both red and green salsas came with the meal. The chips were pretty good, but both salsas, although flavorful, were overly astringent. Horchata was thin and too cinnamony.
I felt really bad when the guy at the register asked if I enjoyed it and the best I could come up with was "it was okay." Still, I'm willing to go back and try some of their weekend-only specials.
If I hadn't been so full, I would have succumbed to the temptations of a new place I passed on the walk back to the BART station: the owner of Tam's Restaurant (3503 International, 510-436-3594) was standing in the doorway offering samples of his teriyaki chicken drumettes, and they were darn good: plump, juicy and sweet.
I'm not how to categorize this place: the interior is rather handsome Japanese black and white shoji screen look, but the 27-item menu is rather unfocused: mostly made up of offerings like teriyaki plates, u-dong [sic], ramen, California roll, but the first two items on the menu are fried rice and chow muen [sic]. Prices range from $4-$6.75.
Still, I got the impression that this might be one of those chowhoundy holes in the wall run by someone who is really passionate about what he's doing. (I also love the exhortations at the bottom of the menu: "TOGO OK!OK! HERE OK! NO TAX! NO TIP! LUNCH & DINNER SAME PRICE!")
Wednesday I was passing through Oakland at lunch time and headed over to the International Blvd. to check out the Vietnamese eateries near 7th Ave. When I spotted the red paper remnants of firecrackers strewn on the sidewalk outside June June Deli (to scare away bad spirits) and the "grand re-opening" banner plus saw how many people were packed inside on this hot day, I thought it looked promising. The interior is contemporary and spare, and Chinese language rock videos fill the air.
The wait staff were all ethnic Chinese and most of the patrons spoke to them in Cantonese. The menu is tri-lingual - English, Vietnamese and Chinese. I asked who was in the kitchen and was informed that the three cooks are all Vietnamese women. I had a chance to confirm this when I was waiting to pay at the cashier station and saw a couple tiny brown-skinned women darting about and lugging big cauldrons when the kitchen door swung open.
The menu here is simple: Vietnamese style noodle and rice dishes, porridge, various drinks including tapioca pearl (boba), and jellies. I scanned the menu for the magic words, "dac biet" meaning house special, and here it actually says it in English. The house special is chicken rice @ $5.95 which didn't appeal to me much this time. Seeing soup bowls on nearly all the tables, I opted instead for bun bo hue ("spicy beef, pigs hand lai fun soup", $5.25) and a mango pearl drink, $2.50.
The pearl balls were nice and chewy, not too soft, and tasted of strong tea. The mango drink was overly sweet with a tinny taste, but as the ice melted to diluted the syrupy mango juice, it became more appealing.
The bun bo hue turned out to be a powerfully flavored concoction that warranted careful excavation to figure out what all was lurking below the red chili oil surface of my soup. Just the plate of garnishes piled with a lovely assortment of dewy fresh veggies was impressive: laksa leaf (picture below), mint, pungent purple-stemmed Thai basil, shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, lemon wedges, and slices of jalapeño chilis.
While teaming with red chili flakes, the version here was not as spicy as others I've tried and I even added a couple of jalapeños to the brew. There was so much more going on in the flavor spectrum, I didn't miss the heat at all. Chopped cilantro, green onions and finely sliced yellow onions floated on the surface. A good amount of strong fish sauce and some shrimp paste added a funky back beat. The broth was a blend of beef, pork and chicken, heavy on deeply porcine qualities with lots of roasted onion flavor and lemongrass. The rice vermicelli noodles were plentiful, firm and not mushy. The cross section cut of pig's trotter was not pickled, unlike other versions I've had, and I found myself missing the tart counterpoint to the hot spicy soup. The thinly shaved slices of beef shank were well-flavored with 5-spice, webbed with crunchy gristle and had the correct chewy, fatty character. Chunks of beef tendon were plentiful, barely soft enough offering some resistance to the bite. A couple thick slices of bologna-like steamed pork roll (the mystery meat cold cut in classic banh mi) and big cubes of pork blood that looked like chocolate fudge were additions that were new to me in this dish. All in all, this was a riot of flavors and textures and a very different style of bun bo hue.
A complimentary dessert of assorted jellies and yellow beans on ice in pink-tinged coconut cream was provided on opening day. I don't know if this will continue.
This first visit tells me that the cooking here is authentic and geared to the immigrant community. It may be scary for the uninitiated. I was aware that pork blood was traditional, but this was the first time it had been offered to me in this dish and it was exciting to try the authentic taste of bun bo hue. Since my experience with Vietnamese food is limited to the Bay Area, I'd love to hear from others more familiar with the cuisine about traditional variations on bun bo hue.
June June Deli
702-C International Blvd.
9AM to 9PM
re: Melanie Wong
Melanie, you are amazing! I bow before your chow-sniffing skills.
I have to say that dish sounds a little too authentic for my taste. I'm still not up to pig's blood.
I was a couple of blocks farther down International checking out a couple of places. And I think I'm heading back right now.
As you pointed out, the restaurants on this stretch are clearly catering to the immigrant community -- the one I was in yesterday had the Vietnamese karaoke system on, not just the music, but the videos on the large screen TV.
And like the Mexican place I was in Wednesday, the smaller TV was tuned to the World Cup.
re: Ruth Lafler
Yes, trust Melanie to find a place before the firecrackers have barely had time to turn cold.
I've been intrigued by bun bo hue for a while, but the versions I've had at restaurants in SF have been sort of bland and containing only beef. Obviously I've been missing out on some really good stuff! I will be sure to check this place out.
Ruth, if you want a gentle introduction to pigs blood, you might try it at Harbor Village for dimsum. The cart comes out usually at around 11:00 and has braised pig blood, beef tripes, turnip and cuttlefish. They top it off with poached chinese chives.
Yes, the ones I've had before were far less complex and more along the spare aesthetic I associate with Vietnamese food. The others were more spicy hot, had some tartness, and had far less meat and variety than this. I guess I could have added more lemon to my bowl. I was impressed to be offered three fresh herbs, and that the basil was the strong Thai basil.
re: Ruth Lafler
There were so many Vietnamese eateries on this stretch, it was almost a relief to see the firecracker paper. Made my decision much easier and I didn't feel compelled to hike up and down those few blocks on such a hot day to survey the whole scene. (g) There is lots of chow potential here - I look forward to hearing about what you find.
Don't sweat the pig blood (sorry for the mixed metaphor)! I like it, but in far less quantity than this dish served up. I discovered that I don't like be chunks of it (these were about 1" wide and a little longer), and prefer it in droplets or as a thickener. I could only eat one of the cubes and left the remaining 4 or 5. Way too rich for one sitting.
Maybe you could figure out who makes the best imperial rolls (cha gio)?
re: Melanie Wong
Are cha gio the fried rolls or the raw ones? I've sort of given up on the latter -- too many rubbery, tasteless versions.
I did have some good fried shrimp rolls at New Pagolac (the place with the Vietnamese karaoke: 831 International). The pho was unexceptional, though. I had bumped it to the top of my list because (1) they serve seven courses of beef, and (2) they are open later than a lot of places (10 p.m. Sun-Thur., midnight Fri-Sat).
Actually, I turned out to be more interested in the Chinese restaurant next door (actually both restaurants are in a mini-mall at the corner of 9th and International).
Hong Kong Restaurant caught my attention with the attractive BBQ ducks, spareribs, and the remains of a whole pig, roasted to crackling, in the entry. But it's not a deli, it's a full-scale restaurant open from 7:30 am to 10:00 pm seven days a week. Check-menu dim sum, live fish, the works (although by no means fancy -- despite the name this is closer to a Chinatown dive than one of the upscale Hong Kong-style restaurants). Menu is is Chinese, Vietnamese and English, but the set menus and specials were all in Chinese only.
The duck looked so good I ordered the braised noodles with roast duck for $4.25. I don't see how they could possibly be making money on this dish, since it appeared to have almost half a roast duck and several small heads of baby bok choi on a huge bed of vermicelli noodles and sauce. I'm not an expert on Chinese roast duck, but I thought this was just right: the skin was dark and caramelized but there was still some fat under it, especially the breast; the meat was moist and juicy but not greasy. BBQ seems to be the kitchen's strong point, since the rest of the dish was merely okay: the sauce was one-dimensional and the bok choi were slightly overcooked.
I also bought some of the delicious-looking spareribs and thought they were also exceptionally well done to the right balance of tenderness and residual fat. Next time I have a craving for Chinese BBQ I think I'll head back there for the 3-way combo BBQ plate.
Since as Melanie pointed out, the restaurants in this neighborhood are catering to an immigrant clientele, I'm guessing there may be some interesting offerings on the specials. Unfortunately the woman who waited on me spoke very little English -- barely enough to conduct our transaction (not a put-down: it's way more English than I speak Chinese) so I was unable to quiz her on the specials. Like the lovely woman at the El Ojo de Agua taco truck (whose eyes sparkle with merriment when she sees me), she seemed to develop an affection for me and my bumbling -- often clueless -- attempts to communicate: she smiled and patted my arm when she brought me the check, as if to say, "We did it!"
re: Ruth Lafler
Ruth--you had the quintessential Chowhound experience. You scouted out a new place in a interesting neighborhood, ordered unique(to you) food, had a friendly interaction with the waitress. With experiences like this at home I often wonder why I travel outside the Bay Area. (Some day I'm going to take a month and just travel around the Bay guided by Chownews. Ahhhh...light bulb...another Chowhound fund raiser! ChowTours! For example: Taco Truck Trek: North Bay Truck Tour leader: Melanie Wong; East Bay Tour Leader: Ruth Lafler.)