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Aug 5, 2009 03:12 PM

Tried and true lunchtime favorites in downtown Oakland

I’ve been working in downtown Oakland for going on 10 years now and I thought I’d list a few tried and true lunch favorites that I’ve returned to over and over throughout the years. Some of these are smallish family run places that seem to be suffering in the current economic climate so I figured I’d do my part to get the word out.

I’ve had each of these items at least 10 times over the years (and in some cases significantly more than that) and they never fail to impress. (I almost always eat at my desk, so I’m judging these as take out items.)

Juanita’s (1734 Webster Street, between 15th St & 17th St) – Steak Burrito with Black beans. This item as served for takeout is no longer on the menu (it used to be on a whiteboard near the cash register) but they will still make it.

Comment: the shredded Ice Berg lettuce is a little out of place but the steak is unfailingly tender and flavorful, the black beans perfect and the green salsa satisfyingly spicy

Café 817 (817 Washington Street) – White Bean and Tuna Salad
Café 817 – Trio Salad [usually A) white beans, B) arugula, C) shaved fennel]

Comment: the lemon vinaigrette at Café 817 is a small wonder. I’ve tried to recreate it at home but lack the alchemy. Sometimes if a salad is too lite a meal I’ll go next door to Ratto’s while they make the salad and augment with the small pre-wrapped cheese samples and lavash crackers sold by the cash register. (Buying a ciabatta roll from Ratto’s and creating your own white bean, arugula, fennel, and havarti sandwich can be rewarding but should only be attempted by the most experienced workplace eater


Cervantes (320 17th St, between Harrison St & Webster St) - Chicken (dark meat) sandwich on a toasted hard roll with extra jalapenos, jack cheese and avocado.

Comment: Their potato salad varies from excellent to entirely satisfactory depending on the day

Cam Huong (920 Webster) – 2 Bahn Mi make a nice meal. 1 Chicken curry, 1 Salmon, extra peppers on both

Comment: I know these are the most “Americanized” Bahn Mi on the menu but I’ve tried them all and these are the ones I return to.

Café Madrid (2001 Broadway) – Hot Bocadillo (choose any of the following: Pamplona, Soria, Sobrasada, Butifarra) with Manchego cheese, Alioli. Add the wonderful, lemony Boquerones (anchovies) for $1 extra.

Comment: The Rusa salad (Shrimp, potato, carrot, olive) is almost great. I’m pretty sure they use pre-cooked shrimp which brings it a step down. Sometimes, in season, they have small, hot, green peppers (sorry I forget the name), sautéed in oil quickly over high heat served with salt. Awesome.

I like to stretch my legs a bit at lunch, so here are a couple good ones if you don’t mind walking a mile or so.

Chai Thai Noodles (545 B International Blvd) – Yum Nuer (Steak Salad
)Chai Thai Noodles – Kao Pad Nom - Fried rice with spicy cured pork sausage

Comment: they just changed their menu in the last few weeks adding more low cost lunch items (most based around Spaghetti!) so I hope nothing has fundamentally changed in the kitchen. Most previously off menu specials have now been added to the menu proper.

Jong Ga House (372 Grand Ave, between Ellita Ave & Staten Ave) – Kim Chee Jjige.

Comment: The cold Kimchee soup they serve gratis while you’re waiting for your food is worth the trip alone.)

That’s all I can think of for now. I’m sure I’m forgetting something; I reserve the right to append this list. Can anyone else recommend specific items that have become their own personal favorites in the area?

Cam Huong Cafe
920 Webster St, Oakland, CA 94607

Cafe Madrid
2001 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612

Cafe 817
817 Washington St, Oakland, CA 94607

Jong Ga House
372 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA 94610

Chai Thai Noodles
545 B International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94606

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  1. The small green peppers at Cafe Madrid are probably "Pimentos Pardon".

    1 Reply
    1. re: chefj

      Thanks Chefj. That name lead me to this old thread

      which confirms you are right. Only about 10% of the peppers are truely spicy - somehow that makes eating them more fun.

    2. I like Ratto's for a very good to excellent sandwich depending on what you get. I usually get the Italian combo.

      Also Rico's Diner is very good, great burger, generally everything has a freshness to it.

      Ratto's International Market
      821 Washington St, Oakland, CA 94607

      Rico's Diner
      400 15th Street, Oakland, CA

      1 Reply
      1. re: ML8000

        I've been meaning to try Rico's. Next time I need a burger I will. Thanks.

      2. My favorite downtown lunch places are Shanghai and Spices!3.

        Shanghai Restaurant
        930 Webster St, Oakland, CA 94607

        Spices 3
        369 12th St, Oakland, CA 94607

        2 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Thanks Robert. You've steered me in the right direction in the past.

          Any specific dishes to try at either place? I've tried the cumin lamb and the numbing cucumber at Spices!3 but neither dish had me rushing to get back there.

        2. My eats are mostly in Chinatown:

          Ba Le for their banh canh soup with pig trotter and shrimp paste. I also like their mixed cold cut banh mi a lot. The bread is a little flabby, but they're extra-generous with pate.

          BC Deli for banh mi (I've been eating a lot of the meatball one lately, but I also like the shredded pork, the bbq pork, and the bbq chicken) , as well as the big rice noodles with coconut milk and shredded pigskin, and the Chiu Chao-style rice cakes with scrambled egg and preserved vegetables

          Shan Dong for steamed buns with pork and vegetables, and knife-cut noodles (I like it with shredded pork and zha cai)

          Gum Wah for duck noodle soup.

          Pho Hoa Lao for spicy beef stew with noodles (pho bo kho - #26 for skinny rice noodles, #27 for skinny egg noodles).

          Delicious Food Company for egg puffs, jook

          Napolean Super bakery for egg tarts and steamed sponge "cupcakes"

          Chef Lau for pumpkin and salted egg yolk fritter, salt and pepper fish, pot stickers

          New Gold Medal for jook, bitter melon with scrambled egg

          Gum Kuo for roast pork

          Sun Sing for baked char siu bao, rice rolls with Chinese cruller

          Phnom Pheng - sweet and sour soup with prawn, pineapple, catfish; smoked eggplant with pork; fried bananas with coconut ice cream. In the past, I've preferred Battambang, but I've now had 2 consecutive bad lunches at Battambang and can't recommend it anymore.

          Non-Asian food:
          Villa York - they actually have a pretty good Philly Cheese Steak, but it takes a long time to make (maybe 15 minutes, the time I got it)

          All-Star Tamales at the Farmer's Market on Fridays

          re: Chai Thai Noodles - I went back for the first time in a while last weekend, and found the flavors less bright, and generally sweeter than before - I was hoping it was an off day, but now I'm wondering if there has been a change in the kitchen. Have you been to Green Papaya Deli yet? I haven't been in a while, and keep meaning to get back - the most recent reports have been very good.

          Also agree with the Shanghai (fave dishes listed in the thread Robert L linked), Ratto's (also like the Italian combo), and Rico (Rico burger, with the jalapenos, cheese, and gigantic nest of fried onions tucked under the bun) recs above. I've had a few good dishes at Spices3 - esp the fried tofu with chili, and the salt and pepper porkchop - but I've had a lot of food there that was salty bordering on inedible.

          1. Thanks! I just started working in Downtown Oakland, so I definitely appreciate the suggestions.

            I really like the fried chicken sandwich at Cafe 15 (behind the State Building), and I'm curious to try the other items as well.