$4.99 Lunch Special at Masala Cuisine (Oakland)
With a morning appointment in the southernmost part of Oakland a few weeks ago, I was sorely tempted to dash down to Fremont to grab a chaat lunch. With time at a premium, I talked myself out of it and instead turned north toward the Bay Bridge winding my way up International Blvd. to see what might be new. What I expected to find was Mexican or maybe Southeast Asian. But instead, my earlier thoughts of Indian food became reality, manifested in the façade of a new Indian place I spotted in between two taco truck locations. Masala Cuisine opened in August 2010, taking over a chicken and fish place.
I pulled over to take a closer look. Masala Cuisine is take-out only with transactions conducted via this bullet proof pass through window.
The husband–and-wife owners are Punjabi and offer a small menu of North Indian standards with an emphasis on snacks, parathas and vegetarian dishes, plus a smattering of (halal) lamb and chicken preps. In addition, the fried chicken, buffalo wings, catfish, burgers, and turkey sandwiches offered by the previous occupant are available. I wanted the chana bhatura ($4.99), but soon learned that not every item is available every day. Then I asked for okra, and was turned down there too.
The gentleman countered with the $4.99 lunch special, saying I could have all vegetarian or chicken curry and veggies, prepared to order and not from a steam table. This would come with rice and dal as well, and the vegetables of the day were carrots and peas. OK, sold me. He turned around toward his kitchen and started to prep without asking for payment in advance.
This was the tail end of our last heat wave, so I didn’t mind biding my time on the pavement on this sunny day. But after a few minutes, he asked me if I would like to come inside and opened the steel grate door. He apologized that they are not a sit-down restaurant but his wife had thought I would be more comfortable indoors and offered me a seat at the small kitchen table reserved for family members.
The wife held out this half-round and asked me if I’d like to try some Indian bread. Looking at it, I asked if it was a paratha and whether it was stuffed with methi. This made her giggle that I would recognize the flatbread. This turned out to be a gobi paratha, filled with naturally sweet cauliflower, which she reheated in the microwave and served with a cup of seasoned yogurt. Too damp from the heating method, but the paratha was quite tasty dipped into the mildly spiced yogurt.
While I waited for the remainder of my lunch to be cooked, I peppered the husband-chef with questions and learned that he had been part of the opening team at Maharani on Polk in SF. Then he had his own place in SOMA and later moved to Union City leaving the restaurant industry and getting involved in other enterprises. But with the economic downturn, he and his wife decided to go back to cooking and catering again. He told me that he’s making things homestyle, cooked to order, and made with less added fat than in restaurants.
Soon the rest of the lunch special was ready. The chicken had big chunks of juicy thigh meat bathed in a red-hued, tomatoey curry sauce. Great texture, plenty of heat for me. The husband solicited my opinion, specifically asking me how his food differed from the usual restaurant cooking. I told him that I liked the freshness of the taste and that the boneless, skinless halal chicken had a silken texture akin to sous vide cooking in fancy kitchens. While I did see him add some ghee, the curry had much less fat than found at Shalimar, for example.
The carrots and peas were prepped in a dry curry style. As evident from the photo, the veggies still looked like carrots and peas and not a grayish mush. I loved the dal, a soupy base of both whole and broken lentils flecked with toasty whole cumin seeds and other savory bits and not pasty at all. Accompanied by beautiful long-grained and fragrant basmati rice enriched with a bit of oil, it was all good.
My host ran off to make a delivery. The wife-owner chatted with me a bit about Indian dishes, apologizing for her halting English. Again, she laughed every time I used an Indian food term, quite tickled by my fondness for her country’s many cuisines. I got her to tell me that she uses there bunches of mustard greens and one bunch of spinach to make sarson ka saag, and with enough advanced notice she said she’d make it on the weekend along with maki ki roti, one of my favorite Punjabi dishes. She shared a jalebi she’d bought from a sweets shop in Union City. I felt like I was sitting at the kitchen table of a favorite auntie. When I said good-bye, she suggested that I call in my order next time for a shorter wait.
A tap on the window followed by a voice asking what $1.14 could buy was a reminder that Masala Cuisine inhabits a gritty neighborhood. The owner offered up a pair of pakora (usually $1.50) to that customer and won a grateful promise from her that she’d be back the next time she had some money. The food is tasty and fresh here and delivers the best value around for the money. Masala Cuisine shines brightly and is off to a good start.
7912 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94621
Luke Tsai of the East Bay Express, with a hat tip to Chowhound, reviews Masala Cuisine:
"...Masala Cuisine is, really: the closest thing I've experienced, in a restaurant setting, to being invited into the home of two wonderful Indian cooks."
Two Saturdays ago I was in East Oakland again and had a chance to drop in. I was pleased to see that a second table has been squeezed into the tight space to accommodate a few more dine-in customers and that three seats were already occupied. Three more came in after me.
Finally got my sarson ka saag and maki ki roti, only available on Saturdays and Sundays. The mom invited me to watch her pat together the maki ki roti (corn flour flatbread). Here's the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwwwf0KsS9k
An order included two of these fat corn roti.
The sarson ka saag made of a blend of mustard greens and spinach scented with ginger and finished to order with extra garlic and a pat of butter, was whipped to a fluffy, velvety texture. The dad had me sample it twice to make sure the spice level was right for me. A wonderful rendition of this Punjabi dish.
I'd shared a taste with my tablemates. In return they offered me a sample of their chicken tikka masala. Very buttery and rich, and not as tomatoe-y as other versions.
I also had chai, brewed with their own blend of spices and dominated by green cardamom. Unsweetened, I added sugar to my own taste. My total tab came to $9 before tip.
It felt very good to be back here.
After tcb Saturday, I navigated to Masala Cusine and found a parking spot right in front.
I can confirm what the other MW and others have said. I am not particularly a fan of Indian food (once in a while is enough), but I certainly would return here on that once in a while occasion. I would think that anyone really into Indian, would love this place. There are no longer 4.99/5.99 lunch specials. The father told me that it wasn't economically feasible, but that he has designed the menu to allow one to order a main course, rice and a simple bread for under $10.
More later, but a few highpoints. The father prepared the basic sauces for my chicken curry and 3 lentil dahl and brought me out samples so that he could adjust the spice level to my specific taste. He also brought me a taste of his own lunch of saag made from mustard greens cooked down for 2 hours and pureed with some ginger and garlic. He told me that the mustard greens were similar to the Chinese variety. Each sauce had maximum savoriness. I got what he said was medium hot and eventually the spices blew my head off, but in a good way. Both he and his wife were very friendly and open to questions.
It was a successful eating weekend. I have most of the daal, a gobi paratha and rice waiting in my fridge, along with a pork schnitzel with homemade sauerkraut and a whole roast duck from Gum Wah.
A quick update.
I went back to Masala Cuisine Inc. yesterday and spent some time talking to the owners as they prepared my Chicken Saag.
I tried to order lamb but he told me that he doesn't carry lamb anymore because there is not enough business. When he stocked lamb back when they first opened he ended up throwing most of it away. He said he would be happy to make the lamb dishes for me but he would need 1 day advance notice. I asked if he would do that for a single serving and he said sure, whatever didn't sell he and his wife would eat.
I had called in my order. When I arrived he asked me to write down my phone number on a card they hung on the fridge. He is going to stop taking orders from people he doesn't know. (?!?) This sounds like a disastrous business decision if I understood him correctly. Maybe he already has enough familiar customers to keep him afloat, but the issue with the lamb makes me think he should be growing his customer base. He told me that people were trying to walk into the kitchen and see what was there before ordering, and possibly taking things (?), and that is why he is tightening security but the story wasn't clear. Although his english is better that his wife's, there was still a communication barrier.
He apologized that the saag he was preparing was "just with spinach". The saag he prefers has mustard greens, spinach and fenugreek. He has a list of phone numbers that he calls on days when he prepares that version and kindly put me on that list.
He gave me an incredibly dense ball of what he called "Peri" (I had him spell it for me) as the daily special. It's made from linseed meal and tasted slightly of cardamom, cinnamon and brown sugar. They laughed when I tried to bite into it and explained that you sort of nibble off small pieces as it is way too hard to bite through. They also said that linseed was meant to be warming in the winter months, and you just take small bites throughout the day.
I brought my food back to the office and I have to say the saag was a disappointment. The saag itself had great flavor but the chicken was dry and stringy cubed breast meat. Nothing like the perfectly cooked thigh I'd had on my first visit.
I also got a naan which I'm pretty sure was store-bought and reheated and lousy.
The meal was $5.50 which is about what it was worth. It wasn't worth the schlep out to 79th and International.
I'm curious to try the other version of saag but I'll probably wait for him to call me before going there again.
7912 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94621
Following Melanie's lead, I made a trip to Masala Cuisine. I moved to the Fruitvale at the beginning of this year, and have to wholeheartedly concur with John Birdsall when he says:
I love Fruitvale; it’s the yeastiest, sexiest part of Oakland, maybe the whole Bay.
Thanks should also go to Ruth Lafler for introducing me to this vibrant gem of a neighborhood. Having toiled long hours at an Indian startup, I developed a taste for the foods of Hindustan, and set out around 4pm yesterday, motivated by the desire for, above all else, Makki Ki Roti and Sarson Ka Saag. There was no one at the bulletproof window when I arrived, but through a side metal-grate door, Mom and Pop, the husband and wife team I presume Melanie had supped with, saw and greeted me. The husband said he would make the dish for me, but to come tomorrow around 11:30am to 12pm. I decided to order chicken curry to-go, the man said it would come with rice, but I asked instead for paratha (a chewy flatbread made with wheat flour). Pop set out a plastic chair for me to rest while I waited for my order, and I sat down, facing the street, and took in the scenery. For those unfamiliar with International Blvd in East Oakland, the air is alive with excitement and a hint of the Wild West. Young men flit about in their modified vehicles outfitted with silvery-metallic 22-inch rims and booming sound systems, and neighborhood residents call to each other across the din of traffic and music. A woman, who lived in the back of the same building that housed Masala Cuisine, came out in a bathrobe with her husband, who was on his way to buy some Dungeness crab to send to his brother who lived in Alaska and could only get snow and king crab (The poor soul!). I struck up a conversation with this neighbor, and then Pop from Masala came out, and the 3 of us chatted for a spell before Mom came out with my order. As I was on bicycle, getting the curry home would prove to be a bit of an ordeal, as it was in a small Chinese takeout-style carton, which, by the time I got home, had been rent asunder by the stress of the journey and proximity to my heavy Kryptonite lock. Luckily, I had wrapped the carton in a small plastic bag, which held all the contents and prevented any spillage into my backpack. I paired the curry with rice, and I found it to be properly described, complex, with well-balanced seasoning and chunks of boneless, skinless breast meat bathed in a savory reddish-orange sauce.
Earlier this afternoon, I arrived by car around 1:20pm, and readily found a parking spot on International, almost directly in front of the establishment. Mom and Pop greeted me, and invited me in to sit at the same table that I presume Melanie had graced. Mom held a lovely, yellow makki-ki-roti in her hand, saying they had gone to the Hayward Farmer's market on A Street this morning to get the spinach and mustard greens, and everything was ready for me. I asked if I could also order dal, and Pop said he would make it for me, but it would be half an hour, and I made a mental note to call, in advance, for pick-up next time, anything I might desire. I had my camera with me, and while they were cooking, asked if I could take a picture of the food before they put it in the containers. At first they didn't understand, and wondered why I wanted to take pictures of their to-go containers (per Melanie's request, I also asked if they made Chicken Charga, but maybe I wasn't pronouncing it right, but they seemed unfamiliar with the dish. Pop did ask me if it was fried chicken, with onion, and I told him it was spicy, marinated chicken that was fried, and brought up Melanie's example of spicy chicken nuggets, and he said he could make it for me), but after they called their son on the cellphone and I briefly talked to him, they understood. I took 2 pictures before they brought out the chili pepper and the onions, after which I photographed this:
At this point I decided I would eat in instead of having them pack it for take-out. Pop sat next to me and showed me how to tear a piece of the roti and use it to scoop the saag or yogurt. I remarked this reminded me of Ethiopian cuisine, where you tear off a piece of injera bread. The roti, fresh from the griddle, was divine: warm, soft, and crispy, and paired with the saag, was exquisite. Pop and I ate and chatted. He seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Indian food, telling me that vindaloo was not a native dish, but originated with Indians who lived in Brazil, and that tikka masala, contrary to what I read originating with Indians in England, was actually, like Tandoori, of Mughal origin, he using the term 'moglai'. I talking about my own parents who lived in Union City, while Mom stood at the stove, observed, and occasionally joined in conversation, urging me to pile on more saag or yogurt onto my torn piece of roti, or offering me another freshly-griddled roti, reminding me of what might be cultural tradition for any impromptu male guest in an Indian kitchen.
2 Makki Ki Rotis, paired with Sarson Ka Saag, yogurt, and the husband packed up some more yogurt and saag for me to take home. I paid $7, and left a $1 tip, for a total of $8 out-of-pocket for a wonderful lunch with a Punjabi couple, courtesy of Melanie.
Word to the wise: Melanie's experience, and mine, may not be typical. I was able to build upon Melanie's experience and establish rapport, and found out that husband and wife are not Sikh, but rather, Catholic, have 2 sons and 1 daughter, and currently are occupying a foreclosed home in Union City. I could tell they were worried about their next living situation, and the husband thought they might move in with their daughter, who is married and living in Fremont. I asked if they would continue at this business, and gathered that operating this restaurant gave husband and wife some structure and sense as they essentially start over. In this neighborhood, at least, I can't see that the two would get many requests for the home-cooked North Indian food that I had grown accustomed to and, given this is a take-out and to-go place, a bit of familiarity with Indian culture and cuisine goes a long way.
7912 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94621
Thanks for giving it a try and writing such a terrific report. Since you're in the neighborhood, you'll have a chance to patronize them more than I will. I hope that they can survive until I can try the sarson ka saag, the photo showing the slivered fresh ginger on top alongside the maki ki roti looked so wonderful! The chef does have a great touch.
Thank you also for asking about chicken charga. i've looked into it a bit more, and it seems to be a Lahori (from Lahore, Pakistan) specialty. There are even prepackaged spice rubs to make it. Here's a photo showing a batch cooked on the bone I found on flickr instead of the breast nuggets I'd tried,
If he's doing fried chicken for the neighborhood, this looks like a great spin.
Thanks for this write up, Melanie.
I made the trek out to Masala cuisine for lunch today. I called ahead and not knowing what was on the menu I asked for the lunch special. The man who answered asked if chicken curry was alright and I said OK. It would be ready on 1/2 an hour.
When I got there 1/2 an hour later the place looked deserted. The woman Melanie mentions finally heard me outside and quickly let me in. I took quite a while for her to find first, the take out containers then second, a to-go bag. I was disappointed to see that I was only getting the chicken curry and rice, no veggies or bread. Still it was a substantial portion and for $4.99 I'm not complaining. I'll order some naan or paratha next time.
The chicken curry itself was very good. Something about the very first bite took me back to the Indian take-away I used to get in Brighton and London oh so many years back. (But that may not be fair - this curry was nowhere near as greasy as those.) The spices are bright and fresh - clove was especially pronounced, perfect level of salt, and a subtle black pepper heat that gathered slowly throughout the meal. The chicken was boneless but as moist and tender as if it had been cooked on the bone.
I look forward to trying other items on the menu.
Thanks for making the trek. I know this is quite far from your usual lunchtime haunts. I was a little worried that the warmth of the owners might have unduly influenced my opinion of the cooking, so it's great to have your report as validation. Not hyperbole on my part to say the chicken felt like it was cooked sous vide. When I took the first bite, I was surprised at how pale and tender the meat was and even asked the chef to be sure that it was indeed from the thigh. So often the protein of choice --- lamb, chicken or beef --- at Indian restaurants has been precooked and is then combined with whatever sauce the customer orders. And then the meat ends up kind of dried out and doesn't absorb the flavor of the saucing. Not so with this chicken curry. It's not a dish I would have chosen, just picked it because it was the fastest way to order, and got lucky.
Now we have to figure out what else he can cook. When I was there I noticed some opo squash sitting on the counter, so I might ask for that next time. Or since the quality of the chicken used here is so tasty, I'm curious about the fried chicken. Sultan in SF was my favorite Indian restaurant before it closed and one of my favorites there was the chicken charga, basically spicy chicken nuggets. I'd love to taste this dish again, maybe that could happen at Masala Cuisine.
My sense is that Oakland hasn't had much to offer in the way of Indian food, so even just for take-out, this is a big improvement.
7912 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94621