Tradition dictates that this is the time of year for self-reflection, and for sorting our feelings into easily digestible listicles, so I thought I would look back on the ten most delicious things I ate in the East Bay this year, which, as it turns out, were all in Oakland. (Read into that what you will.)
For the sake of brevity, I limited myself to restaurants that opened during the past year. Here are my best bites, listed in chronological eating order:
Fried Chicken at Miss Ollie’s
Okay, so this one might seem obvious. I could have also picked the rich cornmeal porridge I swooned over during my first visit to Miss Ollie’s or the addictive, hushpuppy-like Trinidadian pholourie that I’ve devoured several times since. But the fried chicken is what keeps me coming back. Well-bronzed, herb-infused, and juicy-as-all-get-out, the chicken at Miss Ollie’s whas taken its place as one of the Bay Area’s iconic dishes. Someday (a long, long time from now, we hope) they can write this for chef Sarah Kirnon’s epitaph: “She had a skillet. And damn could she fry some chicken.”
901 Washington St., Oakland, 510-285-6188
Shrimp and Wild Nettle Fried Rice at Ramen Shop
Ramen Shop has garnered all kinds of praise for the chef-owners’ labor-intensive, ingredient-focused, uniquely Californian take on Japan’s most famous noodle dish — and rightly so. As great as the ramen can be, I’ll trade it for a bowl of whatever fried rice the restaurant is dishing out on any given day — say, the version topped with plump white shrimp, musky sautéed wild nettles, and tender chunks of chashu. The secret, and what makes Ramen Shop’s fried rice some of the most flavorful I’ve ever had, is a chili sauce made with pulverized shrimp shells. Every single dining companion I’ve gone with has battled me, chopsticks wielded like weapons, for the last bite.
5812 College Ave., Oakland, 510-788-6370
Makki Di Roti and Sarson Ka Saag at Masala Cuisine
Of the many home-style dishes I’ve enjoyed at this tiny gem of an Indian restaurant, located in Deep East Oakland, my favorite is the weekend-only makki di roti (a Punjabi flatbread that’s like a fat, well-griddled, piping-hot corn tortilla), which is served with a potent, gingery purée of spinach and mustard greens (the sarson ka saag). Pure comfort food.
7912 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-878-2643
Man, does Marrow’s chef-owner Jon Kosorek know how to cook up a meaty “breakfast of champions.” His grilled pork terrine, a dish I tucked into on a random weekday morning, is basically a headcheese — all of the meat and fatty bits from the pig’s head and hocks pressed into a mold, then grilled, scrapple-like, until the edges crisp. Spread on toast along with the creamy yolk of a sous-vide egg, this was one of the richest, most satisfying breakfasts I ate all year. (FYI, Marrow doesn’t serve weekday breakfast anymore, and the menu changes all the time, but look for the terrine as an occasional weekend brunch special.)
325 19th St., Oakland, 510-251-1111
Chancla at Molcajete
Order any of the masa-based antojitos (little street snacks) at Uptown’s Molcajete, and you won’t be disappointed, especially if you get the airy, slipper-shaped fried tortilla known as the chancla, which comes topped with shredded cabbage, refried beans, and pieces of fried steak. This is one of those street foods that’s best handled with a knife and fork — but if you want to pick the whole thing up and shove it in your mouth like an overstuffed taco, who am I to judge?
1734 Webster St., Oakland, 510-466-6652
Mixto Cebiche at Pucquio
At Pucquio, the tiny high-end Peruvian spot located in the former Guest Chef space, I ate what was perhaps the best cebiche of my life. The components were classic: raw shrimp and fish, whole squid, chunks of sweet yam, a fiery rococo chili emulsion, lime juice, and buttery-tasting corn nuts. But I haven’t encountered many cebiches in which the seafood was so uncommonly fresh, and where the different flavors and textures were so exquisitely balanced. The kicker: a huge fried shrimp head, which added a satisfying crunch and a jolt of intense ocean flavor.
5337 College Ave., Oakland, 510-658-7378
Beef and Carrot Dumplings at Tian Jin Dumplings
This humble takeout window serves some of the best dumplings you’ll find in the Bay Area, and while the standard fillings (pork with cabbage or Chinese chives) are great, some of the special dumpling options, available only via advance order (or if you happen to get lucky), are truly sublime. My favorite is filled with ground beef and finely diced carrots, which may not sound amazing — but once you bite in, and the dumpling’s meaty, sesame-oil-tinged juices squirt into your mouth, you’ll see what I mean.
989 Franklin St., Ste. B, Oakland, 510-459-6265
S’mores Chocolate Pudding at Homestead
I’m not much of a camper, but for whatever reason I’m always a sucker for fancy s’mores-themed desserts. And a few months ago, Homestead served the best twist on s’mores I’ve ever had in my life — a cool chocolate pudding, garnished with salty-sweet homemade graham crackers and topped with the very best part: a gooey, smoked-tea-infused toasted meringue that tasted infinitely smokier, and more delicious, than even my platonic ideal of a campfire-toasted marshmallow.
4029 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-420-6962
This was my most obscure discovery of the year — a regional noodle dish that isn’t served at more than a handful of restaurants in the entire United States. More importantly, though, Guilin rice noodles are delicious, a combination of intriguing components — slippery noodles, pickled longbeans, roasted peanuts, minced raw garlic, and assorted sliced meats — that add together to form a pleasing whole. Wash the whole thing down with rich beef broth; you won’t find a finer $6.50 lunch in Chinatown.
261A 10th St., Oakland, 510-250-9333
Fried Chicken and Raw Oyster Mayonnaise at Box and Bells
We started with fried chicken, so it’s only appropriate that we end with fried chicken. In my review of Box and Bells last week I wrote that someone ought to give James Syhabout a medal for this ingenious combination: impeccably juicy karaage-style fried chicken paired with a briny, luxurious raw oyster mayonnaise. Short of an actual medal, let me just say this: I can’t think of another dish I look more forward to eating again as we head into 2014.
5912 College Ave., Oakland, 510-923-2000
Honorable Mentions: Arroz negro at Duende, Gujarati-style samosas at Juhu Beach Club, monk hingar at Rangoon Super Stars, and many more.