Tired of ham on rye? Can’t stomach another piece of plastic-wrapped sushi? Can’t afford a $20 lunch every day? Venture a couple blocks out of your way to one of these places in downtown Oakland. You might find yourself becoming a regular.
Chinatown is the most obvious and most exciting place for inexpensive eats. Stock your office with fresh fruits and vegetables, rice crackers, or even those little fruit-flavored jellies studded with chunks of coconut. Or pop into one of the dim sum parlors early in the morning and take away a bag of chicken or pork buns, a plate of steamed dumplings, or our favorite, an easily microwaveable lotus-leaf packet stuffed with sticky rice and pork (get the square ones; the pyramid-shaped bundles contain a more adventurous mix of chicken, preserved egg, mung bean, and fatty pork belly).
Have a cold? Visit Yung Kee Restaurant (888 Webster Street; 510-839-2010), and order a bowl of congee (rice porridge), a Cantonese breakfast/brunch staple. The cooks will perk up this hearty, warming dish with scallions, ginger, and sesame oil; you can then have them add everything from hundred-year-old egg to pork liver. The rice plates, stir-fried noodles, and noodle and wonton soups can’t be beat — for the price. The décor won’t win any mention in Architectural Digest, but don’t sweat it. And for a little more than $10 you can even grab a barbecued duck or roast chicken to take home for dinner.
People who just can’t say no to meat (and veggies) on bread but are in search of a departure from the turkey and Swiss or the hamburger can order a banh mi at Cam Huong (920 Webster Street; 510-444-8800). You may have to brave the crowds to shout out your order and this microscopic, bustling cafe, but one taste of these Vietnamese sandwiches which, incidentally, cost $1.85 to $2.25 apiece will help you shoulder your way in. The sandwich makers heat to order French rolls, a remnant of the days of l’Indochine, and fill them with your choice of meats, a sweet mayonnaise, pickled vegetables, fresh jalapeños, and cilantro stalks. We particularly recommend the meatball and the curry chicken; vegetarian options are also available. You can also reach through the lines to paw at the prepared dishes wrapped and ready to buy.
On your way back to the office, stop by Ming Yuen Island Cafe (388 9th; 510-663-6799), for dessert. You’ll recognize the cafe by the banners outside proclaiming “Tapioca Pearl Milk Tea.” For those of you who haven’t yet caught on to this Taiwanese fad, pearl milk tea (also known as bubble tea or boba) contains tea, ice, your selection of flavors, and large tapioca pearls that you suck up with a large straw and chew. We’ve tried a few of the flavors — passion fruit, almond milk, red bean — and keep coming back to purple, creamy, taro milk tea. A counterperson once described it to us as tasting like “chocolate-chip cookie dough,” and she was right, but we can’t figure out just how.
On the European side, head to Old Town to eat a Breton crepe at Toutatis (719 Washington; 510-465-6984). Charming French émigrés Eric Leroi and Sophie Rigal own this funky little cafe with tables decorated with cutout photos of Brittany and Asterix the Gaul. Toutatis specializes in inexpensive buckwheat crepes filled with any number of Gallic combinations, from ham and cheese to ratatouille. You can complement your meal with a salad or bowl of soup, and then move on to the dessert crepes (made with white flour, not buckwheat).
At Mas Caribbean Cuisine and Roti Shop (1711 Telegraph; 510-444-7684), Ma rolls out two-foot rounds of wheat dough, griddles them, and folds them around incandescent curried meats and vegetables, all $6 to $8.50. We’ re crazy for Sylvia’s Special, curried potatoes and bone-in jerk chicken wings. The dishes are big enough to split, especially because you don’t want to pass up the sweet coconut bread. Wash everything down with homemade sorrel (hibiscus soda) and ginger beer.
— Jonathan Kauffman