Emery Bay Public Market is one big Cliffs guide to the cuisines of the East Bay, from Cajun and barbecue to Mexican, Korean, Indian — you name it — not to mention the cultural bleed of Chinese Americans making cheese steaks and Central Americans ladling out udon. Since 1990, the eighty-year-old building has housed twenty-plus fast-food stalls, all small, independent businesses. I doubt you’ll find another food court in the Bay Area that has not one, but two stalls that serve goat (Pamir and Chicken Xpress), with nary a Sbarro or Burger King in sight.
By day, Emeryville’s suits dodge one another amid the maze of food stalls, slightly run-down and garish with neon, and you can hear half a dozen languages up and down the crowded aisles. It’s also a two-minute drive from the Express offices, so rather than make my way through the market stall by stall, entrée by entrée, to identify the highlights, I first consulted the experts. After a few years of tri-weekly visits they’ve all tired of trying new things and have settled on one or two favorite dishes.
I first completed data analysis of a primary online survey — okay, an all-staff e-mail — then took a couple batches of writers to the market, dispensed cash, and ordered them to behave as if they weren’t on a review. Then I picked apart the dishes they chose. Kind of a Mommie Dearest dynamic, I suppose, but being a restaurant critic often means dispensing with compassion.
Staff writer Justin Berton headed straight for California Vietnamese Cuisine, one of the staffers’ best-loved stalls, and one of the best, period. He picked up an order of fresh spring rolls with shrimp, which a couple of my co-workers had recommended. The rice-paper wrapping on the spring rolls was soft and fresh, not leathery, and the lettuce, cellophane noodles, mint, and shrimp inside tasted like a crisp spring breeze.
But his favorite dish was the chicken noodle soup. Sliced chicken and scallions floated on the top of a two-quart bowl of transparent chicken broth redolent with roasted shallots. On the bottom was a tangled mess of thin rice noodles ready to be slurped up once the soup was personalized with cilantro leaves, bean sprouts, jalapeños, and lime juice. A perfect light lunch.
The broth that came with the ostensibly Japanese wonton noodle soup from Noodles Etc. , another staff recommendation, couldn’t really compete. It was obviously made from stock but lacked the subtle touches that would make it taste like more than chicken water. The pork wontons were pretty decent — plump and meaty — but the whole dish needed to be completely reseasoned.
Two writers went for Bangkok Thai, the second most recommended food stall. Eric Arnold, clubs editor, picked up chicken satay and a plate of panang curry over rice. The peanut sauce napped over the chicken sticks was light, not gummy and oily, set off by a bright, sweet-tart cucumber relish, and the steam-table panang curry wasn’t half bad. On a second visit, I made writer Kara Platoni get one of the made-to-order dishes another staffer had championed. The scallops and prawns in her yellow seafood curry were cooked just right, and the green beans, broccoli, carrots, and cabbage had a good crunch. Personally I prefer less Americanized (read: more pungent and less sweet) Thai food, but all the ingredients were fresh.
The counter staff at Pamir Afghan Cuisine must hand out a couple of chickens’ worth of samples every day — admit it, you always pretend to look over the menu just so you can have a bite, everyone does — but I followed copy editor Vicky Walker’s advice and bypassed the chicken for the lamb curry. Thick, meaty cross-cut lamb shanks were braised until tender in a sumptuous, complex gravy that I mopped up with a square of freshly baked Afghan flatbread. I wasn’t as impressed with the cooked spinach. It just tasted like cooked spinach.
Despite the fact that almost every staffer who responded to my query recommended the Crispy Fry for its cooked-to-order stir-fried dishes (not its fish and chips), Stefanie Kalem, assistant calendar editor, insisted on ordering comfort food: sweet and sour shrimp, chicken lo mein, and fried rice. The lo mein were just the right type of chewy, but their flavor was dominated by soy sauce, without any of that smoky “wok char” that the Chinese prize. The most amazing — miraculous, even — part of her meal was the sauce poured over battered shrimp. The candy-apple-red goo tasted a little like concentrated cherry 7-Up and formed a pellucid pool on the plate. Every time her fork grazed the sauce it clung to the utensil, pulling away in thick, shiny strings. But you shouldn’t judge a Chinese restaurant on its sweet and sour. As far as I’m concerned, you get what you pay for, gwailo.
One staffer had mentioned that she loved the chicken mushroom cheese steak at Philly Cheese Steak, so I ordered one. A trio of cooks at the stand works the flat iron griddle, chopping up steak or chicken with whatever you’d like to add and then, once it has sizzled awhile, scooping it into a soft bun. Philly Cheese Steak’s fries were crisp and covered in seasoned salt, just the thing to induce an under-the-desk nap, and the mass of chopped meat, sautéed mushrooms, and melted Swiss in the sandwich was the right kind of messy. It just lacked Cheez Whiz.
Casablanca Deli makes a light, simple sandwich that writer Will Harper claims to eat several times a week. In the spicy chicken shawerma, marinated, shredded meat, not freshly grilled but flavorful, was rolled into lavash (flatbread) with shredded lettuce and tomato.
Editor Steve Buel scored a direct hit with the jerk chicken from Chicken Xpress Jamaica Place. From breast to drumstick, his roast half-chicken was moist, its thin, mahogany skin brushed with a potent jerk sauce that started off sweet and then revealed layers of allspice, herbs and, finally, chiles. The mound of rice and pigeon peas served alongside remained all but untouched, but a fierce intradepartmental squabble broke out at the table over the hot, gooey, caramelized plantains.
Funny thing — as I was paying, everyone claimed that they always finished their lunches at Figaro Gelato. Served by the cup or by the cone, Figaro’s creamy gelatos and sorbets come in interesting flavors such as Thai iced tea and blackberry-cabernet. The mango sorbet was pure gold.
It’s hard to have high expectations of a food court. But with a little effort you can find a panorama of freshly cooked, inexpensive lunches at the Emery Bay Public Market. Better yet, you won’t be handing over your milk money to some multinational corporate bully.