Don’t ignore the parenthetical asides on the Bamboo menu. When it reads “spicy hot” next to Szechwan pork noodles, you better believe it. And those freshly cut slices of jalapeño aren’t merely decorative flairs on a dish of Mongolian lamb. In both cases though, the bold presence of heat and spice didn’t prevent the other flavors from melding well together. A tasty ragout of pork was ladled on top of the noodles. And I willingly paired each bite of tender lamb with the bright green crunch of a pepper. But I had, sitting within arm’s reach, a bowl of sizzling rice soup to soothe my palate. It was a perfect meal for the first rainy day of the year.
Bamboo is newly opened on Piedmont Avenue, but the owner isn’t new to the restaurant business. Shirleen Auyoung’s parents ran the Silver Palace in Montclair Village until they retired in 2014. Auyoung says she spent her youth in the kitchen there, chatting about cooking. “I watched the cooks knead out the pot sticker skins and make the filling,” she says. “We gathered around the table and made pot stickers all afternoon. I got a lot of information that way.”
After the Silver Palace closed, Auyoung, along with her current business partners, took a short break from the food business before opening the Qi Dumpling Lounge on Grand Avenue. Four years later they decided to open Bamboo. She describes eating at Silver Palace as “a traditional Cantonese and Szechwan experience.” At Qi Dumpling, Auyoung set out to modernize some of those dishes. “We blended in a little bit of Asian fusion, and more fresh herbs, tweaking the food until it was how I would like it.” She’s unconcerned about the distinction between making something authentic or traditional. “I think whatever style you create becomes your own signature,” she says.
According to Auyoung, bamboo is a symbol of strength and vitality in Asian culture. “I thought it would be a great name because that’s what you want your business to be,” she says. Qi Dumpling currently has more varieties of dumplings on the menu than Bamboo does. “I wanted to start slow, because I’m still training the staff,” she says. Having said that, the menu is extensive and includes an entire section titled, “Create Your Own Dish.” You pick the protein and wrap it in moo shu, toss it in a sweet and sour sauce or, bravely set it “on fire” with a “super spicy” stir fry containing jalapeños, garlic, green onions and a chili soy glaze.
My favorite starter, lettuce wrap chicken, is served with romaine leaves instead of the usual iceberg wedge. It’s on the “Asian Tapas” list of appetizers along with a new favorite, soy glazed pork belly sliders. Described as “finger sandwiches,” they’re as hearty as pork buns, but you assemble them yourself with cucumbers, green onions, sesame seeds and hoisin sauce. The homemade dough is reflective of Auyoung’s experience in the kitchen rather than originating from a specific region in China. “Traditionally, the dough is water and wheat flour and then you knead it,” she explains. But she says it’s important to ask, “Do you want the dough to be more chewy? Or softer?”
To change the consistency and flavor, you can adjust the temperature of the water, add salt or make it a different color by adding beet juice. “It’s all a matter of your creative side and what you feel inspired to do at the time,” Auyoung says. Her parents’ version of a wonton included bok choy, black mushrooms and shrimp. “But for me, I’ll put in dried scallop, shrimp, pork and Shanghai bok choy, instead of the bok choy with the white stalk,” she says, adding: “That’s just the twist I put into it because I like the flavors more.” After tasting her recipes, her parents were impressed by what she learned from them. “They never knew I was so observant.”
A pandemic is a tough time to open a business, but when China Garlic closed, Auyoung and her partners immediately saw potential in the location. “Space doesn’t open up easily on the street, especially if it’s an existing restaurant,” she explains. Even though there are challenges to contend with, her passion for food motivates her. And, she says, “It’s very satisfying to see people having a great time at your establishment.”
Bamboo, open Friday to Sunday noon to 9pm; Monday, Wednesday and Thursday noon to 3pm, 5–9pm. 3766 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. 510.654.5033. bamboopiedmont.com.