Smoke gets in your eyes and stomach
Smoke rises and fills the second floor dining room at Kaokao Grill. Even on cold nights, the high transom windows and the front door open at dusk to let it escape. But it still finds a way to infiltrate the air. Once seated, your eyes will gradually begin to sting, redden and swell. And, after the meal, you can smell it on your skin and shirt sleeves. But when the entrées arrive at the table, the search for pure oxygen no longer matters. This restaurant serves out-of-the-ordinary barbecue.
The restaurant’s interior belies the refined approach the kitchen takes to plating dishes. Downstairs, the few tables there look abandoned, as if they’d been haphazardly arranged to celebrate an oncoming apocalypse. Upstairs where we sat, there were holes in the wall where new light fixtures had been recently installed. The bronze-colored paint on the walls is tinged with brown rather than gold. It’s a claustrophobic color more often associated with the interior lining of coffins. There’s nothing cheerful or inviting about it.
The first time I intended to try Kaokao, the restaurant was empty save for a table of employees twiddling their thumbs and eying the street for customers. There was an air of abandonment about the place, so I kept walking. That was a terrible, book-cover mistake in judgment. There’s a genius, or more than one, cooking in the kitchen. Their culinary skills are rightly consuming all of the excess energy, time or money that could be spent on the spare décor.
Kaokao’s limited, soft opening menu, perhaps unnecessarily, reminds diners that the meats are, “smoked in-house.” For now, there are two protein choices illustrated on the page—chicken or pork. The drawn image of an interior chicken bone, severed from the body, might not be an enticing approach for some diners. Others might appreciate that dose of gritty realism. It inspires a wordless sense of irony or pathos that Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine nonchalantly achieve in their graphic panels. Regardless, the drawing doesn’t in any way prepare you for the actual plate itself.
My successful return visit to Kaokao was inspired by photos of this chicken dish ($12). A fine dining swoosh of sauce is painted on the empty side of the dark plate. Huddled together on the other side are two legs and two thighs partially submerged in a ruddy chickpea curry sauce. The first bite of chicken is heavenly. So is the second, on up to the last morsel. There’s a small parenthetical note suggesting $6 for additional meat. Take that suggestion to heart.
The skin is crisped with a yogurt marinade and a “South Asian inspired spice blend,” a distant relative of an Indian chicken tikka. Because the skin attains such a rich, dark brown color, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was duck and not chicken. When the menu expands, adding duck to it seems like a foregone conclusion.
The second option is char siu pork ($12), “brined with Sichuan spices.” At 5pm, we got lucky and were served the last order of pork for the day. An employee explained that it takes at least a day to cook the meat. When they run out, that’s it until the next day. The finely sliced pork was served in a bowl with rice, brown sauce and thin disks of pickled cucumber. The meat was succulent and sweet, but my favorite bite was a charred end piece that had completely rendered down the fat.
There are starters, or “finger food” options as well. We tried an eggplant salad ($5) and a cold cucumber salad ($5). The amount of garlic chili-oil dressing on the cubes of cucumber looked worrisome. But the chili’s heat wasn’t overbearing. The eggplant salad, too, was overdressed but didn’t deter either of us from being startled by the taste of it. Infused with both sesame paste and sesame oil, the roasted eggplant tasted unlike any preparation I’ve ever had. Sesame isn’t as strong a flavor as peanut, but it conferred a density and a faint sweetness to a vegetable that often has a bitter aftertaste.
If these outstanding preparations of chicken and pork are the starting point of a new menu, what will Kaokao Grill be able to do with seafood, beef or other hearty vegetables? A smoky sky’s the limit. But first on the agenda: a more effective ventilation system; or, I’ll just grab that fine barbecue to go.
Kaokao Grill, open Wed to Sun 11am–8pm. 2993 College Ave., Berkeley. 510.960.0851. kaokaogrill.com.