Secret Places

A few modest ethnic eateries that are worth checking out.

So we were at dinner and this guy asked me, "Where have you eaten lately that you liked?" and I mentioned Bar Jules, Serpentine, and Ironwood BBQ, hidden in Golden Gate Park. "No!" he said impatiently. "I read what you had to say about those places. I mean the secret places, the ones you save for yourself."

I wouldn't do such a thing, would I? The best way to ensure a restaurant goes out of business would be to try to keep people from knowing about it. And besides, in this day of foodies who compete to blog about a place before it's open — much less ready for its close-up — keeping a place secret was pretty much impossible.

But the question kept bothering me. And then I realized that I had been keeping a number of restaurants secret. These were the kinds of places that make chowhounders yelp like they've just been stung by a bee: the inexpensive ethnic eateries with dishes so luscious that I not only wanted to eat them again, but I had also done so frequently. The only caveat: Most were located across the bay in the wilds of Oakland. Every Friday I have a standing East Bay lunch date where we explore a different place with, sometimes, great good luck.

Using injera bread to mop up at Cafe Ethiopia.
Jen Siska
Using injera bread to mop up at Cafe Ethiopia.

Location Info


Cafe Ethiopia

878 Valencia
San Francisco, CA 94110

Category: Restaurant > African

Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights


3915 Broadway (at 40th St.), Oakland, 510-594-8300, Daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: free lot. Noise level: moderate.

Chai Thai Noodles
545-B International (at Sixth Ave.),Oakland, 510-832-2500. Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Not wheelchair accessible. Parking: street, fairly easy. Noise level: low.

El Huarache Azteca
3842 International (at 39th Ave.), Oakland, 510-533-2395. Sunday-Thursday 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Reservations not accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: street, fairly easy. Noise level: moderate.

Brown Sugar Kitchen
2534 Mandela (at Campbell), Oakland, 510-839-SOUL, Tuesday-Saturday 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Reservations not accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: street, fairly easy. Noise level: high.

Cafe Ethiopia
878 Valencia (at 20th St.), San Francisco, 285-2728. Sunday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m. Reservations not accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: street, difficult. Muni: 14, 26, 33, 49. Noise level: moderate.

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After attending a friend's birthday party at Ohgane, we agreed it was our new favorite Korean restaurant. The huge place features the classic barbecue dishes you can cook at the table (or not — we had them prepared for us), and a dazzling array of a dozen fresh and pickled panchan (the small plates, such as kimchi, that accompany all Korean food). But the two stars of the evening were dishes I'd never had before: yuke hwe ($16.95), a stunning version of steak tartare mixed with crunchy chopped fresh pear, and man du kal guk su ($10.95), a luscious thick noodle soup, dense with tender forcemeat-filled dumplings and garnished with mushrooms, carrots, greens, and noodle-like shreds of egg. When I tried Ohgane at lunch, we couldn't resist the buffet, a real bargain at $9.95 a person for an unusually impressive and satisfying array, including all the ingredients for make-your-own bibimbap rice bowls. We also ordered the man du kal guk su again, which has since become a frequent takeout favorite.

When we heard that the chef of my favorite Thai place in the city — Thai House Express on Larkin — had tired of his 10-year commute and had opened his own place, Chai Thai Noodles, in Oakland, we were there in a flash for my favorite dish, kao ka moo, "special pork leg stew," a heap of falling-apart succulent star-anise–scented meat topped with cilantro.

The place is pretty bare-bones, with woodgrain Formica tables, white walls, and a big-screen TV (happily turned down low). But the aromas issuing forth from the kitchen are alluring, and the food that comes out of it even better. I love Chai Thai's several versions of green papaya salad ($5.95-$7.95), plain or with additions of salted crab or dried shrimp; its tangy larb ($6.95), ground chicken, pork, or beef salad with a spicy lemony dressing; sautéed beef with Chinese broccoli ($7.95); green beans with chile paste ($8.50); and sautéed eggplant with fresh basil and bean sauce ($8.50). They all had clean, sharp flavors. But what turns my car in Chai Thai's direction is the pork leg stew ($8.95 à la carte), which I can't imagine not ordering. I'm so enamored of it that I've yet to try its almost-as-alluring neighbor, kao moo dang, described as "roasted pork over rice topped with chef's secret gravy sauce" ($7.25).

Thirty blocks east of Chai Thai is El Huarache Azteca, a nicely decorated, comfortable Mexican place with an intriguing menu dense with unusual dishes. In fact, you have to search for tacos and enchiladas among the less common masa (cornmeal dough) preparations. These include gorditas (masa stuffed with pork, cheese, or beef, $3.50), sopes (masa topped with beans and crema, $2.75-$3.50), huaraches (thick sandal-shaped masa bases topped with a variety of meats, vegetables, and fried eggs, $4.50-$10), and alambres (tortillas topped with meats and vegetables — a favorite, the regular, includes carne asada, chorizo, and bacon with bell pepper, onion, avocado, and Oaxaca cheese, $11.25). Even the quesadillas ($3.50) can be stuffed with nopales (cactus), rajas (spicy stewed peppers), huitlacoche (corn fungus), or flor de cabeza (squash flowers). On Saturday and Sunday, El Huarache offers menudo (tripe stew, $7-$8), pozole (pork and hominy soup, $7-$8), and an amazing barbacoa — smoked lamb sold by the pound ($16.95), served with tortillas, onions, cilantro, and radishes. Don't miss the lamb consommé ($2.50-$6) as an accompaniment.

On the other side of Oakland is the stylish Brown Sugar Kitchen. It's a modern soul-food breakfast-and-lunch joint that often has people waiting in line for a seat at its small wooden tables to enjoy delicate buttermilk-fried chicken with a spice-scented waffle and Brown Sugar's own apple cider syrup ($14), glossy, chewy baby back ribs with pineapple relish ($9 sampler, $16 for half-rack), or pulled pork sandwiches ($7.50). The place has an array of amazing baked goods, including baking-powder biscuits ($2.25) served with artisanal Blue Chair jams and caramel cake ($4) so good it'd make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler. Owner and chef Tanya Holland literally wrote the book (New Soul Cooking) on her kind of preparation: fresh, seasonal, light, and full of flavor. My only quibble: no refills on the Blue Bottle coffee.

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