As an enormous fan of holes-in-the-wall, I was excited to hear that Oakland’s Grocery Cafe was set to reopen in the former Hahn’s Hibachi Jack London Square. It hadn’t even been around for two years when Alameda County inspectors came around last fall and found a number of violations, shutting things down temporarily and later convincing proprietor William Lue that the building would likely never get up to code — especially in the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy. That sounds most inauspicious, but this place had generated a cult following, even earning a nod from Bon Appétit for its church-pew-and-’80s-record decor — and Lue claimed that at least part of the reason for the closure was a non-English-speaking relative’s refusal to let an inspector into the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Lue’s other venture, another Burmese hole-in-the-wall in the Tenderloin a few block away from my office, was also gone. Having opened in early 2016, Tender Loving Food closed unceremoniously a few months ago, taking its delicious ohno-kauo-swe (or coconut chicken noodle chowder) with it.
But now Grocery Cafe is back. Any and all restaurant resurrections are to be celebrated — especially immigrant-run places where the language barrier has proved a terrible obstacle. But the ambience has shifted from “anti-Burma Superstar” — in the words of the East Bay Express — to something characterless and generically upscale. And while the portions are mighty, I couldn’t settle on one truly excellent dish across several visits. To be certain, everything is good. But everything is also only good.
Start with the laphet thoke, or tea-leaf salad ($13). Tossed tableside, it’s a mix of cabbage, tomatoes, roasted peanuts, black sesame seeds, and plenty of other crunchy bits — and it’s a crowd favorite here just as it is at virtually any Burmese restaurant. Time and again, I found it salty and a little astringent from the tea paste, but without much of a garlic, chili, or citrus dimension to speak of.
Khao swe thoke, or rainbow noodle salad ($13), was better. A good, slow-burning heat on the cabbage was the type of quality that drives you back to the same dish over and over, and I’m all about those crispy bits, but for something that boasts of “more than 20 ingredients,” including tamarind juice, it was hard to detect any standout flavor profiles. Samosas, both in the potato-y vegetarian appetizer (six to an order, $9) and the samosa thoke entree versions ($13) were perfectly fine, but lacking that cumin-heavy punch that the best samosas land. I did like the entree presentation, however — the samosas were fried to a thicker shell and broken up around a mix of cabbage cilantro, and other veggies, like a proper salad.
Mohinga ($15), which has as much or more of a claim than tea-leaf salad to be the national dish of Myanmar, was notable for its texture. Thickened with what I’m guessing is chickpea flour, it was a great fish soup to dip fritters in, although the noodles were unremarkable and the fish was low-key. After rotating through so many salads, it was nice to look forward to some variety in the form of good ol’ meat-and-potatoes, but the steak masala ($15) was much the same: neither more nor less than good.
What I really liked were the teas, of which there are four. Particularly good are the stone-fruit-forward Phoenix Oolong ($5) and the cold, slightly piney Lollipop of Life ($4), which reminded me of a syrupy Afghani import, like a coniferous grenadine, that I once had on an excursion around Fremont.
To the extent that I have anything resembling a Spidey-sense, every time I walked out of Grocery Cafe, I felt like I’d missed something crucial, ordered wrong, or just strolled in on an off day. The service was so warm, and the reputation too good, for that to have been it. Since my dream is to write 52 glowing reviews a year and say next-to-nothing about any mediocrities I encounter — admittedly something that gets hard when working under time and money constraints — this nagging sentiment sticks in my craw a bit. So, more than almost anywhere else that’s left me underwhelmed in exactly this way, I feel obliged to revisit. Everybody adores you, Grocery Cafe, so why can’t I?
Grocery Cafe, 90 Franklin St., Oakland, 925-566-4877, no website.