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.
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.
My inquisitor seemed a bit stunned with the list of favorite restaurants serving irresistible food I'd just poured out. We were sat at a table at Cafe Ethiopia laden with a huge tray covered with spongy, slightly sour injera bread, topped with the many spicy Ethiopian dishes we'd ordered: tibsie derho, chicken pieces sautéed with tomatoes and lots of garlic, its reddish sauce gleaming with a light sheen of oil ($10.75); tibsie shrimp, sautéed with bell pepper, tomatoes, and onions ($12.50); a wonderful lamb dish, tsebhi begee, chunks of meat still on the bone scented with cardamom and chiles; and kitfo ($12.75), the Ethiopian steak tartare, mixed with clarified butter and seasoned with mitmita, a fragrant blend of ground chile peppers, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and cardamom. We tore off pieces of the injera to mop up bits of the stews, and washed down this feast with beer and tej (honey wine, $4.50 a glass). We were in the homey room of the Cafe Ethiopia on Valencia, with its framed African art, simple wooden chairs, and cheery tablecloths topped with glass. This was exactly the kind of place we would enjoy for lunch — if it were in Oakland.