Tonkotsu Ramen @ Himawari, San Mateo

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Himawari, San Mateo

The Tonkotsu Ramen @ Himawari, San Mateo.

I’ll just cut to the chase. San Mateo boasts a quartet of reputable ramen shops: Ramen Dojo, Santa Ramen, Ramen Parlor, and Himawari. These are the four noodle joints that dominate the San Mateo landscape. Three of these restaurants (all but Himawari) are owned by the same chef, Kazunori Kobayashi, who launched his mini-empire with Santa back before ramen was a thing (the original Santa location was where Ramen Dojo is now).

In some ways, Kobayashi is what Thomas Keller is to Yountville, though that might be a stretch. I guess it all depends on how much you obsess over ramen. I enjoy it quite a bit, myself.

With Kobayashi quietly dominating the ramen landscape in San Mateo, Himawari is kind of the independent option in town, which is absolutely welcome. Even under the best circumstances, you don’t want all of your ramen from the same chef, and Himawari proves noteworthy in its own right. The restaurant’s ace-in-the-hole is its steamed pork belly, a generous block of tasty pork that’s even more tender than tofu. Steamed pork belly is traditionally a Chinese preparation, so it’s appearance in a bowl of ramen is unique. Best of all, it’s a thoughtful contrast to the braised pork belly (also delicious).

Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley

Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley

Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley. Before…

I was at a wedding on Sunday, and my lovely date was surprised to hear me mention that I wanted a cold beer. I realize that she’s only known me to drink wine thus far (which is always how it is in the beginning), but I do enjoy a cold beer, especially on a warm afternoon.

The groom at the wedding was a good friend of mine from our Martini House days. Back in 2007, the kitchen staff would habitually drink “Tecate Tea” after work: That’s a one-quart plastic deli filled with ice, a liberal squeeze of lemon and lime juice, and Tecate poured to the brim. It’s impossibly refreshing after a night in a sweltering kitchen.

A beer aficionado may criticize this whimsical concoction, perhaps the same way that a wine aficionado may sneer at sangria. But I don’t ever want to party with those kinds of people.

If I’m in the East Bay and I happen to crave a fancier beer, then that’s my opportunity to visit Gaumankitzel in West Berkeley. I’m a fan of Gaumankitzel’s whole brezel and sausage concept, so I like to pair that little plate with a big, tall German bier.

The last time is visited Gaumankitzel, I stayed on for an early dinner of Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce, pictured above and below. Most of us will probably recognize this green “walnut sauce” as pesto, especially here in the Bay Area, where pestos were ubiquitous during the California Cuisine movement.

Although pesto originates in Northern Italy, Gaumankitzel’s substitution of walnuts for pine nuts offers a Germanic twist that works well for this dish. The spätzle’s prodigious nest of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is an even more literal (and more decadent) nod to Italy.

I wondered, foolishly, if perhaps there was TOO much cheese on this dish, but it actually melted into the fresh, house-made spätzle with terrific results. Now I’m wondering: Has pesto and Parmigiano-Reggiano been slowly infiltrating German cuisine all these years?  Or is this Italo-German mashup purely a Berkeley thing?

Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley

… and After: Spätzel with Herbed Walnut Sauce (Redux) @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley.

 

The Kubideh @ Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House, Oakland Chinatown

The Kubideh @ Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House, Oakland Chinatown

The Kubideh @ Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House, Oakland Chinatown.

I might argue that the best restaurant in Oakland Chinatown isn’t actually Chinese, but is in fact, Afghan. I suppose that Afghan cuisine might be a tough sell in this political climate, especially since Afghanistan has been portrayed rather (shall we say) negatively in the Western media. Of course, the same exact thing can be said for Syria, or just about any other country in the Greater Middle East. It’s a shame that this region has become the epicenter of so much upheaval, although it’s hardly anything new. Religious wars have been waged in this area since the Crusades.

From a culinary standpoint, the Greater Middle East boasts tremendous historical importance as the site of the Silk Road, the earliest commercial link between Europe and Asia. Cities such as Kanduhar and Kabul occupied key positions on the Silk Road’s Southern Route, and the spoils of the spice trade are thus reflected in the Afghan cuisine. I’m a junkie for food history, so I may be somewhat biased in this regard, but I think that there’s something mesmerizing about these ancient flavor profiles, especially in the right hands.

To put it succinctly, Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House floors me every single time. I had a great meal there about a year ago, and my most recent visit last month was equally stellar. Back in June, I ordered Kamdesh’s kubideh, pictured above, and this deftly-seasoned ground beef kabab was succulent, sophisticated, and just an all-around pleasure to eat. Kamdesh’s fare may be the best Middle Eastern cuisine in the Bay Area, though I’m still on the case.

Like most entrees at Kamdesh, their kubideh comes standard with a generous portion of their “brown” rice, which is not to be discounted as some sort of flavorless health food. I wouldn’t send you down that road. Look closely, and you’ll notice that Kamdesh’s rice is actually basmati, which turns brown after it’s simmered in a rich, broth-based cooking liquid. This rice isn’t just some starchy afterthought, it’s serious sustenance.

The “Bay of Pigs” Cuban Sandwich @ Best Lil’ Porkhouse, San Rafael

The Bay of Pigs Cuban Sandwich @ Best Lil Porkhouse, San Rafael

The “Bay of Pigs” Cuban Sandwich @ Best Lil’ Porkhouse, San Rafael.
Served with mac and cheese.

Two people with normal appetites could probably split the “Bay of Pigs,” pictured above, and leave San Rafael’s Best Lil’ Porkhouse feeling plenty full. It’s an utterly massive sandwich, dense with pork, and although it may not boast as many ingredients as, say, the torta cubana at That’s It Market, the “Bay of Pigs” can certainly match its Mission counterpart pound for pound. BLP’s spin on this classic sandwich is its pulled pork, which accompanies the typical trio of ham, pickles, and melted Swiss. The pulled pork is abundant and delicious; the ham is sliced almost thick enough to be a steak; and the house-made pickles are substantial coins in their own right. Mustard and mayo are standard, and BLP offers four different varieties of house-made barbecue sauce. A side of macaroni and cheese, garnished with minced bacon, ups the ante considerably.

Small Bites @ Ippuku, Berkeley

Small Bites @ Ippuku, Berkeley

Chicken Ramen @ Ippuku, Berkeley. The Ippuku ramen is very modest in flavor compared to the amazing tonkotsu-style ramen that exists in the South Bay. The Western palate will recognize this dish as chicken noodle soup, and for that reason, I don’t really place it in the pantheon of noteworthy Bay Area ramen. Still, I had to sample this dish on principle. In terms of a simple chicken noodle soup, it’s fine.

I’m not sure if the concept of the Japanese izakaya has reached critical mass here in the Bay Area, but I suspect the term itself is still unknown to most people, even among those who count themselves as gourmands.  Essentially, an izakaya is the Japanese version of a gastropub, and the menu will typically offer a wide array of small plates, as well as an impressive selection of sake and beer. In true izakaya style, much of the menu at Ippuku is devoted to yakitori (grilled skewers of meat, especially various chicken parts), although the menu does cover other options. I suppose Ippuku is the East Bay standard for izakaya at the moment, but for me, the best in the Bay Area is still probably Izakaya Sozai in San Francisco.

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Small Bites @ Ippuku, Berkeley

Kurobuta Pork Belly @ Ippuku, Berkeley. In Japan, Berkeshire pork is known as kurobuta pork, so these skewers of pork belly represent some of the best heritage pork on the market. I meant to ask about the accompanying sauce, because I wasn’t able to decode it fully. If I had to guess, it may have been a miso-tamarind sauce. Either way, it was a delicious, slightly sweet counterpoint to the grilled pork.

• • •

Small Bites @ Ippuku, Berkeley

Karaage Chicken @ Ippuku, Berkeley. I was a little disappointed that this fried chicken didn’t arrive with some sort of mayonnaise for dipping, as is often the case. Still, it was perfectly prepared, and the squeeze of lemon was mostly sufficient.

• • •

Small Bites @ Ippuku, Berkeley

Chicken “Oysters” @ Ippuku, Berkeley. If you’ve ever broken down whole chickens, then you may be familiar with the prized “oyster” meat, which is tucked neatly alongside the bird’s backbone. Novice hands will leave these morsels on the carcass. At Ippuku, the chicken oysters are wrapped in skin, and grilled to a crispy, delicious effect.

 

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Kansui, San Jose

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Kansui, San Jose

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Kansui San Jose.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m always intrigued by restaurants that play hard to get. I have a strange fascination with any place that has the gumption to open during odd inconvenient hours. Likewise, I have a fondness for any chef who forbids substitutions. Surly behavior doesn’t faze me one bit (I work in a kitchen, after all), and I admire the Soup Nazi routine if it’s warranted. To me, these are all positive and confident signs, and they communicate almost everything I need to know about a restaurant – namely, that the food is good and that the chef has a clear vision. Customers be damned, if they don’t get it.

Kansui caught my attention about a month ago when I was researching South Bay ramen, and I noticed the restaurant offered abbreviated hours (Tuesday through Saturday, from 11:30am to 1:30pm). Ten business hours per week is unusual by almost any standard, so naturally my curiosity was piqued. I envisioned a ramen house with tonkotsu broth so transcendent that it could sell out of soup within this two-hour window each day. A place where, if you were to show up any time after one o’clock, you probably wouldn’t be served, since the line would already be too long by then. This is the ramen house that I dream about.

I would eventually discover that Kansui offers lunch-only hours for a different reason: The restaurant is the daytime concept of Hay Market Willow Glen, an otherwise American-style restaurant during dinner hours. This arrangement was not exactly what I expected, but my optimism remained intact. I entertained the possibility that Kansui was perhaps a pop-up of sorts, with some entrepreneurial chef, maybe even a recent transplant from Kyushu, making use of Hay Market’s fallow lunchtime space. It was a plausible scenario, but again, I was over-thinking things. Kansui and Hay Market are operated by the same exact folks, end of story.

Admittedly, I was a little disappointed in lack of Kansui’s backstory, although the enigma remains to some extent. It’s still a place where you can only get ramen 10 hours out of the week. More importantly, it’s an admirable bowl of tonkotsu. The broth has the proper richness and depth, the noodles are made in-house, and the barely-boiled egg (usually a telltale sign of quality) is executed perfectly. I’m not sure that Kansui is “destination” ramen for me (since I do live in Napa), but this lunch-only spot seems like a great addition to a neighborhood like Willow Glen.

“The Deal” Burger @ Marrow, Oakland

The Deal Burger @ Marrow, Oakland

“The Deal” Burger @ Marrow, Oakland.

“The Deal” Burger at Marrow is quaint, like its price tag of $9.17, which includes beef-fat fries and a drink. However, if you’re accustomed to half- or third-pound burger patties, you’ll want to supplement your lunch with dessert, a milkshake, or at the very least, a salad. The frail and the elderly could probably get by on “The Deal” alone, and I’m not necessarily saying that as a criticism. I only mention this caveat as a heads-up to the hungry, and a word to the wise: If you’re anything like me, you might just view “The Deal” as a snack.

The Brisket @ Brick Pig’s House, Oakland

The Brisket @ Brick Pigs House, Oakland

Brisket, creamy potato salad, and cornbread muffins @ Brick Pig’s House, North Oakland.

I visited Everett & Jones for the very last time a few months ago. I promised myself that I’d never go back after I’d suffered through the driest brisket of all time. I usually try to avoid negative reviews in this blog, since I much prefer to compile a list of recommendations. I cook for a living, so I don’t have time to visit every single restaurant in the Bay Area, much less write reviews for all of these restaurants. Therefore, if I have a bad meal, I simply move on, and I don’t mention it. From an aesthetic standpoint, I don’t want to publish pictures of lousy food, and I certainly don’t want to waste my time by rehashing a bogus meal.

But Everett & Jones really let me down this last time. Honestly, I probably should’ve seen it coming, since they’ve always been a little hit-or-miss over the years. I just don’t recall them missing as badly as they did during my most recent visit. Their brisket was egregiously sub-standard that day, and I’m over it. Ultimately, it’s kind of like a break-up: There were good times, there were bad times, but at some point, you just have to sort everything out and make the decision to either move on, or not move on. We all deserve to be happy and to eat well, but I won’t risk paying money for something that unsatisfying ever again. Fool me once.

From now on, I’m getting my East Bay barbecue from Brick Pig’s House on Shattuck, which is less than 10 minutes from Everett & Jones. I’ve only been to BPH once so far, but the brisket (pictured above) already surpassed Everett & Jones on its best day. The meat was tender and it didn’t require sauce, although the sauce was a welcome compliment to be sure. Beyond this basic improvement, the sides were better, the parking was more convenient (no meters), BPH accepts credit cards, and the owners are one of the sweetest couples you’ll ever meet.

I’m smitten. Maybe it’s just the honeymoon phase of a new relationship. Or maybe it’s the real thing.

The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga

The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga

The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga. Served with huckleberry sauce and pine nuts.

In my experience, people from Napa tend to discuss Calistoga with an air of levity. Is this fair? I’m not sure, but there may be a few reasons for this attitude. Perhaps it’s mainly because Calistoga has remained somewhat rustic, despite the tourism boom that seems to have affected the rest of the valley. Or maybe it’s because Calistoga is the very last stop to the north before you cross from Napa County over into Sonoma County (surprisingly enough, Calistoga is actually two miles closer to Healdsburg than it is to the City of Napa, which says quite a bit about our geography).

As the culinary centerpiece of Solage Resort & Spa, Calistoga’s Solbar is easily the town’s finest restaurant, having maintained its Michelin star since 2009. Though Solbar can easily be overlooked because of its up-valley location, it certainly remains a destination worthy of the drive. All told, the distance from Napa to Calistoga is about 27 miles, but this jaunt through the heart of wine country can be a scenic and relaxing commute, so long as you remember to take the Silverado Trail.

As the road less traveled, “The Trail” features just one lone stop sign between Napa and Calistoga. Driving northbound, this stretch of single-lane road offers pastoral scenery, with the Vaca Mountains to the right and the beautiful valley floor to the left. (Conversely, if you take Highway 29 to Calistoga, you’ll still enjoy some great views, but you’ll have to deal with several stop lights in St. Helena, much lower speed limits through Oakville and Rutherford, and much more tasting room traffic in general.) However you decide to get to Solbar, a memorable plate of lemon ricotta pancakes will be the reward for your journey.

And if you’ve driven almost 30 miles just for breakfast, then you might as well add on a side of biscuits and gravy while you’re at it.

The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga

Napa Valley Barbecue @ Smoakville, Napa

Napa Valley Barbecue @ Smoakville, Napa

The Brisket “Burnt Ends” Sandwich @ Smoakville, Napa. Nicely charred and piled high.

When it comes to the truly hidden gems of the Napa Valley, there are several wineries and maybe just a handful of eateries (some brick-and-mortar, some on wheels). Among the latter category, my recent favorite has been Smoakville, a tucked-away barbecue joint that you would probably never discover by accident, unless you took a wrong turn into a hidden cul-de-sac. The fact that Smoakville is geared mostly for take-out makes it all the more elusive – it’s a tiny storefront, with just one table inside and one single picnic table out by the curb.

Like any decent barbecue purveyor, Smoakville offers a small-yet-carnivorous menu, but one that also remains fool-proof, as every item is well-executed, right down to the side dishes, right down to the house-made pickles. I’ve had the pleasure of exploring the Smoakville menu the over last several weeks, and I’ve become sold on the place. Smoakville has quickly become one of my Napa Valley favorites, and quite frankly, it fills a gaping void here in wine country.

But before I delve into the specifics of Smoakville, let’s just take a step back and talk about barbecue in general.

The biggest cliché in barbecue criticism (if we can focus upon this singular niche of food writing for a moment) is the review that begins with “I’m from (insert Southern state here), so I know barbecue.” This assumed expertise is absolutely absurd, and I hate it. For one thing, there are at least three different schools of American barbecue, each thriving in its own region, and each claiming superiority over the rest. There’s already a strong built-in bias towards other perfectly good versions of barbecue.

Even when you set these biases aside, another issue remains: Consider the notion that there’s good barbecue and bad barbecue in the world, and that some of the bad barbecue actually exists in the South. By the same token, I can find bad pizza in New York City, and I know for a fact that there are examples of lousy Mexican food here in California. Mediocre restaurants can get by on location, low prices, convenience, or any combination of the above.

Whatever the case may be, to assume that every person in California is an expert on Mexican food is ridiculous. If this idea was true, then Californians wouldn’t dine at the mediocre places. But they do. And if you’re still reading this rant, then you can probably see the conclusion that I’m about to draw: Just because you hail from a certain culinary region, doesn’t mean that you’ve ever developed discerning taste.  Maybe you have. But maybe you haven’t. Just being from somewhere isn’t enough to be an authority on the cuisine.

I’m a native Californian, and personally, my favorite version of barbecue is Carolina barbecue, mainly because I like vinegar in my sauce and I like pork on my plate. But you can bet I wouldn’t turn down any Texas barbecue if it was good. And what makes it good? Seasoning, succulence. After that, secret sauces and secret spice rubs are great, but these elements cater to personal taste more than anything.

And so that brings me to Smoakville, where everything I’ve had thus far has been very well-prepared and delicious. It’s good, old-fashioned, from-scratch cookery, and the quality and know-how is evident. The local hook is that Smoakville uses old wine barrels (and thus, oak, and this its moniker) to smoke its meats. True-school Southerners, at least the ones who actually know barbecue, may not accept French oak staves in place of pecan, but I say leave your prejudices back in the Bible Belt. You’re in Napa now.