Thursday, September 29, 2016

South Bay: Koi Palace

There was a lot of buzz when Koi Palace opened a branch in Milpitas.  We knew the wait would be ridiculous, so we kept our distance. 

We finally found ourselves walking up to steps to Koi's Palace when my dad's cousin invited us (minus my poor sister who was unfortunately at school in SF) out to dinner with her family one night:

We had reservations, but even though we got there early, our table wasn't ready until after our reservation time had passed.  It was just that busy that night:

The volume level in the place was so high that my dad's cousin had to shout in order for the server to take her order.

She had a list of dishes she wanted to try and more importantly, she was treating, so we let her do her thing.  We didn't try to interfere until she asked about some kind of fish stock that isn't on the menu.  When the server informed us that the fish stock cost almost $70, the entire table immediately said, "No, thank you."   

The entire table with the exception of my dad's cousin, who said, "Great!"

Guess who the server listened to?

When it arrived, we all watched with morbid curiosity as the server carefully ladled out the clear stock, leaving behind a mass grave of fish, meat, and other mysterious things:

For that exorbitant price, we expected this stock to cure all ailments, grow hair on our chests, and give us X-ray vision.  Instead, we got soup (albeit quite tasty soup).  It was definitely flavorful, but it wasn't life-changing by any means. 

We weren't expected to eat the actual leftover meat, but the hell were we going to leave it there!  That's probably 50 bucks worth of food, man!  In true practical Chinese fashion, we all got busy digging out the edible bits until a server stealthily took it from under our noses without giving us a chance to protest.

Compared to the drama of the stock, all the other dishes seemed much less memorable.  There was Kurobuta pork with pineapple ($24):    

The lychee was an interesting touch.

Knowing my dad's love for chicken, his cousin made sure to order him half of one ($15):

With ginger sauce, of course:

Then came the Peking dunk with pumpkin buns ($42):

Which unsurprisingly came with sauce and green scallions:

Some kind of clay pot (I think there was fish in it):

Mixed mushrooms over soft tofu walled in by greens:

And lastly, smoked sea bass ($32):

We were completely stuffed by the time the sea bass arrived, but it was so tender and moist that I couldn't stop eating it.

To add to the pretentiousness of the restaurant, white rice came in individual clay pots and cost $2 each:

By the end of the meal, we were beyond full.  But that didn't mean we weren't anxiously waiting for the complimentary dessert:

Freshly steamed custard bun, come into my belly:

Let's be real, now.  That meal was absurdly expensive.  Unnecessarily so.  Yes, the food was good.  But dude.  Not THAT good.  (And did you see how small that piece of sea bass was for $32?!)

The atmosphere felt like a battle zone at the beginning of our meal with all the servers rushing around and all the people yelling over each other.  It was almost stressful sitting among all the chaos.  Service was also on the brusque side for such a fancy place, though our server mellowed out and was cracking jokes with us by the time things slowed down and half of the restaurant had cleared out.  (Apparently the best time to go is on a Tuesday at 1:00 pm).

Would I go again?  Well, yes, if someone wanted to treat me.  But would I sink my own hard-earned cash into Koi Palace?  Hell nah.  I'm nonprofit, yo.

Koi Palace
768 Barber Ln
Milpitas, CA 95035
(408) 432-8833

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Oakland: Champa Garden

I am eternally grateful to VN for introducing me to Champa Garden.  Tucked randomly in a residential area in a slightly sketchy part of Oakland, this Laotian restaurant was everything I've been missing in my life:

It was a Monday evening and we arrived around 6:00pm.  After reading the Yelp reviews, I was concerned about a long wait, but we were seated immediately:

Just about every single review on Yelp mentions the Champa sampler ($12.95) and VN recommended the same thing, so of course we had to order one:

The sampler includes Lao sausages (slightly spicy!), fried spring rolls, and fried rice salad.  That fried rice salad.  THAT FRIED RICE SALAD. 

Make a wrap out of lettuce, mint, and cilantro:

Drizzle on some of that magic fish sauce...and boom.  It's freakin' awesome.  The rice is fried and crispy and mixed with preserved pork, green onions, peanuts, and lime juice.  I would be 100% satisfied with just the fried rice salad alone.  The fried spring rolls are pretty damn good too.  So are the sausages. 

Dammit, everything on that platter is delicious.

We also ordered the kaow soy or Lue's noodle soup (large $8.95):

You get a choice of rice noodles, vermicelli noodles, or pho noodles in your fermented bean soup.  (We went with the rice noodles.)  Also in the soup were minced chicken, sliced cabbage, and bean sprouts.  Looking at the bowl, I never would have expected the soup to be on the bland side.  But it was.  It probably would have been better had we added some condiments to it, but untouched it was rather meh.

We also ordered the pad mah kuer ($8.95), which was pan-fried eggplant with basil, garlic, onions, bell peppers, and our choice of meat:

We chose pork.

To balance out the saltiness, we added an order of sticky rice:

Even though we couldn't finish all of the food, we couldn't resist getting the fried banana and ice cream ($7) for dessert:

No surprises there.  Just perfectly fried bananas and wonderfully creamy coconut ice cream.

I loved Champa Garden so much that I took my parents there four days later when they came to help me move out of the place where I was housesitting.

I wanted to share with them the absolute joy that is the Champa sampler:

I know I already posted a picture of it above.  But this one is from a different angle and it's so pretty!  And so yummy.

The pad kea moa or drunken noodle ($8.50) was alright:

The noodles were a bit too soft, but that could have been a fluke.

The house special ($12.50) with its lightly fried catfish, eggplant, and basil, on the other hand, was great:

Slightly sweet, it went perfectly with rice. 

Some Yelpers complain about poor service at Champa Garden, but I didn't experience that at all.  Not during my first two visits.  And not during my third visit when I went back yet again, this time with my sister.

To avoid the crush, get there early for dinner.  You should be able to get a seat with no problem as long as you arrive before 6:30pm.  The restaurant fills up pretty quickly after that though.

And remember, get the Champa sampler. 

Get it, get it.  Get it, get it.  Yea.

Champa Garden
2102 8th Ave
Oakland, CA 94606
(510) 238-8819

Monday, September 26, 2016

Oakland: Powderface

T and I were both stuffed to the brim, but my sister insisted we had enough space for one more stop.  We didn't think so, but we followed her anyway to Powderface:

While my sister went to the counter to place her order, T and I sat hunched in pain at one of the little tables:

We cried silent tears when my sister brought back a box of beignets (3 for $4.95):

We could only stare in awe as my sister scarfed one down.  Awe shifted into horror when she calmly devoured a second (T and I insisted on sharing one).

I honestly don't remember if the beignet was good or not.  I just remember thinking that it was a whole lot of dough that I didn't need in my stomach.  To be fair to Powderface, I really should go back again when I have the stomach space for it.

We chilled at Powderface for a while...just long enough for T and I to have digested and created sufficient space for tacos from Taqueria Sinaloa, which ended up being the true final, final stop of our Fruitvale food tour.

We're disgusting, I know.

3411 East 12th St
Oakland, CA 94601
(510) 536-3223

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Oakland: Fruitvale Public Market

Even though we were stuffed with birria and pupusas, we powered through and made our way to the Fruitvale Public Market.  We made a beeline for the churro stand:

A churro costs $2 and you can choose what you want to fill it with.  We went with chocolate and vanilla:

Personally, I prefer the vanilla.  It's a bit less sweet and the creamy texture contrasts better with the crunchy exterior.

Right inside the market is Nieves Cinco de Mayo:

You can find all sorts of interesting ice cream flavors there, such as corn and curdled milk.  (Curdled milk?!)  We weren't there for the ice cream though.  We were there for the mangonada ($8 for a large): 

This was my first time trying mangonada.  I definitely expected the mango chunks, the scoop of mango sorbet, and the mango flavored ice.  What I didn't expect was the chamoy sauce, which was salty, sweet, and sour, all at the same time.  The tamarind-y flavor was a bit too much for me, so I stuck mostly to the mango bits.

The Fruitvale Public Market may be small, but just the churros and Nieves Cinco de Mayo alone make a trip oh-so worthwhile.

Churros Mexicanos
3340 E 12th St, Ste 17
Oakland, CA 94601

Nieves Cinco de Mayo
3340 E 12th St, Ste 2
Oakland, CA 94601
(510) 533-6296

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Oakland: Los Cocos

Stop two on our Fruitvale food tour after El Potrillo was Los Cocos:

We took our sweet time walking there because we were still struggling to digest all the birria we had for breakfast.  Before we were entirely ready, we were inside:

We started out with a glass of horchata ($2.25):

And because we're gluttons for punishment, we also ordered a plate of plantanos fritos or fried plantains ($3.75):

The real reason why we were at Los Cocos was the pupusas.  Tortilla pockets packed with cheese and other goodies?  Woo, baby!

The menu said the minimum order for pupusas was two.  We though we would be safe ordering three to share between the three of us.  But when we placed our order with our server, we found out that the minimum is actually per person.  PER PERSON.  If you get less than the minimum, you have to pay an additional fee per pupusa.  Just the thought of eating six pupusas was daunting.  Almost too daunting.  And then it occurred to us to ask how much the additional fee was.

50 cents.


Well then.  Three pupusas it was.

We ordered the pupusa with cheese and vine flower ($2.70): 

Can't really see the filling, but here is the obligatory cross section photo anyway:

For our second pupusa, we went with the cheese and squash ($2.70):

Yet another cross section shot:

And finally, a chicharron, cheese, and beans ($2.70):

The last cross section:

Gotta top every bite with curtido or fermented cabbage slaw for that tangy kick:

So simple, yet so delicious.  And freshly made!  The pupusas at Los Cocos are made to order.  You can watch all the magic happen in the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant. 

Don't expect any fancy trimmings.  Bring cash.  And most importantly, bring your appetite.  Don't make the mistake we made.  Go there ready to meet your two pupusa minimum. 

Heck, why limit yourself?  Be an overachiever and get four!

Los Cocos
1449 Fruitvale Ave
Oakland, CA 94601
(510) 992-4768

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Oakland: El Potrillo Restaurant & Bar

Before I started my housesitting gig, my coworker told me something monumental.  Once I found out that the best birrieria in the East Bay was going to be down the street from me, it was game over.  Nothing else mattered except getting myself over there.

El Potrillo was number one on my list to hit when my sister and T came to visit me.  The original plan was to go there for dinner Saturday night, but my coworker warned me that birria is more of a breakfast/lunch thing and that I should get there early instead.

Of course I listened to the expert.  Change of plans it was. 

The three of us headed to El Potrillo first thing Sunday morning:

Apparently El Potrillo doesn't have little Asian girls come in often because when we walked in the door, there was a slight pause as everyone stopped to do a double take at us.

The birria menu was entirely in Spanish:

Our server was a young girl who spoke English, but she wasn't much help.  We gave up on asking for guidance and just winged it.

While waiting for our birria, we nibbled on the complimentary bean tacos:

Free bean tacos >>> free bread.  That's just a fact.

Then came the moment of truth.  We thought we'd ordered one large plate of birria de chivo ($11) and one large dry birria with rice and beans ($12).  But we were brought two plates of what looked like the same thing. 

Plate #1:

Plate #2:

No rice and beans in sight.  When we asked our server about it, she told us we had to order the rice and beans separately. 

Eh?  Obviously we'd missed something or made a mistake somewhere.

She did bring us some rice and beans though:

We also got a basket of hot tortillas:

In the end, we had no idea what exactly we ordered, but the birria was so freakin' good that we didn't care.  The goat stew was super goat-y, which I love.  The meat was tender and the soup so flavorful. 

I loved El Potrillo so much that when I went housesitting the second time in July, I took my parents there so that they could share in the love.

My mom isn't a big goat person, so we ordered a plate of nachos for her:

We got a small menudo rojo ($9) just to give it a try:

It was just alright.

The real star of the show was still the birria.  This time around, our server was more experienced and incredibly helpful.  Thanks to her, we were able to get a deep large bowl of birria ($12):

And a shallow large plate of dry birria ($11):

And this.  This is everything.  Consomm√© on the side in mugs:

Even though it was very, very salty, I couldn't stop sipping it like coffee.  Not sure if I was supposed to drink it directly from the mug like that, but the tiny spoon was taking too long.  Ain't nobody got time for that.

After two visits and some trial and error, I can say with complete confidence that I prefer my birria wet rather than dry.  However, I have by no means mastered the birria menu at El Potrillo.  I know you can order it by the pound.  I also know that it's possible to choose what cut of meat you want.  What I haven't figured out is what cut is best.  My goal is to one day get a bowl like the ones a lot of the older men in the restaurant had that came with giant bones sticking out of the broth. 

El Potrillo is a hidden gem.  One that I selfishly hope can remain hidden.  I love the dive-y feel.  I love that it's a family restaurant by day and a bar by night.  But most of all, I love their birria. 

While it would certainly be much easier to go to El Potrillo with a Spanish-speaking friend, I am proof that you can go without.  Be strong!  Be courageous!  Be prepared to wing it and for heaven's sake, go on a weekend because they don't serve birria during the week.

El Potrillo Restaurant & Bar
400 29th Ave
Oakland, CA 94620
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