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Chinese Skewers Are the Last Bastion of Late-Night Dining in the Bay

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An illustration of a tray of Chinese grilled meat skewers, including kebab-style lamb and beef, pork intestines, whole shrimp and whole fish.
At Newark’s Dynasty BBQ, you can get chewy-crisp pork intestines, chicken gristle and whole fish grilled on a stick — in addition to the usual beef and lamb skewers. (Thien Pham)

The Midnight Diners is a regular collaboration between KQED food editor Luke Tsai and artist Thien Pham. Follow them each week as they explore the hot pot restaurants, taco carts and 24-hour casino buffets that make up the Bay Area’s after-hours dining scene.

The Bay Area has always been a tough place to be an incorrigible late-night snacker — and the triple whammy of the pandemic, a brittle economy and the prevailing “doom loop” narrative have winnowed down the options even further. (Did you know, for example, that even the 24-hour Starbread in Daly City now closes at 9 p.m.?)

We live in the epicenter of the 8 or 9 o’clock last call.

The one notable exception, apparently? Chinese skewers. Even now, if you search online for what’s still open, say, past 10 p.m. on any given day, you’ll find a preponderance of Chinese restaurants with the word “BBQ” in their name, scattered in suburbs like Dublin, Fremont and San Mateo. All of them specialize in the heavily spiced, cumin-forward grilled meat sticks that you’ll find sold on the street in northwestern China.

That’s what we were craving on a recent Friday night when we drove to a Newark strip mall in search of Dynasty BBQ, which was a bit tricky to find if only because the place just recently changed its signage, having merged with a San Mateo skewer spot of the same name. Online, it’s still listed as “Oyama BBQ.”

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Dynasty has this particular kind of high-low vibe that immediately charmed me: On the one hand, there was the traditional guzheng music and elegant decor, down to the paper lanterns and the dozens of faux cherry blossoms hanging from the ceiling, like you’re dining in some Ming Dynasty temple courtyard. On the other hand, we were eating and drinking off the same kind of paper plates and plastic cups you would get at a child’s birthday party.

Spring blossoms and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling of a traditionally decorated Chinese restaurant.
The vibes are immaculate. (Luke Tsai/KQED)

The food hit the spot. More often than not, this is exactly what I want to be eating when I get hungry late at night — something salty and fatty that goes down expeditiously well with cold beer. The skewers all have the same standard spice coating that’s ubiquitous at this type of Chinese barbecue spot: a lot of cumin, ground chiles and Sichuan peppercorn.

At Dynasty, most of the sticks run just $2 to $4 an order, so we got a couple bowls of white rice and really went to town. Classic beef and lamb skewers that burst with hot, fatty juice when you bite in. Whole fish (yellow croakers) skewered onto the stick and grilled until the skin crackles and pops — pure pleasure to pick off the bones. Every kind of innard you can imagine, from crunchy chicken gristle to one of my favorites, pork intestines — the chewy-crisp, fatty Elastic Band King of the meat stick world.

Everything’s cooked to order in the kitchen (this isn’t one of those grill-it-yourself deals), so I’m not even sure if one of our surprise favorites was even prepared on the grill at all: a whole eggplant splayed open and cooked until the flesh is oozy soft, then topped with what appeared to be a whole head’s worth of chopped garlic.

Dynasty is the kind of place where you can eat well — and eat a lot — for $20 or $30 a person. My pro tip? Get just a few skewers at a time and order more as you go. The best bite is the first bite after that meat stick hits the table, when food is at its crisp-edged best and almost too hot to eat.

The Newark location of Dynasty BBQ (5492 Central Ave., Newark) is open Mon. through Fri. from 5 p.m. to midnight, and from noon to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. It has a sister location in San Mateo.

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