Chop Bar's grilled pork bahn mi is a great lunchtime sandwich, although their burger is always a sure bet for satisfaction. Photo by Jenny Oh.
Are you the one in your social circle who's been identified as the "Restaurant Recommendations Resource?” Do you keep tabs on new restaurant openings and have more opinions on eateries than Yelp? With the holiday season fast approaching and company coming into town, you’ll probably find yourself fielding the usual flood of questions: "So my parents will be here this weekend and I want to take them somewhere tasty, but that's not too pricey." "Where do you go for dim sum?"
My brother visited us over Thanksgiving, and I was reminded of the pressure a food aficionado feels with non-native guests. You want the restaurants to be exceptional and unique to the Bay Area, yet not break the bank if you’re going out on a regular basis. So if you’re tired of showing your friends and family tourist attractions and don’t want to fire up the stove for dinner, try this short list of fail-proof places in the East Bay. These are restaurants my husband and I go to if we're feeling too lazy to cook or want to take folks out for a good, reasonably priced meal. It’s tough to find places that please all palates, but these restaurants have been quite successful with a diverse group that ranges from my notoriously picky parents, friends from the city who are unfamiliar with the East Bay and hard-to-impress East Coasters. This list leaves off the fancy, the adventurous, the underground and the usual suspects, and was created to appeal to a pretty wide group of tastes.
Blue Bottle, Subrosa, Remedy Coffee and Actual Cafe have sprung up in the past few years to provide primo caffeine to the East Bay. Another place I enjoy, Bica Cafe, is located in the Rockridge neighborhood near Zachary's Pizza. They carry local coffees from De La Paz, Verve and Ritual among others.
Brunch & Burgers
Yes, there's one place that can satisfy your craving for a delicious brunch and deliver an amazing burger. Chop Bar makes my favorite burger in the East Bay and they do a pretty fantastic pig roast in the summer, too. For $12, you get a juicy burger made with Preferred Meats ground chuck with bacon, avocado, tomato & aioli piled on an Acme Kaiser roll. It's served with an arugula salad so you can feel less guilty about the burger. If you're throwing calorie caution to the wind, I also suggest ordering their divine macaroni & cheese as a $7 appetizer to share -- which may be hard to do since it's so unbelievably good. Their breakfast/brunch fare is a solid selection of comfort food like their bacon, egg, & cheese sandwich on an Acme torpedo roll for $7.50.
La Calaca Loca is tucked away in a little mini-mall in Temescal across the street from Bakesale Betty's. This great little Mexican restaurant also makes a wonderful breakfasts on weekends (the Huevos a la Mexicana -- scrambled eggs w/ tomato, onion & cilantro, served with pinto beans --- for $6.25 is my favorite.) But their burritos are what bring me back; their Baja Pescado burritos made with fried beer-battered fresh fish (line-caught mahi mahi, baja sauce & cabbage for $6.50 is phenomenally good. And they use meat and chicken from Niman Ranch and Fulton Valley Farms, which is always a plus.
Solano Avenue in Albany is chock-full of fantastic restaurants, and it's the home of one of our favorite Thai places: Bua Luang. Winter weather makes me crave curries, and I usually go for their pumpkin curry with pumpkin, green pea, bell pepper and sweet basil for $9.75 or the chicken pa nang red curry with lime leaves, ground peanuts, bell pepper, sweet basil for $8.95 with a side of steamed coconut rice.
China Village is located just down the street from Bua Luang. Don't be daunted by the massive encyclopedic menu they hand you when you sit down; there's plenty to choose from and it'll take you a while to peruse their offerings (and you'll be amused by some of the typos you'll see along the way.) I often go for their dim sum, which they serve anytime and love their steamed pork bao ($4.50), green onion pancake ($3.50) and spicy wonton with hot oil sauce ($5.95). I'm also a big fan of their lamb with cumin for $9.95 and the Kingtu Princess Prawns -- deep-fried shrimp with a spicy ginger-garlic sauce for $11.95.
If you're lucky enough to get into La Trattoria Siciliana -- there's usually a wait if you don't have a reservation -- then your next dilemma is figuring out what to order. I'm always deliberating between their Rigatoni Cosa Nostra made with their award-winning pesto sauce for $12 or their Gnocchi alla Norma with homemade potato pasta dumplings with fresh tomato sauce, fried eggplant, ricotta salata and basil ($13). And they have several specials every night which makes the decision-making process all the more torturous.
Telegraph Avenue hosts a number of Korean restaurants, and there are quite a few that are excellent. Casserole House is one at the top of my list and got the nod of approval from my visiting brother who loved their yue gae jang, ($9.95) a spicy beef soup with noodles that will clear your sinuses for several months. Their kimchee ji gae ($9.95) is a savory simmered kimchee stew made with pork and tofu, and I'm partial to their goon mahndu, fried dumplings filled with pork, beef, tofu, vegetables and kimchee for $8.95. They also give you a nice assortment of ban chan, or side dishes, and complimentary barley tea to warm you up as soon as you settle in at your table.
Mitama is on the corner of College and Alcatraz Avenues right on the border of Oakland and Berkeley. They have wonderful bento box lunch specials, but we enjoy coming for dinner so we can sit at the bar and order sushi and sashimi directly from the chefs. Their chicken karage for $6.95 is a generous portion of fried chicken goodness if you want a decadent starter to kick off your meal.
There's a ton of respectable pizza joints in the East Bay, but Rotten City is not too far from our West Oakland neighborhood and makes top-notch slices using local, sustainably sourced and organic ingredients when possible. You can visit their Facebook page to salivate over photos of their daily specials. And you have to try their terrific meatball sub at least once, and you'll probably try it again after you've sampled it.
Manzanita's former digs have been taken over by Shangri-La, another vegan restaurant on the Emeryville-Oakland border. The menu, however, is similar: healthy, organic food that's a good way to detox from all the rich cookies and cakes you might have been eating. Call or check online for the daily menu; you can order their full meal or the simple one. There's usually a soup, grain and an assortment of vegetable dishes with dressings.
La Calaca Loca
5199 Telegraph Ave
(between Claremont Ave & 52nd St)
Phone: (510) 601-8226
Facebook: La Calaca Loca