When you regard my youthful visage and infantile demeanor, you may find it hard to believe that I have been married, not once, but twice. It's true. Back in Iowa, where I spent most of my teens and twenties, I was married to a woman with whom I had spent a lengthy relationship. Prior, to "getting involved," we were the best of friends, yet somehow, the romantic relationship didn't turn out as planned. We wed in Iowa in 1993 and moved to Oakland together in September 1996, thanks to a job she had found in Hayward.
I won't go into the details of the 1998 dissolution of this marriage. I will say, however, that I acted like a clichéd male shitbag who went through a mid-life crisis about fifteen years too early. I left my ex with very few friends and no family in the area. (I will call her "Wilda Ablett" here henceforth- she knows why.) She was understandably both hurt and furious with me. I saw Wilda only a couple of times after I had removed my stuff from the apartment. After that, I had zero contact with her, until a few months ago, when she "friended" me via Facebook- our first communiqué in a decade. Wilda moved to another part of the country around 2000. She is now re-married, seemingly very happily, and appears to be better off than she would have ever been with a bum like me shitting in her punchbowl. Since she initially contacted me online, we have kept in touch via very pleasant e-mail conversations. It looks like she really has absolved me from my heinous acts towards her, which occurred almost 13 years ago. Though I still feel terrible for the way I conducted myself back then, I am truly grateful for the forgiveness she appears to have granted me.
Wilda said she enjoyed Inhuman Eating Machine and had a great suggestion for a future IEM session. How about I go around the area eating meals she loved at places she used to like to eat here? She made several meal and restaurant suggestions. Some of her top picks had to be eliminated because they now exceeded the $10 IEM cost ceiling, but we were able to come up with a list of eight meals that were close to her heart for one reason or another. While she is happy where she is now, she said she misses Oakland. The session would enable her to live vicariously through my journey.
Indeed, this session is a little different than normal. I ate a different food at every venue, rather than the same thing at eight places throughout the day. Other than that, the rules were the same and I encountered some of the same obstacles. While most of the restaurants were at places I had previously eaten at one time or another, some of the dishes were unfamiliar, so I didn't always know what to expect.
Thanks to Wilda for helping to make this happen. You remain a classy lady in my book.
Eating Day: January 20, 2010 (All locations in Oakland, except where specified.)
1. PHO ANH DAO- 280 E. 18th St. @ 3rd. Ave.- 10:29am- Bun Bo Hue w/Shrimp- $6.95 & $1 for the Shrimp
Before I left the house, I produced an array of turds that looked like a half dozen mahogany lightning bolts surrounding a chocolate cat skull. The whole scene brought to mind a post-apocalyptic fecal-based Grateful Dead logo. In previous sessions, I would have pronounced such a massive output as a good omen, but I have finally learned that evacuation is not always a barometer for a session's degree of difficulty.
Rather than pay to park on E. 18th St., I parked on 3rd. Ave alongside the recently-renovated Lucky supermarket. As I walked in the rain, I passed a grimy "admiral of the streets." He was wearing a torn black parka that had faux-down filling coming out of every nook and cranny. He was singing "Dixie" in a timbre borrowed from Yosemite Sam.
The area around East 18th Street and Lakeshore function as the de facto gateway to East Oakland. Despite its proximity to beautiful Lake Merritt, I don't see this neighborhood ever gentrifying significantly. There are still too many colorful characters around to scare away the stroller moms. I have a fond memory of a gent shuffling westward on E. 18th with his pants around his ankles, his withered brown member fluttering like a wind sock. This was interesting enough, but the capper was when I noticed he was defecating while he walked. He left several huge logs on the sidewalk in front of what is now the Out of the Closet thrift store. Granted, this was close to a decade ago, but I assure you, the neighborhood has not "gone Rockridge." Last month, while I stretched prior to running around the lake, I spied a toothless woman urinating in the bushes on the 2nd. Avenue side of the Merritt Bakery Restaurant. This occurred about 11am on Saturday morning- a time when the area is teeming with people walking the lake and shopping at Lucky. She smiled at me while she urinated and waved at passersby as she squatted, making no attempt to hide what she was doing. The tradition of public elimination is alive and well in the Eastlake district. Hopefully, kooks like these will keep undesirables from San Francisco from emigrating here.
Pho Anh Dao is the first place I ever tried Pho. Other than the Merritt, Anh Dao was the closest restaurant to our apartment at 1800 Lakeshore. We had no idea what pho was then, but by default, we wound up trying it, rather than venturing too far into the unknown hinterlands of Oakland. For years, Anh Dao was virtually the only place I ever ate pho. The pho here is still good, but the portions have decreased and the prices have increased. In the old days (1996-97), you paid $6 for an extra large bowl at Anh Dao. That size was appropriate only for gluttonous freaks such as myself, as it was large enough to bathe a toddler. In 2010, their extra large bowl is now suitable for consumption by most hungry mortals and it now costs more than $8. Plus, I discovered recently that there is better pho to be had nearby (e.g. Kevin's Noodle House and Ao Sen.) I still have a soft spot in my heart for Anh Dao, though, and was glad when Wilda assigned me to eat here. She picked it mostly because her late step-father really enjoyed eating Anh Dao's pho with tripe on his visits to Oakland. I was not to eat pho on this session, though. I would be eating bun bo hue, which I also ate for the first time at Anh Dao.
For the uninitiated, pho (pronounced like "fun" without the "n" on the end) is a bowl of clear-ish beef broth filled with rice noodles and your choice of various beef and beef by-products. It is probably the single most popular dish in Vietnam and is eaten at any time of day, particularly breakfast. If one chooses a pho variety with flank steak, meatballs, or brisket, pho is quite non-threatening. However, many "Round Eyes" will find some of the other pho offerings on the menu a little disconcerting. I have tried a few of the choices with various offal and other funny-business, and I have to say that I prefer the more pedestrian choices. I recently tried pho with tendon (at Pho Hoa Loa) and I was not into it. The tendon was like eating a beef-flavored Jell-o Jiggler. Bun bo hue (pronounced "boon-bo-way") is also a Vietnamese noodle soup, but it is quite different from pho. Firstly, bun bo hue broth is darker and spicier than pho broth. Secondly, the vermicelli noodles used are made from wheat flour, rather than rice flour. Thirdly, there is a stock collection of meatstuffs used in bun bo hue, rather than a checklist of items from which you can choose. Generally, you will find thin strips of beef and pork in bun bo hue. Sometimes you will also see pig knuckles. Finally, bun bo hue usually comes with a congealed cube of pig's blood.
Because of some of the non-Western elements in bun bu hue, I don't think many non-Asians order this soup. When I ordered it at Anh Dao, the waiter asked me, "Have you had it before?", as if he wanted to ensure that I didn't send it back when I discovered a bunch of weird stuff in the broth. The same thing happened to me a week earlier when I ordered it at Bun Mam Soc Trang (go eat there now!) As usual, the service at Anh Dao was gruff but speedy. My soup arrived in less than five minutes. It was a decent-sized bowl, but only about as big as a medium bowl of pho here. It's possible the richness of the broth makes an enormo-bowl unnecessary. In addition to the usual sprouts, basil leaves, and sliced chili peppers, the condiment plate came with cabbage. The broth was slightly spicy and had all kinds of deep flavors going on that I could not possibly identify. There has to be close to 40 ingredients in this broth. It's like Vietnamese mole. Luckily, it was not too salty. This was my first experience with a pig's foot in this soup. It was a little gristly and there wasn't much meat on the foot, but the taste and texture was not at all unpleasant. The vermicelli was more al dente than what I am accustomed to in this soup and I preferred the noodles in this chewier texture.
The last time I had bun bo hue, it came sans-blood cube. Apparently, Anh Dao sought to right this wrong. They served me a bowl of soup that came not with a blood cube, but with 2 pieces of coagulated blood the thickness and size of a diagonally bisected Kit-Kat bar. The blood Kit-Kat was a little less iron-y than other morsels of coagulated blood I've had before, but it still skeeved me considerably. I broke it up into about 5 pieces, so I could swallow the blood whole without chewing it- allowing it to slither down my throat with little contact with my taste buds. The meat slices were excellent. The pork was mild, like the roast pork you find on a Cuban sandwich, and the beef was very corned beef-esque. The add-on shrimp I had been instructed to order were huge and tender. Five massive shrimp for a buck is not too shabby. As I said, the ingredients of the broth are largely a mystery to me. However, I did detect some anise. This was confirmed when I bit into a seed and got a concentrated dose, which almost caused me to leap from my chair. Whole aromatic spices such as anise, cardamom, and ginger always make me crazy when I bite into them.
The soup was very rich and warming- perfect for a rainy day. I was not too bloated by the broth, but this would have been pretty satiating stuff under regular eating conditions. Wilda had given me free reign to sequence the meals on this session. Alas, soup might not have been the best choice for meal #1. There must have been a ton of MSG in this soup, because I had the makings of a serious eye-ache.
2. EAST OCEAN SEAFOOD RESTAURANT- 1713 Webster St., Alameda, CA- 11:45am- Siu Mai and Char Siu Bao- $2.20 each; Har Gow- $2.80 (Plus 2 pieces bonus bacon-wrapped shrimp)
When Wilda and I were married, we used to eat dim sum with my parents, who then lived in San Francisco. Dim sum is my father's main non-work-related life interest. He would eat it 3 meals a day if he could. To this day, when he comes to visit, his first stop is generally Yank Sing or Ton Kiang, where he is still recognized by some of the staff more than a decade after he left town. I was pretty shocked when my parents announced they were leaving SF for Florida. How could my father willingly give up so much quality dim sum? The Early Bird Specials of South Florida do not include steamed pork dumplings. Wilda and I would generally eat dim sum with my folks in SF, but when we wanted it in the East Bay, I recall us going to Tin's Teahouse in Oakland Chinatown (now relocated to Walnut Creek.) It appears that, even after years of separation, Wilda and I were still eating at the same places, as East Ocean had also been my Oakland dim sum parlor of choice after Tin's moved to the other side of the hills.
I picked up Clark and we headed to Alameda. East Ocean is a cavernous room on Webster St., but on weekends around brunch time, the place is completely packed and many people wait on the sidewalk and in the parking lot in the back. This was a Wednesday, a little past dim sum prime time, so it wasn't as busy as on a weekend, but it was still pretty crowded. The carts were still coming, but not as furiously as they would have come at 10am. I only needed three orders to fulfill my eating requirement here, but it took close to half an hour for all of the items to arrive. The siu mai (ground pork and shrimp dumpling) were delicate and not at all greasy. The pork flavor had a slight garlic taste with undercurrents of ginger. I am not a big fan of ginger, but the amount used in these siu mai was very agreeable. These dumplings were as good as their counterparts at the major league spots in SF. I could have eaten them all day- like peanuts. The har gow (shrimp dumplings) were also excellent and apparently very fresh. It doesn't take more than a few minutes past steaming for har gow to turn the consistency of shrimp-flavored bubblegum, but East Ocean's wrappers were not in the least bit gummy and the shrimp was still tender. As expected, the seasoning was very subtle, so it tasted mostly of plain steamed shrimp. The char siu bao were decent, but not even close to the quality one finds in some of the top places in SF. The bun itself was doughy, rather than fluffy; they were too small; and the ratio of filling to bun was quite low. At least the filling was delicious- sweet, but not like candied pork. I suppose I should have been grateful to get such slight bao on an eating session, but I couldn't help but crave the bao I used to get on Clement at a take out place around 10th Ave. Those bao were the size of a Big Mac and they were jam-packed with pork.
The orders of har gow and siu mai both came 4 items per order. The char siu bao basket came with 3 buns. Therefore, the dim sum didn't leave me much fuller than when I arrived. I jonesed for the shrimp-stuffed bell pepper, but it never came by on a cart. It was probably too late for that. I considered ordering it off the menu, but it seemed unwise. But then I saw it: bacon-wrapped deep-fried shrimp. I had to try these, even though they were out of the scope of the session and purely a bonus food. I split the four-piece order with Clark. These things were one of the greatest snacks in the history of mankind. Every bite was an explosion of seafood and bacon. These treats deserve to be mandatory on the pu-pu platter of the new millennium.
The bacon-shrimp pushed me over the edge into something approaching fullness, so I knew the going would be slow now. I have zero regrets about eating those morsels of loveliness, though. My experience eating them for the first time must be similar to what childbirth is to a mother.
3. PHO 84- 354 17th St.- 12:37pm- Dau Hu Xao Lan- $10
Something is amiss with this particular entry. Pho 84 was the #1 place that Wilda wanted me to include in the session. She said she used to eat here often when she worked in downtown Oakland and this dish was her favorite. I almost didn't get to use this place, though. When I checked the regular menu, the dish she chose far exceeded the $10 maximum. I later realized that Pho 84 has a lunch menu with a version of the dish that squeaks by under the price ceiling. I think I may have eaten here a very long time ago, but have no recollection of what I ordered. The menus and decor here are fancy-ish and they charge more than $10 for a bowl of regular pho. How can anyone justify prices like that for a bowl of broth, some noodles, and a sprinkling of meat? Pho 84 is open in the evening and on Saturday, but since it's Downtown, where few people seem to go at night or on the weekends, they seem to do most of their business during weekday lunches, serving hoards of office workers from nearby buildings. I suppose people working in the Kaiser Bldg. or adjacent structures don't have time to walk to Chinatown for a $6 bowl of pho on their lunch hour- but still- why pay $10 for a bowl of soup at lunchtime? Luckily, Wilda picked something other than pho for me to eat here. I couldn't pay that much for soup in good conscience, even during a session.
As this was a made-to-order dish, rather than a bowl of pre-made soup, I didn't immediately grimace at paying the IEM maximum. The main ingredient in Dau Hu Xao Lan is tofu. I can see you snickering already, thinking I would automatically discount the dish, due to its bean curd content. Well, you're wrong. Remember, I was a vegetarian for many years and still enjoy tofu to this day- when it is prepared correctly. If the stuff is firm or crispy and seasoned properly, I am a huge champion of tofu. However, I have no fondness for the soft or silken tofu variety, except maybe in miso soup. When soft tofu is cut in large chunks and stir-fried, it's vile. And that's what Pho 84 did with this dish. There were a few big slices of onion, unidentified greens, and a mild yellow curry sauce, but the bulk of the plate was covered with dreidel-sized chunks of white tofu. The sauce didn't have the cojones to cover up the fermented soy taste. When cooking tofu, I find it best to let it simmer a long time to allow the flavor of the seasonings to soak into the bean curd. In this case, that never occurred. And since they were using soft tofu, the texture was super-slimy and difficult to swallow without invoking some gag reflex. Frankly, I found the tofu harder to stomach than the coagulated blood Kit-Kat in the Bun Bo Hue I ate at Pho Anh Dao. And it was far more disagreeable than the tendon in the pho I tried a few months ago. At least the tendon had some beef flavor soaked into it. Adding some of the hot sauce and reducing the chunks of tofu to small morsels made it somewhat more palatable, but this dish really was a wretched experience. There were a couple of times while eating it where I thought I really might chunder, due to the sliminess of the tofu. In fact, I would probably pronounce this the most unpleasant thing I have eaten since the inception of IEM.
This brings up a conundrum. Was this REALLY Wilda's favorite dish? We had similar tastes in food. It seems odd that she would enjoy something so unappetizing. Was she pulling a revenge gag on me by making me eat this horrific entree? Or did Pho 84 change their formula for Dau Hu Xao Lan? That is entirely possible. There is very little quality control in stir-fried Asian dishes- even when ordered repeatedly at the same establishment. I think it has a lot to do with who is cooking, what ingredients they have in stock, and the chef's mood. Really, you can order the same dish at the same place on 3 separate occasions and get 4 different things. And if you order the same dish at a different restaurant, you might get something that is as different from what you expected as a hamburger is from a rutabaga. Sorry Pho 84, but you have been Pho 86'd from my repertoire. Your prices are bad enough, but for serving a dish like that, you should be publicly reprimanded.
4. SWEIS'S GYROS & PITAS- 5800 Shellmound St.- Emeryville, CA- 1:43pm- Hummus ($3.95) and Pita (.90)
I dropped off Clark at home after the Pho 84 debacle. Even he didn't like watching that tofu abortion. When I arrived at the Emeryville Public Market Int'l Food Court, I went straight to the toilet. I had stabbing pains in my abdomen. I was certain I was about to experience explosive diarrhea, spurred on by the greasy tofu. Instead, the result was fully-formed. 'Twas a dead-ringer for an order of Applebee's chicken fingers covered in Thai peanut sauce, complete with a half order of curly fries. This relieved some of the pressure that had mounted after eating all of the tofu and its large rice accompaniment. (The rice was the only thing that allowed me to swallow the entire tofu dish without gagging.)
Emeryville Public Market sounds like it should be a Third World-style marketplace where local growers and vendors sell their wares on tables and blankets. Nope. It's really just a food court. But instead of featuring Sbarro, Orange Julius, and Panda Express, like you find in a mall food court, the Emeryville Public Market has restaurant stalls selling ethnic food from all over the world. There is crappy pizza and Chinese food to be had here, to be sure, but you can also get decent Indian food, workmanlike taqueria fare, serviceable Korean BBQ, so-so Afghan food, mediocre Vietnamese, Jamaican, and Thai food, and a few other things not worth mentioning. There is plenty of seating in the middle of the food court, but eating here is usually not a good idea. The place is cavernous. With 50-foot ceilings and doors on all sides, it's like a wind tunnel. It's freezing to eat in that room, except on the warmest of summer days. Luckily, I had on my heaviest winter coat, a toque, and several layers to protect me from the Nor'easter blowing through the door closest to the movie theater. Occasionally, somebody would walk through that door along with an explosion of wind and rain, even though it was only drizzling outside. Somehow the design of the building amplifies all weather situations tenfold.
Despite its shortcomings, Wilda and I loved the Emeryville Public Market when we first moved to town. Coming from Iowa, it seemed very exotic, as we had very little perspective to tell which of the stands excelled within their own cuisine. Sweis' was the first place I ate a falafel after we moved here. It wasn't as good as some of the falafel I'd eaten in NY, but it was completely adequate. Their gyro was also decent, even though it was really shwarma and not a gyro at all. I also remember loving their hummus in those days. I already considered myself a maven of hummus. I had learned that it was no easy feat to strike the perfect garlic:tahini:lemon juice ratio. 95% of the time, one of these ingredients is out of balance- in Koyaanisqatsi, if you will. Unfortunately, times have changed at Sweis.
It was good I was doing a session, because otherwise, I would have been disconsolate at the size of the portion I received for $4. During casual eating scenarios, I would tend to eat at least five times as much hummus as I received- even as an appetizer. And then I discovered that they have clearly meddled with the formula. Technically, I suppose the crucial ingredient ratio is still "in balance." It is true that none of these elements overpowered any of the others, but that was because I couldn't taste ANY of them. The hummus tasted like plain mashed-up garbanzos with a little salt. It wasn't unpleasant. I like garbanzos by themselves just fine. But that's not what I ordered. The so-called hummus just tasted unfinished. In Sweis' favor, they still use a quality soft pita, not dry or stale like you often find at Middle Eastern eateries in this area. And they actually grill the pita over the open flame where they cook their burgers and kebabs. That bread was fantastic. It would make a great snack on its own with just a bit of olive oil. An order of pita is a mere 90 cents here. And I think that means 2 whole grilled pitas. That's a fair price, but it doesn't make up for such lazy hummus. Who the hell wants to eat lazy hummus while seated on a plastic chair bundled up like they're part of Admiral Byrd's maiden expedition to the South Pole?
Certainly, I have matured somewhat and the luster of the Emeryville Market food court has waned for me considerably since those heady days. Regardless, is it so hard to keep your hummus consistent? Sweis, your new hummus is like "New Coke." Please bring back your "Classic" formula at once.
5. MEXICALI ROSE- 701 Clay St.- 5:49pm- Chilaquiles- $9.05
I could have eaten some more after Sweis', since the portion was so measly, but I was tired of schlepping around town. I figured I should allow more hunger to return, as I knew I had some heavyweight meals yet to contend with. When I finally left for meal #5 of the day, I was terrified. I think I have eaten at Mexicali Rose once since my split with Wilda. Mexicali Rose was the first Mexican restaurant we ever tried in Oakland. In those days, I appreciated their huge portions, even though the food just tasted "heavy" without a flavor punch. Even then, I knew this was not "good Mexican food," but the place had a lot of plusses then. It was open until 4am and the portion:price ratio was superb. I would not go home hungry. After I returned to Oakland in late 1999, however, Mexicali Rose fell off of my radar. I learned that I could get just as much food at a taqueria for less money and with far more flavor. And if I insisted on sit-down Mexican food, I could go to Otaez and pay somewhat less for a place closer to home with similar-sized portions. Hell, even Guadalajara is better than this place. Also, the prices at Mexicali Rose have increased in recent years. What's worse, it's now only open until midnight. Where is somebody supposed to eat now after they procure a bail bond at 3:38am? I don't care if this place has history and it is the oldest Mexican restaurant in Oakland (open in 1927.) In 2010, I see no reason to eat here. The cuisine seems more dated than classic. Yes, it is kind of interesting to eat in a Mexican restaurant downtown where there are zero Mexican patrons and almost the entire clientele is black, but the food at Mexicali Rose just isn't very good. I would go as far as calling it the "Black La Piñata" or the "Indie Chevy's." It's just another place to sit down and get big portions of bland, rube-friendly Mexican-ish food and drink margaritas with the girls from the typing pool. At Chevy's, you might at least get a free sombrero, a cactus garnish made out of a red tortilla chip, and endless flour tortillas from "La Machina."
The tortilla chips I received were warm, which is always a nice touch, but these chips were stale. They were probably very stale, because you can usually bring a stale-ish chip back to life with just a few seconds in the microwave. Kelly called me just before my entree arrived. I usually don't answer the phone inside a restaurant. It's gauche. However, since almost everybody inside the place was on their phones and talking very loudly and profanely, I decided to break my rule. Kelly had planned to meet me in the midst of the session after she got off of work, but I advised her to meet me at the next stop instead, rather than wasting her hard-earned money here. Chilaquiles is a Mexican dish that does not appear on menus that often, which is strange, as it's a simple and tasty meal with little overhead. It's far less common than, say, enchiladas or fajitas. It is mostly a eat-at-home dish that your mom makes- if your mom is Mexican. Unless you get a meat add-on, chilaquiles is usually just eggs, red sauce, fried tortilla strips, and cheese. At Mexicali Rose, the first thing I noticed was they went berserk with the melted cheese- probably Monterey Jack. Then I noticed they didn't use fried tortilla strips and opted instead for the same stale chips they had brought earlier. I discovered there wasn't any sauce to speak of. Either it wasn't included or it cooked off entirely. In essence, the chilaquiles were like a massive plate of super nachos with scrambled eggs and some fried onions and peppers. The dish was not inedible by any measure, but it was a pretty weak entry in the chilaquiles sweepstakes. The stuff at Otaez is far, far superior for $3 less. The refried beans were very creamy, but they lacked salt/seasoning. They couldn't possibly be from a can (or could they?), but that's how they tasted. And the rice was a little too chicken-y for my tastes. I guess when no Mexicans eat at your establishment, you don't have to make the food taste very "authentic" (hate this term!), even if the owners and staff are all Mexicans.
There was a ton of food. And I ate all of it. If the chilaquiles had followed a heavy predecessor, it might have been enough to do me in, but luckily, I had rested a while and consumed a mere child's portion of hummus the previous meal. The waitresses at Mexicali Rose are either 4'8", fifty-plus years old, or both. If the food was good, that would not bother me in the least, but the food was NOT good. I need something to work with here, people!
Highlight of the meal: a 20-ish guy who looked exactly like Kajagoogoo's Limahl came in with two women who seemed as if they were straight off the set of a video from 1983. Wilda, I wager that you would have enjoyed this sight far more than the chilaquiles on this outing. I regret to inform you that Mexicali Rose ain't what it used to be- and it wasn't much to begin with.
6. MERRITT BAKERY/RESTAURANT- 203 East 18th St.- 7:05pm- 1 Chicken Breast & 1 waffle- $8 (weekday special)
I went home and picked up Kelly, who had recently returned from work. Clark called and asked to meet up with me again. Apparently, some people just can get enough of watching me make a voracious buffoon of myself. I've written about the Merritt before. Wilda and I lived practically across the street from the place when we moved to Oakland. We were there constantly. We mostly got their cheapo day-old cake slices to go, which were something ridiculous like 3 massive pieces for $1.00. We would occasionally eat inside the restaurant, get an ice cream cone, or bring home some fried chicken, but it was mostly a place where we got "used" cake. Back then, pretty much everything on the menu was reasonably priced and was consistently adequate or better. And they were open 24 hours. Now, the food is generally hit or miss, everything is at least $2 more than it should be, and they close at 10pm, except on Friday and Saturday, when they stay open until midnight. Despite the kitschy low-budget local commercials they've foisted in recent years ("Meet me at Merritt. Your favorite restaurant."), it seems the whole place has just fallen down a few pegs. Outside of IEM eating sessions, I have seen little reason to frequent the Merritt in the 21st century. Other than paying to park, the bane of my existence is paying white tablecloth prices for paper napkin food. Please save your, "There are much more expensive places to eat breakfasts with even smaller portions in the East Bay," remarks. I am well aware of that fact and respond to your idiocy with a simple, "Fuck those places, too."
Despite my naysaying, I was very pleasantly surprised when I ate here for the breakfast session back in IEM #9. They served quality, thick-cut bacon, expertly-seasoned home fries, and Texas-like toast cut from a quality loaf of bread. But was it worth $9? Hardly. That breakfast WAS excellent, but I still find great difficulty rationalizing a $10+ breakfast once tax and tip is calculated. Hence, I hadn't eaten here since then.
I don't expect a terrible meal at Merritt. I merely predict overpriced middle-of-the-roadedness and aloof service. Well, I will be damned if Merritt didn't blow my expectations out of the water again. First, the meal Wilda chose just happened to be a "Weekday Special." $8 for a chicken breast and a waffle still seems somewhat absurd, but when this meal is not on special, it'd be $10, so I felt some relief that I planned this session on a weekday. And then the food arrived. Holy! The chicken breast was massive- at least a DD cup. The skin crust was perfectly crisp with a peppery seasoning. The meat inside was beyond juicy- almost unheard of for white meat chicken. The waffle was large and thick with a slightly sweet egginess about it. I expected it to go down very heavy, but it tasted very light. It accompanied the chicken perfectly, especially when a little maple syrup was added. This chicken and waffle combo was far superior to what you get at that House of Chicken and Waffles place by Jack London Square. These items, ordered at HOCW, will weigh a ton in your gullet and render you useless for the rest of the day, even though they use standard issue breasts and waffles. Also, HOCW is even more expensive than Merritt!
For the second time in less than a year, the Merritt greatly exceeded my expectations. The special was so good, in fact, that I would go as far as bestowing it with the Zagat-esque comment: "worth the money, despite the steep price tag." It is still unlikely that I will come to the Merritt for breakfast, unless you are paying, but when I yearn for fried chicken, I can really see myself eating here and even footing the bill. Certainly, I could get good chicken at Popeye's for much cheaper, but the Merritt weekday special holds its advantages, especially for me. If you recall, I have determined that fried skin is my Achilles Heel. If I consume it in quantities to which I am accustomed, I feel lousy for at least a day. Eating half a dozen pieces at Popeye's would make me want to hang myself and would probably yield little more actual chicken meat than a single Merritt breast. Plus, eating the Merritt chicken along with their waffle may have a neutralizing effect that serves to settle my "fried skin condition."
I had eaten a large chicken and waffle dinner after consuming five other meals, yet I felt better than the last time I polished off a mere 2-piece box from Church's. I am shocked to admit it, but I have no objections to eating (and paying for) the Merritt Weekday Special as long as the price remains steady. Look at me! I'm eating $8 chicken dinners like a billionaire!
7. TAQUERIA EL FAROLITO- 3646 International Blvd.- 8:00pm- Carnitas Super Burrito- $5.45
8. COLONIAL DONUTS- 3318 Lakeshore Blvd.- 8:26pm- Glazed Old Fashioned. Glazed Raised, Sugar Raised- .90 each
In what has now become a IEM tradition, due to the waning hours of open restaurants, I knew I'd better get the final two items to go and eat them at home. Unlike the El Farolito in San Francisco, which is open late to cash in on the afterhours post-bar crowd, the one in Oakland closes at 9pm-ish. In this town, late night tacos are almost a strictly truck-only endeavor. That's fine when the weather is nice, but when it's rainy or cold, it would be nice to eat a taco or burrito in a warm place, without being exposed to the elements and aggressive panhandlers.
When we arrived at El Farolito at 8pm, both of their lighted El Farolito signs and their neon beer sign were dark. Additionally, some of the interior lights were off. I feared that they may have closed early- not an uncommon occurrence among East Oakland eateries. Many local proprietors' posted business hours serve only as "suggestions." There's a good chance they might be open during those times, but perhaps they might not be. Luckily, El Farolito was indeed still open, although it is possible they didn't want too many people knowing this fact.
El Farolito was the first Oakland taqueria Wilda and I discovered. I always enjoyed this place, but eventually found others I liked better. So, I haven't eaten here often in recent years. I have thought of El Farolito Oakland as a place that serves completely adequate tacos and burritos with quesadillas that are usually well above average. I always felt, though, that there are many other places that are both closer to home and even tastier, so El Farolito has become a benchwarmer on my taqueria line-up. Service here is usually quite fast, even when they are busy, and they are one of the very few places left in Oakland where sesos (brains) is still a meat choice. And there is seldom as much "action" at El Farolito as you sometimes encounter while waiting at Sinaloa late at night. I think the lighting is too bright for crackheads and would-be muggers at El Farolito. The worst thing you'll probably have to bear are vendors selling silk flowers or bootleg DVD's.
I have spoken out in IEM and elsewhere against the tyranny of the Mission-style burrito many times- the super burrito in particular. To review, I think they put too much goo and starch into one package. I like rice and crema just fine. I just don't want them inside a massive flour tortilla. The rice overpowers everything, the cream turns to a splooge-like substance after steaming inside its wrapper, and the meat gets pushed to the back of the line. It's just an unnecessary experience when there are tacos and tortas to be had. But Wilda instructed that I get a super carnitas burrito here, so that is what I ordered. It had been a very long time since I had eaten an El Farolito burrito, so I could not recall how literally they took the "super" in their super burrito. Was there a paddy's worth of rice? A boatload of crema? Or did they exercise some subtlety? As suspected, this thing was NOT subtle. The wrapped carnitas super burrito weighed in at 2.02 lbs. I wasn't overly full after six meals, but with a massive burrito and 3 doughnuts in store for me, I knew I was not going to have an easy sprint to the finish line this evening. More on the burrito later.
Oakland donuts are, by and large, a miserable experience. Firstly, there is nary a shop open late night, which makes one wonder where cops get their fix when they are patrolling the streets in the wee hours. Secondly, many shops' offerings will sit around until they are sold, with no mind paid to freshness. (I'm looking at you Donut Corner!) While they are not the equal of San Francisco shops like Bob's or the late lamented Bell's, Colonial Donuts on Lakeshore is the golden brown standard of Oakland doughnutry. They are open 24/7. There is free parking in the back. They sell lottery tickets. The staff is relatively un-gruff. The donuts are generally fresh and are definitely not wrapped in Saran Wrap and sold the next day along with a colony of ants- a common occurrence at Colonial's downtown location, which may have closed. I have heard good things about Dick's on High St. near MacArthur on the edge of the Laurel District, but I've yet to try that place. Until I do, Colonial will receive 100% of my donut business in Oakland.
I don't remember eating donuts here with Wilda. It seemed like all of our pastry purchases were made at the Merritt Bakery, as it was across the street from our apartment. I was happy to see that she was also a fellow Lakeshore Colonial enthusiast. I ordered three donuts of my choice at Colonial. (Wilda specified the amount, but not the varieties.) I took them home, along with my burrito, which was starting to make my car smell a little funky.
As my main objection to the super-burrito is the way everything is crammed together inside the tortilla, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant plan- I would dismantle the massive log and eat the individual components separately. I removed the foil and found the tortilla sealed shut, as if the cook had used an industrial adhesive. This thing would not be unraveled. I was forced to cut the top and open it up like a soggy piñata. The first thing I discovered was half an avocado sitting on top of the loose fillings. I ate the avocado immediately and then attempted to take apart the burrito. Impossible. The rice was stuck to the meat, the salsa, and the onion. The cheese was adhering to the bottom side of the tortilla in a zig-zag formation. The crema was everywhere- gelled up like week-old Pepsodent stuck to the side of a sink. Only the pinto beans were easily set aside. I took a few kernels of the rice. It was still warm and pretty tasty. It was fluffy and not too chewy. My only gripe is, like Mexicali Rose's rice, this stuff was also too chicken-y. If I was to eat this burrito in its original wrap form, I am certain that the chicken taste would overpower the carnitas. Next, I took a few bites of the carnitas chunks. There is often a crispy/burnt taste to the sides of carnitas, which imparts a great flavor throughout the dish, and El Farolito's had a lot of that happening. This pork was tender and very delicately seasoned, but due to the intense porkiness, a little bit of the carnitas went a long way. After a mere sampling, the richness rendered me instantly full and exhausted. As expected, I passed out on the couch in front of the television.
I awoke an hour later with the contents of the burrito staring at me. The colossal empty flour tortilla was crumpled up like a wet hand towel. It had grown stiff and rubbery. To ease consumption, I griddled the entire thing on a dry skillet- goo and all. It de-rubberized and then became toasty and brown like a quesadilla. I could not believe how much grease was oozing forth. The toasting took some edge off of the crema and cheese pasted to the sides, but it didn't change the fact that I had one half pound of starch to deal with, not to mention the mound of filling I had piled up on a plate. I took to eating bites of the tortilla interspersed with the beans I had separated and then followed those bites with a scoop of the rice/meat/salsa mélange. I allowed some naked beans to hover in my mouth prior to taking the carnitas, which helped to cut some of the richness, but it was still a very slow process. Despite this miserable ascent, which took me until 2:15am, I was glad to have eaten this burrito- at least the avocado and carnitas part of the offering. I will have to return to El Farolito more often to get a carnitas taco and/or quesadilla and maybe some brains, too.
Was I stuffed to the limits? Of course! But there is ALWAYS room for donuts. I attacked the glazed donut first. Although it wasn't as light as a fresh glazed Krispy Kreme, which threatens to leave the box and float to the heavens, this doughnut was very moist and fluffy, with lots of air pockets inside. It had to have come out of the fryer recently. After completing the glazed, I was not quite miserable, but I was filled to the brim. I was going to have to complete the other two doughnuts in fits and starts. The glazed old-fashioned had a light glaze and a pleasantly crumbly texture, without the greasy mouth explosion found in lesser specimens. The glaze had a slight orange flavor to it, which I've encountered before. I must admit that I am not a big fan of citrus notes in a donut glaze, but the flavoring was light, so it was not a deal-breaker.
I got a couple of bites into the old-fashioned when those familiar rectal contractions came calling- loudly. I spawned an article that approximated a large, over-boiled artichoke. This was astounding, considering I had defecated twice since waking that morning.
The raised sugar donut was the best of the bunch. The pastry part was almost the same as the glazed, with identical air pockets, except rather than coating it with a glaze, they sprinkled it liberally with a fine granulated sugar. It tasted not unlike the waffle I had eaten earlier at the Merritt. This is a less intimidating donut than the glazed. It would be perfect on those days when you want to eat half a dozen donuts without budgeting a 4 hour nap into your schedule.
The whole thing was done just after 4:00am. I was uncomfortable, but ending with the donuts was an ingenious plan. I didn't feel incapacitated like I did after the pupusas. And my flatulence, while still copious, was more mild cheddar than Roquefort.
Wilda had engendered a brilliant eating session. It was a nice change of pace from eating the same thing 8+ times in a day. I like to think that her choices were a true testament that she has forgiven my trespasses. She clearly didn't seek to punish me too severely. To be sure, some of the dishes were a little mediocre. Except for the tofu at Pho 84, however, not a single item was a true abomination. My stomach was stretched beyond the limits of decency, but the aftermath of this session felt miles better than an incident that occurred a few weeks after I had left Wilda...
I sat down to play a guitar that I hadn't touched since I had picked it up from the old apartment. I opened up the case and discovered that she had gouged the body with a sharp instrument, mangled the electronics, and had attempted to saw off the neck- stopping only when she discovered the metal truss rod. Time must heal all wounds, because wretched tofu and Kit-Kats made of blood are nothing compared to an assault on a man's guitar. See? She doesn't hate me anymore.
COMING NEXT TIME: BBQ Beef Sandwiches