Earlier this year, the Onion ran an article titled “Restaurant Gives Totally Unwanted Twist To Mexican Cuisine.” The location stamp? Berkeley, California. As any Bay Area resident knows, that article was far from satire. Thanks to a combination of a diverse population and a constant quest to find the next zeitgeisty food trend, the Bay Area has an abundance of food mashups: some good, some bad, some completely misguided. From Korean tacos to Indian pizza, here’s a roundup of five of my favorites; let us know yours in the comments.
Indian pizza may not be authentically Indian or Italian, but it’s definitely a Bay Area original with restaurants from Fremont to Berkeley offering Indian-influenced pies. In San Francisco, the most popular is Zante’s, whose owner Dalvinder Multani is said to have have invented Indian pizza in 1986.
Zante’s was closed when I made the trek out to Bernal Heights (but they do offer free delivery within San Francisco,) so I tried out newcomer Namaste Pizza in North Oakland which has been open for about six months. We tried the Tikka Masala pizza with paneer (other options included the “Tandoorilicious” or “Mango Monsoon”) and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the ingredients: thick chunks of well-spiced, bright orange chicken; creamy, salty paneer and a generous amount of tomatoes and cilantro.
The crust is the opposite of the naan-thin, blistered Italian-style popular at fancy pizza places around the bay. It’s crispy, but thick and hearty enough to withstand the heavy ingredients piled on top. It seemed like there was a layer of mozzarella, whose decidedly non-Indian flavor initially seemed a little strange in conjunction with the other toppings, but ended up serving as a solid base for the piles of well seasoned toppings. Ultimately, Namaste was a success, a pleasantly decadent compromise when some people want Indian and others want pizza. Their current promotion was an added bonus: any large pizza that you pick up comes with a free order of their mint bread, a spicy and cheesy snack.
5942 San Pablo Avenue [Map]
Oakland, CA 94608
Ph: (510) 601-1100
Hours: Mon 4:00pm-10:00pm; Closed Tue; Wed-Thu 4:00pm-10:00pm; Fri-Sat 11:00am-10:30pm; Sun 11:00am-10:00pm
Facebook: Namaste Pizza
Price Range: $$$ Entrees ($18-$24)
In 2008, Peter Yen trademarked the unique name “Sushiritto” and opened his first store in 2011. It was born of Yen’s simple desire: a quicker way to eat sushi. Now his concept has expanded to four official Sushiritto restaurants, with three in San Francisco and one in Palo Alto. Marrying the two seems like an odd choice at first; sushi is typically consumed in smaller quantities, appealingly minimalist in its ingredients and whether deserved or not, has a reputation as a healthier-than-most meal choice. Burritos, on the other hand, will always be overstuffed and indulgent. But the combination appears to be successful, as eight people came into the tiny Soma location while I was placing my order and formed a line that stretched out the door.
A Satori sushi burrito seemed like it featured ingredients closest to those found in traditional rolls: yellowtail, cucumber, and tobiko. Wrapped in seaweed, it tasted fine for the most part, but the inclusion of roe and corn was off-putting. I preferred the more decadent Sumo Crunch. The farthest from a traditional roll, this was stuffed with shrimp tempura, Surimi crab, and “ginger guac.” It had a satisfying crunch and an almost crab cake-like taste, and the sheer amount of ingredients justified the $11 price tag.
59 New Montgomery Street [Map]
San Francisco, CA 94105
Ph: (415) 495-7655
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:00am–4pm; Closed Sat and Sun
Price Range: $$ Entrees ($11-$17)
While most of these fusion foods gain something from being paired together–adding the delicate flavors of sushi to the convenience of a burrito, stuffing wonderfully messy Indian food into an easy-to-eat wrap–the ramen burger is a head scratcher. What, you may ask, is there to gain by replacing one carb for another: a pile of cooked ramen noodles shaped into a bun, then lightly fried? A ramen bun doesn’t add any flavor. It doesn’t elevate a mediocre burger into something greater. It seems to mainly provide something new for your Instagram followers to gawk at. If the beauty of ramen comes from the complex interplay of textures and flavors–rich, savory broth, a custardy egg, and perfectly cooked meats–why borrow arguably the weakest part of it for your fusion dish?
But what do I know? There are enough restaurants and trucks offering the dish to prove that it obviously has a following. I tried the ramen burger at R&B Cafe, a nondescript cafe off the lobby of a SOMA office building. R&B is one of those delightfully indiscriminate places that seems to have selections from every style of cuisine. Their speciality is ostensibly ramen, but they have an equally large collection of burgers (categorized as either “fancy” or “Asian”). There are Southern offerings (grits, cajun fries), Mexican options (quesadillas) and American specialties (patty melts, bacon cheese dogs). The ramen burger, which they proudly advertise as an “East Meets West” eating experience, was fine. The ramen bun was chewy, slightly crispy, and diligently absorbed the teriyaki sauce the burger was slathered with. If it intrigues you, you should try it, but I’m betting that you’ll quickly go back to eating burgers and ramen separately.
Many of the Yelp reviews for North Berkeley’s Urban Turbann compare it to an Indian Chipotle. (159 of the 353 total reviews, in fact.) It’s easy to make the comparison: both offer burritos and bowls piled high with meats and vegetables and emphasize the quality of their ingredients. But Urban Turbann’s slightly gimmicky concept belies the extremely high-quality Indian food this tiny restaurant is preparing daily. Naan is fried in a 1000 degree tandoor in front of you. A giant vat of chutney simmers on a stove. The workers quickly wrap gigantic burritos with enough speed to rival their counterparts in the Mission.
Tandoori chicken with potatoes wrapped in naan had well-seasoned, tender and juicy chicken complimented by a refreshing dollop of raita. Vegetarian options were equally satisfying. The vegetables and paneer wrapped in roti was a messy, five-napkin affair; its spicy tomato sauce added an intense, flavorful kick. Both wraps were huge, more than enough for two meals. And with prices less than $10, they’re a bargain.
1870 Euclid Avenue [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94709
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11:30am–8:30pm; Sat 12:00pm–8pm; Closed Sun
Facebook: Urbann Turbann
Price Range: $ (entrees under $10)
Korean tacos have been an established trend for a few years now, ever since popular LA food truck helmed by celebrity chef Roy Choi — Kogi Korean BBQ — debuted their tacos in 2009. (Kogi went on to gross $2 million that first year.) The concept, the subject of many trend pieces, quickly spread to other urban areas where people like to wait in line for fashionable food: Austin, Portland, and yes, the Bay Area. There’s a few local spots serving up the Easternized tacos, which typically feature pork belly, bulgogi-like steak and lots of kimchi. One of the most worthy versions is served at Oakland’s Belly, which specializes in unconventional fillings for tacos and burritos: steak and eggs, tempura shrimp and fried tofu. (They’re also one of the few places in the Bay Area where you can get a riceless and fry-stuffed “Cali Burrito.”) Their Belly taco features incredibly tender beef marinated in mirin, soy sauce and a selection of spices. Rice adds bulk and heft, a “Korean slaw” adds crunch, but a bright orange kimchi aioli adds only the mildest fermented kick–I wish it had more distinctive kimchi funk.