Eat Your Greens

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Even in the fruit-and-vegetable-lovers’ paradise that is the Bay Area, January and February are a relatively unexciting time at the local farmers’ markets — unless you really love apples and citrus fruits. But as much as I look forward to the arrival of artichokes and fresh peas (to say nothing of peak-season tomatoes) on the menus of seasonality-minded Bay Area restaurants, there’s one winter vegetable I never tire of seeing: the humble winter green.

Thankfully, during the past few weeks I discovered several stellar restaurant versions, all in Oakland.

Full disclosure: I don’t much care for the vinegar-heavy style of collard greens that is ubiquitous at soul food restaurants and barbecue joints — an approach that seems designed to mask the greens’ slight bitterness and vegetal earthiness, which I happen to think is the whole point of eating them. (I’m aware that this sour style is traditional in many parts of the South. Feel free to leave a comment calling my soul-food street cred — such as it is — into question.)

With that caveat, here are four places to check out:

Non-vinegary greens at Souls
Soul’s Restaurant, 6403 Foothill Blvd.: Given that Soul’s is better known for its bargain-priced brunch buffet and heaping plates of oxtails and fried chicken, you’d forgive the place if its side dishes were little more than an afterthought. So I was surprised to discover that the collard greens were, to my taste, perfectly cooked: stewed until tender and savory, with a hint of heat and — hallelujah — little, if any, vinegary punch.

Takeout from B-Side BBQ
B-Side BBQ, 3303 San Pablo Ave.: If you want classic soul-food-style braised greens with a side of barbecued brisket, B-Side is the place to go. During a recent visit, the “seasonal vegetable” option on the menu was a subtly garlicky preparation of collard greens, and I appreciated the kitchen’s restrained hand with the acid and spice. My only quibble: The vegetable side dishes at B-Side are so good, I wish that one of them could be included in the price of an entrée-size order of barbecue (though I’ll admit the complimentary thick-cut “Texas toast” is damn tasty, too).

A delicate version at Miss Ollies
Miss Ollie’s, 901 Washington St.: My full review of Miss Ollie’s will be in this week’s issue, but here’s a teaser: Chef Sarah Kirnon’s collard greens — cut chiffonade and served, unadorned and barely seasoned, with a bit of an al dente bite — were one of the most delicate versions I’ve had in recent memory. Here’s a preparation that my traditional Chinese parents (vegetable purists through and through) would appreciate — one in which the greens themselves are allowed to shine.

Smoky greens at Victory Burger
Victory Burger, 1099 Alcatraz Ave.: Perhaps my most surprising find was at a burger joint, of all places. At Victory Burger, mustard greens and escarole are charred on the grill prior to a slow braise (during which sweet caramelized onions are added), resulting in tender greens that are smoky, peppery, and imbued with an umami-rich depth of flavor that I couldn’t quite put my finger on — I could have sworn I tasted fish sauce, but owner Sal Bednarz assured me the dish is 100-percent vegan.

Bonus: Courtesy of the inimitable Francis Lam, here’s my favorite way to cook winter greens. The recipe, a staple of my Thanksgiving table, prominently features — surprise! — fish sauce. (Be judicious, though — if you get carried away, it’s easy to cross over from umami-licious to inedibly salty.)

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