Last Friday morning, C-Y Marie Chia and Shane Stanbridge walked to the Old Oakland Farmers' Market, to shop for fresh chilies to prepare a sambal sauce at their new restaurant. After garnering acclaim for their pop-up venture S+M Vegan, Chia and Stanbridge—along with a third partner Rachel Metcalf—opened Lion Dance Cafe on 17th Street on Sept. 12. This new iteration expands upon their "authentic not traditional" take on "Singapore hawker faves + Chinese diaspora cooking."
"We wanted to open in Oakland because it's where we live, it's where we've popped up this whole time, it's our community," Chia said. They found beautiful Italian Sweet peppers (aka Jimmy Nardello's) at the Xiong Family Farms' stand. Stanbridge, who says he's almost always in the kitchen, also picked up orange habañeros and red and green cayennes.
A couple of weeks before Lion Dance Cafe opened, Chia and Stanbridge noticed sour leaf at the Xiong stand. "It's the leaf of the Roselle flower," Chia says. "It's very similar to hibiscus." Her aunties in Singapore make tea out of the flowers. Stanbridge combined the sour leaf with shallot, tomato and red chilies to make a sour leaf sambal. "It was a great product because there was the natural sweetness of the tomato and the acidity from the sour leaf," he says.
Chia believes that having access to great produce nearby gives them the freedom and flexibility to improvise. Just being able to walk down to the market and see sour leaf by chance can inspire a new recipe. "It's not something we would have made had we not seen it there," she says.
For that first menu two weeks ago, they also picked up okra and different varieties of tomatoes. "We combined them, along with some tofu, and made a tomato sour leaf salad. It was a cool, summery dish," Chia says.
Currently, Lion Dance Cafe is in its soft-opening phase and open on Saturdays for take-out orders. With just the three partners jumpstarting the restaurant, everyone's helping out in the kitchen. Stanbridge says they've worked out a system to distribute orders. One person at the door, another bagging and the third finishing dishes on the line. "We're making sure that we have hot soup and tofu nuggets ready to go for people when they come to pick up their food," he says.
The first couple of weeks in the new space have given them a lot to consider. "We've been testing the limits of this kitchen," Chia says. "How much can three people physically prep?" They don't want to turn people away, but this week they sold out of their two most celebrated items in seven minutes—the beloved Shaobing sandwich and the laksa. In the course of an hour, they sold approximately 600 items.
Stanbridge thinks that's sustainable for now. "This is essentially what we were doing at our pop-ups at Tacos Oscar," he says. They have considerably more space in their new kitchen, but they're still figuring out how far they can push themselves. "As we get more comfortable with the space, then we'll happily add another day," he says.
For the last six weeks, Chia and Stanbridge have been going to the Old Oakland Farmers' Market, but this last week the experience felt different. After weeks of smoke-filled air, the sky was actually blue. "People seemed really excited to be out and happy to get to the market," Chia says. And though this speaks to the new normal due to climate change, she says they wore their regular masks (for pandemic protection) and not their N95s.
With fall approaching, Stanbridge saw gourds and squash coming in at the market. Next week, they're planning to buy one of each type to taste them. When summer ends, they like to put squash in the laksa, a spicy coconut broth with rice noodles and tofu puffs. "Winter squash and coconut are just so good together," Chia says. "It's one of my favorite things."
The flavors are recognizable to someone from Singapore or Southeast Asia, but the combination of ingredients might not be.
"It's authentic because it's true to who we are and where we are at this given time," Chia says. "And not traditional because what really guides the food is that it has to taste of home for me, being from Singapore. I like to share these flavors from back home by applying them to the produce or ingredients that we can find here."
Lion Dance Cafe, pickups every Saturday 5–8pm , 380 17th St., Oakland. liondancecafe.com.