Let's face it: After a couple drinks, one tends to get hungry. One leisurely weekend afternoon, I was sitting at Crooked City Cider Tap House in Jack London Square, finishing up a glass of the Can't Stop Won't Stop cider — a dry, light pink cider made with raspberries. Then the hunger pangs began — and for what I think was the first time in my life, I considered ordering a salad to accompany my next cider.
Bar food and health food don't usually belong in the same sentence. But Town Square Eats, the newly opened eatery within Crooked City, aims to create health-conscious bar food, including plenty of vegan and gluten-free options, without sacrificing flavor. Many items come vegan or gluten-free by default; most can be made vegan or gluten-free upon request. The hope is that you won't even miss the gluten, the animal products, or the deep-fried food.
Town Square Eats is the first partnership between the folks behind two well-known East Bay restaurants: Rob Lam, Helen Chandra, and Dino Vazquez of Perle Wine Bar, and James and Lea Yu of Great China. Lam and Yu had been talking about working together for years, so when Crooked City Cider owner Dana Bushouse reached out about doing a collaboration, they seized the opportunity.
Though Town Square Eats is a lot more casual than Perle Wine Bar and Great China, the partnership with Crooked City Cider makes a lot of sense. The chefs know how to design food that pairs with drinks: Perle Wine Bar offers a wide selection of wines and cocktails, while Great China has received several James Beard nominations for its wine program. With around 30 ciders on tap, plus a few beers and boozy kombuchas, Crooked City is one of the best places around to drink cider. And so far, Lam's loving the more laid-back atmosphere. "I really wanted to do this type of food — delicious stoner food that's kinda good for you," Lam said.
On my first visit, I went for the jive turkey sandwich, which drew me in with its promise of crisp chicken skin and lingonberry sauce. Think your typical day-after-Thanksgiving sandwich, but with brined and sous vide turkey breast that's juicy, tender, and flavorful. And while turkey and cranberry are a timeless pairing, turkey and lingonberry might be an even better one. The lingonberry was sweet and added a hint of tartness, without being over-the-top sour like cranberry sauce can be. The fried chicken skin stayed crunchy, which added delightful texture along with the pickles, lettuce, and tomato. The sweet bun, meanwhile, was pillowy and soft in the middle and nicely toasted around the edges.
It's hard to find a muffaletta around here that even remotely measures up to the ones in their birthplace of New Orleans. But I think Lam's version is pretty close, from the round sesame bread to the olive relish. The olive relish, made in-house with capers, carrots, and cauliflower is the star of the sandwich, giving the sandwich a vinegary punch while imbuing it with olive oil flavor. Provolone cheese added creaminess, while the blend of quality cold cuts — mortadella, salami, prosciutto, and bacon — was a savory, meaty delight.
Fans of Perle Wine Bar will immediately recognize the onion dip Impossible Burger as a vegetarian take on Lam's French onion dip burger, one of the signature items at Perle. The sweet, puffy milk bun is similar, if not the same, and so are the cheese and caramelized onions — this version simply swaps out the beef patty for an Impossible patty and substitutes the beefy French onion dip with a vegetarian version. I prefer the beef version, which is only available at Perle — though the vegetarian onion jus, made with what Lam calls "a buttload" of caramelized onions, garlic, dried herbs, and cider was even better than its beefy counterpart.
I preferred the vegan corned beets sandwich, a light yet satisfying version of a corned beef sandwich. The beets were roasted and flavored with vinegar and pickling spices, making them juicy and tangy. The vegan cheddar was convincingly sharp, salty, and creamy, and I wouldn't have known the vegan horseradish and dill mayo was vegan if I hadn't read the menu. Cabbage cooked in cider amplified the crunch and acidity, while the vegan pretzel bun helped tie everything together.
Though Town Square Eats is one of the few places in the area serving focaccia-style pizza, I wasn't enamored with my slice of the cleverly-named Fun Guy, made with tomato sauce, a smear of black truffle paste, burrata cheese, and a variety of wild mushrooms. The crust had a nice crisp around the edges and a pillowy center, but the flavor of the toppings leaned slightly sweet.
Every bar menu should feature some shareable snacks, and Town Square Eats has two on offer. The warm pretzels come with cider added to the cheese sauce for a more complex, lighter flavor. It's a great appetizer, but the price is a little steep at $12 for two pretzels. The truffle potato chips pack a potent dose of truffle flavor with truffle potato chips, truffle oil-infused crema, and truffle "caviar." They've also got smoked trout roe for pleasant bursts of umami. But at $14, I expected the world's best potato chips, and these weren't quite it.
However, I was blown away by some of the salads on offer. On the menu, the Chicken Lover looked like a pretty straightforward Chinese chicken salad with chicken, cashews, red cabbage, sesame sticks, oranges, and cilantro, plus the addition of Vietnamese nuoc cham (fish sauce). What I got was a generously portioned salad made with brined, sous vide chicken breast, shreds of basil and cilantro for fresh, vibrant flavor, and house-made vegan nuoc cham made with miso, garlic, chili, and ginger. I particularly enjoyed the unusual addition of red and green Sichuan peppercorns, which added floral notes and tingling heat. The tofu lover salad was also creative and well-composed: The custardy tofu was sprinkled with nutritional yeast, while crushed kumquats added juicy, tangy flavor.
For dessert, the sweet potato pie, topped with whipped cream and lingonberries, was well-spiced and not too sweet. The mochi bites had a rich brown butter flavor, and the banana dulce de leche was thick and creamy.
Ultimately, I think the test of a bar eatery is this: Would I eat there even if I wasn't drinking? Based on the sandwiches and salads, Town Square Eats gets a yes from me. Hopefully I can say the same about the pizzas and shareable snacks soon.