I have a confession to make: I was a picky eater as a kid. I ate my burgers plain, without ketchup, mayo, or veggies. At Chinese family banquets, I avoided all the foods I grew to love as a teenager: bittermelon, black bean crab, and anything containing hom yue, a fragrant, umami-packed preserved salted fish.
Luckily for my grandparents, who were always concerned that I wouldn't get enough to eat, there were a few dishes they could reliably count on to prevent malnourishment. One of them was a clay pot filled with chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and lap cheong, or Chinese sausage. The lap cheong flavored the whole dish with its fragrant, sweet fat, while the lean chicken and cooking wine balanced out the rich flavors of the lap cheong and mushrooms. With a side of steamed white rice, I was wholly content, eating nearly the entire clay pot by myself.
Best Taste Restaurant in Oakland Chinatown is an unassuming restaurant that gets a lot less foot traffic than its neighbors on the same block, like Tao Yuen Pastry and Napoleon Super Bakery. From the outside, it's not clear what — if anything — makes Best Taste special. Slabs of barbecued pork and roasted ducks hang in the window, and the majority of the menu consists of the same dishes you'd find at most other Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown.
A banner hidden under the awning, however, reveals Best Taste Restaurant's specialties: little clay containers of double-boiled soup, and bo zai fan, or Cantonese-style clay pots that come with the rice inside the pot. The banner highlights the restaurant's supposedly authentic Taishan-style eel clay pot rice, though other clay pot rice dishes are equally popular. Regardless of the toppings you choose, it's a complete meal, all in an earthenware pot, with the reward of crispy, golden-brown, toasted rice at the bottom.
My favorite dish at Best Taste is listed as #2 under the clay pot rice section of the menu: the preserved meat clay pot. The server brought the covered clay pot to the table and lifted the lid to reveal a mountain of assorted preserved meats: lap cheong, Chinese bacon, preserved duck, and preserved pork, flanked by stalks of gai lan on either side to create the appearance of a balanced dish.
The meats were salty, yet not overly so — the salt seemed to enhance the flavor of each type of meat. The lap cheong and the Chinese bacon were succulent and sweet, lending their fatty flavors to the dish. I added a little of the housemade seasoned soy sauce from the table, which provided a punch of sweet-salty umami. After I'd eaten my way through the preserved meats and the nubby grains of rice, I was rewarded at the bottom of the pot with a golden layer of crispy rice, packed with nutty, toasty flavor.
The preserved meat clay pot with veggies, listed as #1 under the rice clay pots, was disappointing compared to its meat-only counterpart. The meat pieces were diced into cubes, making it impossible to get a good sense of the meat's flavor when mixed with the diced carrots, turnips, and apparently frozen peas. And while the other clay pot dishes I tried all had that crisped-rice bottom, this one didn't, maybe due to the water content of those vegetables. If you must have a vegetable, you're better off ordering a separate dish. Ask your server what's in stock — the water spinach with fermented tofu sauce, garlic, and jalapeño peppers was crunchy and well-seasoned.
Another star is the pork sparerib clay pot, which came with a generous serving of spareribs tossed in black bean sauce. Even with the salty black beans, the juicy spareribs had a delicate flavor that reminded me of ginger and cooking wine. For best results, order your clay pot with an egg on top, then mix in the slightly runny yolk upon arrival to add rich, thick texture to the rice.
Let's not forget the eel clay pot, the one touted on the restaurant's banner that hails from the Taishan area of Guangdong. Don't order this expecting something like unagi, thickly sliced and slathered in barbecue sauce. The pieces of eel were thin and narrow, with a pleasant citrusy flavor. Textures ranged from chewy to melt-in-your mouth.
Clay pot rice is comfort food, though, and like most comfort foods, it takes time — in this case, up to 30 minutes for the rice on the bottom to cook and crisp up. While you're waiting, be sure to ask for the house special double-boiled soup served in a small cup. It's only $1.99, and my server told us that even though the restaurant has raised the prices of other dishes over the years, the price of the soup has stayed the same.
The house soup changes daily. On my visits, the soup was filled with chunks of bone-in pork, goji berries, and Chinese dates for a broth that was intensely umami-flavored and porky. Toward the bottom of the cup, the soup took on a bitter, medicinal taste that felt nourishing and healing. Sometimes, you'll open the lid to find a surprise, like the chicken foot that my dining companion (my mom) was delighted to find in her soup.
Even during busy lunchtimes when I don't have time to wait for a clay pot, I often find myself stopping by Best Taste for another taste of my childhood: Chinese-style fried chicken drumsticks, the same ones my mom would pick up for me on weekends. The batter is always light, airy, and crisp, with flavors reminiscent of garlic and five spice. Ask the butcher for a couple of $1 drumsticks, and he'll place them into a paper bag. The grease will slowly seep through the bag, just as it should, and it'll taste like home.