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Leong, who has also started doing all-you-can-eat buffet dinners ($12, RSVP only) at Uncle Dougie's on alternating Friday nights, says his restaurant's decor — graffiti on the walls, old-school red-and-white checkered tablecloths on the tables — is just as important to creating an authentic East Coast experience as anything else.
"If you've ever been to New York or read about it or heard about it," he said, "you walk in here, you say, 'Shit, this is New York.'"
Braedon Galloway was running a concessions business in his native Philadelphia when he found out from a friend in the Bay Area that Italian ice — water ice, as it's called in Philly — pretty much didn't exist out here. Sensing an opportunity, Galloway sold his business, packed his bags, and, last year, opened up Flavor Brigade on Fruitvale Avenue in the Dimond District, where he and a business partner sell batch-frozen Straus organic ice cream, water ice, and frozen custard.
Water ice is basically a mixture of fruit purée, sugar, and water that's processed through a batch freezer the same way ice cream would be. The result is a frozen confection that's smooth, brightly colored (from added food coloring), and surprisingly creamy.
Galloway makes all of his water ices from scratch on-site and offers about a dozen different flavors at a time — lemon, mango, and coconut are a few of the more popular options.
"When it gets hot out, to me, there's nothing better," he says. "It just quenches your thirst, it cools you down."
Unlike ice cream, Galloway notes, water ices are also fat-free, cholesterol-free, and dairy-free.
In many ways, he says, the product is very similar to a sorbet, except that the fruit content is a little bit lower. What's interesting, though, is that while sorbet is marketed as a high-end product — often with high-end prices to match — Italian ices are sometimes seen as more of a "low" food item, or something mostly for children.
For his part, Galloway prefers to view this in a more positive way: "It's definitely a street item, something everybody can afford," he said. "I mean, I literally have homeless people come here to buy dollar cups of Italian ice almost every day."
On the East Coast, and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in particular, shops selling water ice and frozen custard are ubiquitous. Here in Oakland, however, Galloway faces the challenge inherent in trying to introduce a product that most potential customers might never have even heard of.
This is particularly true of frozen custard, a name which, Galloway says, many locals seem to find off-putting. "I think they associate it with pudding or the filling that's in a doughnut," he explained.
In reality, frozen custard is very similar to soft-serve ice cream, except that the butter fat content is significantly higher. The custard served at Flavor Brigade is 11 percent fat, whereas soft-serve ice cream like the kind you'd get at McDonald's is at most 6 percent — and many places use an entirely non-dairy powder base.
The difference in the end product is a matter of both taste and texture: A scoop of vanilla frozen custard from Flavor Brigade will likely be the thickest, creamiest and, yes, most delicious soft-serve ice cream you've ever tasted.
Galloway's favorite specialty is something he calls the 2nd Street: basically a layer of water ice sandwiched between two generous scoops of frozen custard. It's the kind of summertime treat that'll make any born-and-raised Jersey boy (this journalist included) swoon.
Meanwhile, after about a year of furious free-sample-giving, Galloway says the tide has started to turn. When he first opened, about 70 percent of his sales were for ice cream — now about 80 percent of his business is water ice. And, among East Coast transplants anyway, word is getting out about the frozen custard, too. Galloway says he gets customers driving from places as far away as Half Moon Bay, Pittsburg, and Antioch.
"I get a lot of fathers that want to show their kids what they grew up with," he said. Or, "'Oh, I haven't had this since I was a little girl in Brooklyn.' I get that all the time."
Michael Boyd had already been cooking in restaurant kitchens for most of his life when he first came out to the Bay Area seven years ago, but he immediately fell in love with the food scene here. He says he was "blown away" by the quality and variety of produce at Berkeley Bowl and at the farmers' markets.
Still, there were times when Boyd found himself missing some of the foods of his New Jersey childhood. So he jumped at the opportunity to partner with the owner of Alameda's Lucky 13 bar to open up a tiny restaurant next door — Scolari's Good Eats — where Boyd has put a number of hard-to-find East Coast specialties on the menu.
In terms of authenticity, Boyd says he makes pretty classic renditions of, say, a New York-style pizza or an Italian cold-cut sandwich. He even admits it irks him sometimes when a local comes in and asks him to Californiafy a sandwich by putting avocados on it.