The steam table gets a bad rap in most quarters, but especially in the Bay Area, where restaurateurs take particular pride in the freshness of their offerings — the tomato that was picked off the vine just this morning, the burger patty that never once saw the inside of a freezer. In this context, "steam table fare" is usually shorthand for low-quality food prepared by and for the lazy — food that has just been sitting there, coagulating, for several hours at a time. The opposite of Slow Food, if you will.
Here in Oakland, though, at least two steam table restaurants — a soul food spot just outside of the Fruitvale district and a Korean bodega downtown — are challenging the conventional wisdom that restaurants geared toward quick-service takeout business necessarily need to sacrifice deliciousness.
I've written before about Lena's Soul Food Cafe and how Calvin Andrews and his nephew Lamont Andrews saved a struggling family business by turning what had been a chicken wings joint into a tribute to the soulful home cooking of their Texas-born family matriarch, Lena Mae Andrews — Calvin's mother — who died in 2004. Now open for two and a half years, Lena's might be the most popular restaurant in Oakland that you've never heard of. It's not uncommon for there to be a line out the door, even at, say, 3 p.m. on a random weekday. On weekends — when things get really crazy — an employee often heads to the back of the line with a tablet to put in orders ahead of time, In-N-Out drive-thru-style.
There are two main ways that Lena's distinguishes itself from the competition: having lower prices and serving food more quickly than any just about any other soul food restaurant in town. The steam table model works in part because the restaurant is popular enough to ensure that nothing winds up sitting in the steam tray for very long, allowing the kitchen to cook everything in small batches throughout the day.
And, of course, the reason restaurant is popular is because the food is damn good — and cheap. The most prominent feature is the 99-cent menu, which allows the budget-minded diner to purchase, among other options, a fried chicken thigh or drumstick, a piece of fried fish, or a tub of red beans and rice — all for only a dollar each. The chicken might not quite be in the rarefied top tier of Miss Ollie's and Southern Cafe, but it's better than solid — well-seasoned, tender, and, again, just a buck. The fried catfish is the one item that's almost always cooked to order, and it is spectacular — dredged with only the lightest coating of cornmeal and spices, each piece is airy and crisp, perfect with a few drops of Crystal hot sauce.
It's worth it, though, to splurge on one of the (still inexpensive) combo meals. The server piles a plastic clamshell container high with multiple side dishes to accompany your entrée. It's hard to go wrong if you stick with the daily special. On Wednesdays there are pork necks, slow-braised until you can suck the meat right off the bone. On Fridays, there's meatloaf. And most popular of all are the Sunday-only braised oxtails, which almost always sell out by 5 p.m. — a hard truth I learned one recent weekend. We took solace in the other Sunday special: giant turkey wings, smothered in a pool of the deeply flavorful gravy in which they had braised for several hours. (At some point as you go through the steam table line, you'll probably be asked if you'd like something with a scoop of gravy on top — the cornbread dressing that's available on Sundays to go with those wings, for instance. The answer, always, should be, "Yes, please!")
Like any soul food restaurant worth its impressive calorie count, the side dishes command as much attention as the mains: juicy collard greens that were infused with porky savoriness, oozy mac 'n' cheese punched up with plenty of black pepper, and soupy black-eyed peas cooked down almost to a mash. The portion sizes are, in a word, ridiculous.
Even though Lena's is mostly a takeout joint, it's also a pleasant place to sit down for a meal, especially on a busy Sunday, when you can grab a seat at the S-shaped communal table, strike up some convivial conversation with a friendly stranger, and people-watch as the after-church, ladies-in-hats crowd comes through.
Downtown Oakland's EM Deli Catering, on the other hand, is almost entirely a place to grab food to go, even though there are a couple of counter seats by the window. In truth, newcomers might find the tiny Korean deli slightly intimidating, with its display cases filled with raw meat and tubs of mystery vegetables, and its lack of an obvious menu. And, at least during my visits, the Bluetooth earpiece-bedecked man working behind the counter wasn't quick to offer guidance.
Still, for downtown office workers, EM Deli can be an enjoyable and rather unique lunch option — a cross between the prepared foods section you'll find in larger Korean grocery stores and a kind of Korean take on Panda Express, manager Eric Kim explained. The deli shares a name with the now-shuttered EM Food Market across the street. Kim told me that owner Seung Guk Han is a friend of the grocery store's proprietors, so after it closed last year, they let Han take the name — and, more significantly, the bulk of their long-term catering customers.
But I was mostly interested in the "Panda Express-style" steam table, which I had never seen at a Korean restaurant. If you've ever paid a visit to that famous (infamous?) purveyor of Americanized Chinese takeout, you know the basic setup. At EM Deli, $8.99 buys you rice or noodles (or both, if you'd like), two cold banchan (Korean side dishes), and your choice of two main dishes — out of about a dozen hot entrées, ranging from barbecued meats to stir-fries, that are laid out in the steam trays. Pay a dollar more for three items.
You should trust your own eyes to determine what looks good, but I will offer a few pointers: The japchae, or stir-fried sweet potato noodles, were excellent — springy, flavorful, and oily in just the right way. For your entrées, go for the infinitely tender, savory-sweet bulgogi (thinly sliced marinated beef) rather than the overly chewy, boneless kalbi (beef short ribs), which didn't take well to the steam table treatment. The dduk bokki (tubular rice cakes) were a little chewy for my taste, although I did like the sweet and spicy red sauce they came in. And if you're a secret fan of saucy fried chicken a la General Tso's, you'll probably enjoy EM Deli's Korean analogue.
Of course you can find better Korean food at any number of restaurants in Oakland. The appeal here is the speed and convenience — and the fact that the quality is decent, all things considered. For solo diners, in particular, it's nice to be able to sample a variety of dishes in a way that's difficult to do in a traditional Korean restaurant.
During my last visit, I grabbed a plastic-wrapped package of still-warm kimbap, labeled "meat sushi" — basically sushi rolls filled with rice, bulgogi, egg omelet, and various pickled vegetables. The $5 package was hearty enough to make a reasonable contribution to a potluck. It was, in short, a bargain.