For East Bay residents who have traversed continents to build their lives here, far from family, home, and their culinary roots, there exists a special class of restaurants. These treasured eateries are founded primarily to transport customers back to their native foods, their family kitchens, their corrugated street food stalls, their communities — even if for one meal. They also serve up an eclectic brand of comfort food available to all who wish to experience world cuisine sans passport.
Your Thai Kitchen Away from Home
"We opened our restaurant with a dream of cooking traditional Thai food for Thai people. We welcome everyone, but our Thai customers tell us that the food reminds them of home cooking."
— Kwanjira (Ann) Chan, Owner, Larb Thai Food & Tapas
Kwanjira ("Ann") and her husband, Bunpot ("Chef Paul") Chan, founded Larb Thai Food & Tapas in 2006, quickly making a name for themselves in the Thai culinary community and beyond. Their vision was to cook traditional entrées and popular street food especially for Thai palates. In a sliver of a strip mall in El Cerrito, Larb boasts a small, attractively designed dining room, reminiscent of a roadside food stall. What stands out most prominently is the warm welcome you receive from the staff. The Chans are dedicated to sharing their family recipes with their community, including the crispy rice ball salad with fermented pork, deep-fried quail, Thai boat noodle soup with beef or pork, and a wide selection of larb, a traditional meat salad served with lettuce leaves and a vibrant selection of Thai herbs. Customer favorites include the rib-eye salad, larb pork shoulder, and larb prawn. One visit to Larb, and you'll soon be dreaming of your next. 10166 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, 510-524-8988, LarbThaiTapas.com.
Aromas of India and a Promise of the Familiar
"There is something transportive about a crispy okra stir fry cooked to perfection. It's the trademark of a skilled Indian chef and proof that their restaurant is the place to be."
— Srilekha Srinivasan, El Cerrito resident by way of Tamilnadu, India
Upon entering Samraj Sweets N' Chathut, a small, brightly lit eatery in El Sobrante, you are immediately greeted by a fragrant panoply of Indian spices dancing through the air. Indian music videos — a mash-up of hip-hop and Bollywood — entertain from one of two screens above the counter. Samraj initially gives off the vibe of a somewhat sterile fast food counter, but after placing your order, sit down to what will soon resemble a family table. Loyal patrons enjoy a selection of chaat, savory snack items sold in roadside stalls or food carts throughout India. They also congregate over entrées evocative of home-cooked meals, including the mixed vegetable pakoras served with a fiery tamarind as well as fresh mint chutney, bhindi, pan-fried okra cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, and Indian spices, and eggplant bharta, grilled eggplant, slow-cooked with onions, ginger, tomato paste, and spices. The lemon chicken, an heirloom recipe of the chef/owner, boasts tender pieces of white meat chicken awash in a vibrant red coating, similar to tandoori in appearance. For dessert, sample the kheer, a comforting rice pudding, redolent of cardamom and childhood. Be sure to order the perfectly fried okra, and you'll know with certainty that you've found a hotspot of traditional Indian comfort foods well worth returning to. 3340 San Pablo Dam Rd., D2, El Sobrante, 510-283-5567, SamrajSweetsNChatHutToGo.com.
The Intersection of West African Food and Culture
"This place is the truth ... I have eaten in many African restaurants and I have to say Kendejah is a gem. (And I am African here from New York)."
— Louise N., Hayward resident (via Yelp review)
Kendejah Restaurant, named in honor of the former cultural center of Liberia (spelled "Kendeja"), brings Liberian food, community, and indeed culture center stage in Old San Leandro. A small coastal country in West Africa, Liberia gained independence as the first democratic republic in Africa's history after a movement of freed slaves from the United States returned to Africa in search of greater freedoms. Step inside this local gem, and you are immediately greeted by a vivid mural, painting a picture of Liberia's rich history, and an inviting lounge area where African music videos entertain on a large screen. Kendejah's menu offers a selection of mainstays, as well as a daily list of rotating entrees. Transport yourself by ordering the deeply satisfying fufu (a staple in many African countries made of cassava and plantain) and peanut soup, oxtails served with rice and beans, potato greens served with rice. Or for a Sunday meal after church or in between errands, order the okra or collard greens served over smoked turkey and chicken with rice. Kendejah Restaurant has a mighty loyal following of customers from Liberia and other African countries, as well as all corners of the East Bay. Pay a visit to taste for yourself. 197 Pelton Center Way, San Leandro, 510- 756-6049, KendejahSanLeandro.com.
A Noodle House of Cross-Cultural Delights
"This is not Korean food and it's not Chinese food; it's a very special hybrid of Korean-Chinese food, and it reminds me of my childhood."
— Mary Choi, El Cerrito resident by way of Seoul, South Korea
Since the late 1800s, Korea has experienced a steady wave of Chinese immigrants seeking prosperity in a new land. These Hwa-Gyo (descendents of Chinese immigrants) have created a hybrid Korean-Chinese cuisine, marrying traditional Chinese recipes with Korean ingredients and culinary traditions. Tien Chih Yu, chef and owner of Yuyu Za Zang, was raised in Korea by his Chinese father and Korean mother. He apprenticed in his father's restaurant where he absorbed traditional recipes and techniques that he now shares with a loyal band of customers, from the university crowd to Korean families seeking the familiar culinary comforts of home. For a taste of two cultures, sample poached pork and vegetable dumplings, ganzazang, a noodle dish served with black bean paste sauce, strips of pork, and vegetables; the zamza myun, a split-entrée of spicy seafood stew and flour noodles with black bean paste sauce; or tang sue yuk, a take on sweet and sour pork (or beef) with vegetables offered with a bowl of sweet, tangy sauce. Explore this special hybrid cuisine on your next visit to Oakland's KoNo district. 4871 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-653-2288.
A Lithuanian Village in the Heart of Alameda
"I love the cream of mushroom soup because it warms my tummy. I also like the homemade sausages because they're not spicy and they make me feel good, and I don't like spicy because it makes me freak out."
— Natalia Olveira, 7-year-old Alameda resident
Vaidas Sukys opened the doors to Mama Papa Lithuania Restaurant six years ago as he dreamt of sharing the cultural heritage and culinary traditions of Lithuania. "My goal was to stick a small anchor in the center of the West Coast and Alameda was that perfect center," said Sukys. With help from his mother, a professional chef who holds court in the kitchen, Mama Papa produces Lithuanian classics that have captivated the taste buds of East Bay residents. From the heavy wooden tables and chairs fit for Vikings and ploughmen alike, to the exposed brick walls, delicate lace curtains, and a bucolic village vibe, Sukys has most certainly achieved his vision. Outdoor seating is also available in the beer garden behind the restaurant. A loyal band of customers travel from far and wide, with or without Eastern European heritage, to experience soul-satisfying recipes such as the classic borscht served with a side of rye bread, golden-fried potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage rolls, or the chicken goulash fit for bitter winter months. Regulars also enjoy a nurturing bowl of cream of mushroom soup, savory homemade sausages served with mashed potatoes and cabbage stew, and the ever-popular flour dumplings with a choice of fillings and topped with a mighty dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill. There's something uniquely Bay Area about a tiny Lithuanian restaurant that has the power to unite a disparate group of people over an unusual class of comfort food. 1241 Park St., Alameda, 510-522-4100, MamaPapaLithuania.com.