Whether you're talking Taiwanese popcorn chicken, herb-stuffed Caribbean birds, or the double-fried and gochujang-tossed goodness known as Korean Fried Chicken, there's no question: Oakland's international fried-chicken scene is on the rise.
The latest newcomer is Abura-ya, a pop-up that specializes in karaage, or Japanese-style fried chicken. The restaurant — whose name means "oil shop" in Japanese — has been popping up four nights a week at Garden House (380 15th St.), a salad-centric lunch spot in downtown Oakland.
Prior to their current collaboration, the trio behind Abura-ya — Adachi Hiroyuki, Angelo Hernandez, and Rodrigo de la Reza — rolled rice balls together at San Francisco's Onigilly. Later, Hiroyuki was doing a solo pop-up series called Adachi's Happy Izakaya Hours when he hit on the idea of doing a fried chicken restaurant.
"Fried chicken is a very popular food in the United States," Hiroyuki, a native of the Kobe region in Japan, said. "I wanted to do it with Japanese flavors."
At Abura-ya, Hiroyuki marinates pieces of boneless, skinless chicken thigh in sake and shio koji (mold-inoculated rice that's mixed with salt and water and allowed to ferment) — an increasingly trendy ingredient because of its meat-tenderizing properties and the jolt of umami it provides. After an overnight soak, the chicken gets tossed in a cornstarch batter before it's fried. Customers pick among six flavors: three "wet" (agave teriyaki, orange aioli, and Japanese barbecue sauce) and three dry (sansho-sea salt, shichimi salt, and miso garlic). Each order ($6 for four pieces, $11 for eight) comes with a side of fresh-cut vegetables and miso ranch dressing. And because the chicken batter is cornstarch-based, most of the flavors are gluten-free. Vegetarians can opt for vegan "drumsticks" or fried tofu.
The restaurant also serves fried chicken "sliders," served on crispy rice buns, and a variety of izakaya-style small plates: yaki onigiri (baked rice balls brushed with teriyaki sauce), seared beef with yuzu-sesame ponzu, and a variety of salads.
Although this food is meant to be washed down with beer or sake, the restaurant doesn't have a liquor license yet. Hiroyuki said the pop-up will give away free sake sangria for the next few weeks, and customers are welcome to BYOB. Abura-ya is currently cash-only. Current hours are Thursday to Sunday, from 6 to 10 p.m. — or until the last order of karaage is sold.
R.I.P. Sketch Ice Cream
Less than two years after Berkeley's Sketch Ice Cream (2080 4th St.) reopened on Fourth Street, the popular soft-serve ice cream specialist is saying goodbye again. Owners Eric Shelton and Ruthie Planar-Shelton have announced that Sunday, July 6, will be the last day of business for their retail store. This time it sounds like the farewell will be final.
"This will be the end of the road for Sketch," the husband-and-wife tandem wrote on the shop's Facebook page.
The sudden announcement came as a shock for fans of Sketch's soft-serve ice cream, which is notable for its purity of flavor, smooth texture, and refreshing quality — the product of a scratch-made ice cream base made with no egg yolks, and with milk rather than cream.
The first time Shelton and Planar-Shelton closed shop, in 2009, it was so they could carve out more family time after their daughter was born. When reached by phone earlier this week, Shelton told What the Fork that the latest decision was again motivated by a desire to prioritize family — to not have to miss school functions and weekend outings. It wasn't a financial decision, he stressed.
"I've been in the kitchen for 24 years — that's a long time," Shelton said. "It's time to have some weekends off."
Sketch will continue to do catering and online sales (of candies, cookies, and ice cream cakes) for a short time, but those aspects of the business also will shut down by the end of the year. Shelton said he and his wife haven't figured out their next step yet, but while it will likely be food-related, it definitely won't be a retail business, Shelton said.
For Sketch's final week, Shelton said the ice cream shop will rotate through some of its most popular flavors. The store will be open its regular hours, unless the ice cream sells out early. Longtime customers will want to pay a visit to say goodbye, and to snag one last taste.
A transfer-of-ownership sign posted outside of Oakland's B-Dama (4301 Piedmont Ave.), the popular Japanese izakaya, confirmed what chef-owner Chikara Ono hinted at earlier this month: When the restaurant opens its new location in Swan's Marketplace next month, it will mark a move rather than an expansion. Ono told What the Fork that he has sold the lease on the Piedmont Avenue spot, which will eventually reopen as a Thai restaurant.
In the end, Ono decided he had too much on his plate to oversee two restaurants, especially since he also runs the sushi and Japanese prepared foods program at Berkeley Bowl.
Even with the new location opening in Old Oakland, in what Ono hopes will be a more heavily foot-trafficked area, the old B-Dama will be missed, especially by regulars who live in the neighborhood. Hopefully, the new restaurant will find that same sweet spot — a blend of value, hospitality, refined cooking, and lack of pretension — that the original managed to hit, probably more consistently than any other Japanese restaurant in Oakland.
Ono said he doesn't know much about the new owners' plans, listed on the change-of-ownership application as V R Thai Gourmet LLC, though he said they approached him several times with offers to take over the lease. The closing of the Piedmont location and the opening of the new B-Dama will both likely take place within the next couple of weeks.