Saucy started with a group of friends in chef Tony Ngo's tiny Oakland apartment. The kitchen nook was so small, his friend and business partner Jenni Nguyen recalled, that there was only room for a table, no chairs. But Ngo loves to share food, so he whipped up a ton of dipping sauces, heated up some frozen food, and invited a whole group of friends over for a saucy dipping party.
Nguyen and Ngo met as servers at a Japanese restaurant in Oakland. Ever since they came up with the business plan for Saucy five years ago, they've focused on turning that dream into a reality through catering and a series of pop-ups. Their brick-and-mortar location in the Temescal district opened in September.
And though the menu at Saucy is far more elevated than frozen food in dipping sauces, homemade sauces (many of which are gluten-free) make their way into the food at every stage of the cooking, from the marinades to salad dressings. The Pan-Asian plates are meant to be shared, similar to tapas but with more generous portions. The same fun, casual spirit of sharing remains from Saucy's early days. Even without a massive array of dipping sauces, they felt Saucy described the mindset they wanted to keep up at their brick and mortar.
"We kept the name because it really speaks to our attitude," Nguyen said. "We want to build something that we believe in ... and we know we have the skill to make it happen."
Sit at the high-top tables for a more casual experience, or the low-top tables for a more traditional format. There's a generous selection of sakes, thanks to Ngo's love for sake that he developed as a server at a Japanese restaurant. My server suggested the strawberry-guava sake cocktail, a not-too-sweet concoction that blended tangy, pulpy guava with fresh strawberries for a refreshing treat that didn't overpower the food.
I recommend ordering a selection of dishes to share — the service is attentive, and my server was always ready to bring extra plates or serving utensils. The Thai corn dogs were the perfect appetizer to start with: playful and fun, but with a gourmet touch that best exemplified Saucy's creative, can-do attitude. The sausages were made in-house by blending pork belly with herbs including lemongrass, lime leaves, and ginger in a mortar and pestle. The result was fragrant, juicy, and coarsely textured. The breading was fried to a golden crisp, and the accompanying honey mustard sauce was smooth and creamy with just a hint of heat.
The eggplant lettuce wraps combined eggplant, shiitake mushrooms, and black beans into an umami-rich dipping sauce, with a wedge of lemon and pickled carrots and daikon for accompaniment. Though I was impressed with the firmly textured eggplant and the savory flavors that the black beans and mushrooms imparted, the ratio of lettuce to dip was way off. I received a few tablespoons of dip for nearly a dozen lettuce leaves, so there was just enough sauce to smear a bit on each lettuce. At $10, I would have expected a portion at least twice the size, so don't count on this dish as an option that'll satiate your vegetarian friends.
The namesake Saucy wings, similar to Korean fried chicken wings with their crispy exterior and sticky, saucy exterior, were a solid choice. The chicken was juicy, and the outside remained crunchy despite being drenched in a fish sauce-laden, garlicky soy sauce. But I preferred the Korean fried chicken wings I've enjoyed at late night spots around Oakland.
The standout main dish was the short rib, which was so tender that it fell apart with the touch of a fork. The sweet-savory juices from the short rib soaked into the creamy, smooth truffle cauliflower purée. On top was a refreshing, crunchy carrot, cabbage, mint, and cilantro slaw, which was flavored with ginger for a warm, bright flavor. All the components of the dish went well together, and it felt like a complete plate. The portion was also generous for the $19 price tag, making it easy to share with my group of four.
The miso salmon was cooked perfectly and evenly, with no flaky bits. The miso sauce was slightly sweet, yet light on the funkiness, which I wouldn't have minded more of. Pickled carrots and daikon garnished the dish. Though the portion of fish was decently sized at 8 ounces, it could have used another component like rice or potatoes to fill out the dish.
I preferred the chicken adobo, which came in a cast iron pot with three chicken thighs, plenty of sauce, bits of deep-fried chicken skin on top, and white rice on the side. The chicken thighs were juicy, and the chicken skin was airy and crunchy like chicharrones. The sauce was vinegary, tart, and bright, yet much lighter than most adobos I've tried. It's a divisive dish, Nguyen said, since most customers are used to a more richly flavored, reduced sauce with their adobo. My dining companions were also split as to whether or not they enjoyed the dish, but personally, I liked the lighter sauce, since it didn't overpower the other entrées.
For a satisfying end to the meal, try the pandan bread pudding, a warm, bright green colored buttery square topped with your choice of ice cream (I chose black sesame). Like most of the menu at Saucy, it probably won't be the most unique dessert you've tried, but it still hits those comfort food notes, making for a solid meal to share with family or friends.