Are the restaurants in your neighborhood starting to feel a little stale? Maybe it's time to take a trip to Hayward, aka the Haystack. You'll find Mexico City-style food made from scratch, the only Tongan restaurant in the East Bay, some of the best potato salad on Earth, and more.
The Unforgettable Panucho at Los Carnalito's
If you haven't yet tried Los Carnalitos, the subject of my first Express review, you're missing out — it's still my favorite Mexico City-style restaurant in the Bay Area. The restaurant, owned by carnalitos (brothers) Luis and Alfredo Santos, features items made by hand with fresh masa, like huaraches, quesadillas, and panuchos. The huaraches — large, handmade masa oblongs stuffed with black beans — come topped with two kinds of salsas, plus fresh cheese and nopales (cactus) for a small upcharge. It's your choice whether to add meat — I prefer mine with costilla, or beef short rib, which is marinated and perfectly grilled. Try the quesadilla Azteca: a handmade corn tortilla stuffed with stringy Oaxaca-style cheese and a medley of nopales, squash blossoms, mushrooms, and huitlacoche — an earthy, umami-flavored corn fungus. Don't miss the panucho, which actually hails from the Yucatán region — it's two handmade tortillas deep-fried, then stuffed with black beans and topped with cochinita pibil (stewed pork in a sauce of orange juice, achiote, and habanero pepper), pickled red onion, and oranges. Los Carnalitos, 30200 Industrial Pkwy. SW, Hayward, 510-324-8125.
The South Inspires PLYT
From the owner (Michael LeBlanc) and chef (Jerome "Spike" Williams) of now-shuttered Oakland restaurant Picán comes PLYT, a restaurant that combines Southern food with Southern-inspired cocktails and hospitality. You'll find some Southern classics on the dinner menu, like fried chicken, shrimp and grits, fried catfish, and fried green tomatoes, along with some more unusual dishes like crab-shrimp ravioli in a Cajun lobster sauce, short ribs with grits, and roasted portobello mushroom with succotash. As for the cocktail menu, there are some Southern favorites like the Sazerac, as well as some more inventive options like a peach sidecar. Don't miss dessert — particularly the bread pudding. PLYT, 1036 B St., 510-888-1092, Hayward, PlaytOnB.com.
Papaito Defies Singularity
Papaito Rotisserie calls itself a family-style, modern California restaurant that "transcends beyond the confines of a single culture," according to its website. For those who don't or can't eat gluten, there are a wealth of gluten-free options to choose from. Start with an order of plantain chips with pickled red onions, or passion fruit ceviche as an appetizer. For mains, try the herb-roasted chicken with herb butter, spice-rubbed beef rib, or crispy-skinned porchetta served with your choice of sauce, like chimichurri, chipotle, or fig barbecue sauce. Sides like smoky corn salad, grilled purple coleslaw, and sweet chili glazed carrots make for healthy, flavorful additions to your meal. Even the dessert menu offers treats you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, like minty cucumber popsicles, Antigua coffee bean flan, or chocolate ricotta pudding. Papaito Rotisserie, 26007 Eden Landing Rd., Hayward, 510-200-7732, PapaitoRotisserie.com.
Find Meaty Delights at Katalina's
If you've never tried Tongan food — a rarity in the East Bay — look no further than Katalina's Island Grill. Those new to the cuisine might be surprised to see corned beef on the menu, served with cabbage or creamed spinach. There are also plenty of other meaty delights like the fatty, juicy, and crisp-roasted turkey tails and smoked pork hocks. Dishes like lu pulu (foil-wrapped baked taro leaves), chicken curry, fish, and pork sausage round out the menu, and diners can also choose from sides like taro, bananas, or yams. To drink, try the otai, a drink made with coconut and mango. Don't skip the pineapple pie for dessert. Katalina's Island Grill, 821 Sycamore Ave, Hayward, 510-200-9504, Katalinas-island-grill-and-grocery.top-cafes.com.
Kabobs Like No Others at Ghazni
Vegetarians and meat eaters alike will find something to rave about at Ghazni Afghan Kabobs. Start with the bolani, a fried flatbread stuffed with your choice of potato or leeks. Or go for the mantu: dumplings stuffed with seasoned ground beef and topped with lentils and yogurt. Meat eaters can choose from entrées made with halal meat, like the quabili pallow, a tender, slow-cooked lamb shank alongside floral, fragrant basmati rice with carrots and raisins. Or try a kabob, like the chapli kabob (seasoned ground beef patties) or the murgh kabob (marinated, juicy charbroiled chicken). If you're looking to get more veggies and legumes in your diet, the sabzi challaw (sautéed spinach with rice), lobia challaw (Afghan-style red beans with rice), or borani kadoo (butternut squash with yogurt sauce) are all appealing options. Ghazni Afghan Kabobs, 1235 A St., Hayward, 510-398-8940.
Great Old-School Burgers at Val's
In a land where frou-frou $15-and-up burgers are more and more ubiquitous, sometimes all you need is an old-fashioned, no-frills burger. Enter Val's, an institution open since 1958 that's well-known to area residents and has made several local and national best-burger lists. Even the interior is old-school, with photos of long-ago little league teams on the walls, red vinyl booths and stools, and wooden walls, ceiling, and menu boards that look like they haven't changed in decades. The flame-broiled burgers are obviously the star of the menu, and here, you can choose from three sizes: the baby (1/3 lb.), mama (½ lb.), or the papa burger (1 lb.) and customize the toppings to your liking. Get a side of steak-cut fries and onion rings (or both), plus a giant milkshake or malt, served in a tall glass with the extra in a tin. Val's Burgers, 2115 Kelly St., Hayward, 510-889-8257.
Killer Potato Salad at Just Potato Salad
Many barbecue joints tend to overlook their side dishes. That's not the case at Just Potato Salad, a barbecue restaurant where potato salad is one of the most revered items on the menu. As former Express staffer Luke Tsai reported, the owner, Pastor C. D. Bennett, was praying when the name and concept for Just Potato Salad came to him from God. Whenever Bennett cooked at church events, people would come back for seconds, asking for "just potato salad." The potato salad is worthy of a visit, with plenty of mix-ins like eggs, green onions, and carrots, and while you're there, you may as well pick up some tasty mac 'n' cheese and St. Louis-style ribs, too. Just Potato Salad, 29587 Mission Blvd., Hayward, 510-753-9667.