Richmond is experiencing great transformation including a new ferry terminal and a burgeoning food scene. In the Contra Costa coastline city, you can devour Italian donuts, put away blazing-hot pupusas, slurp Southeast Asian soup, savor some soul food, and more. Here's a Richmond culinary sampling.
Old School Meets New Soul Cafe
Attention, soul food lovers. New Soul Cafe, a no-frills casual counter, lures you in with its small-but-soul-satisfying selection of items intended for takeout. The gracious owner and chef, Donnel Jones, an ordained minister and activist in Richmond, prepares simple family recipes straight out of the South. When asked what to order, the gregarious owner responded emphatically, "fried Mississippi channel catfish!" Simple, fresh out of the fryer, and satisfying — tasted like it was caught that morning and best paired with a refreshing cup of Donnel's sweet tea. Just don't ask for his top-secret recipe. Customer favorites also include fried chicken and the gumbo (Friday and Saturday only). Most items are served with simple sides like collards, red beans and rice, mac 'n' cheese, and good ol' Southern hospitality. Open Wednesday-Saturday. New Soul Cafe,1305 Carlson Blvd., Richmond, 510-283-3863.
Gran Milan Is The Bomboloni
Café Gran Milan is a petite café concealed in an industrial lot amid automotive shops, but it has a mighty and loyal following for its warm welcome and generous selection of sweet and savory delights, including warm pizza and panini, a host of homemade Italian pastries, and strong espresso. Gran Milan is clearly a labor of love for Rufo Verga, the affable owner from Varese, Italy, who can be overheard carrying on animated conversations in Italian with his Italian-speaking clientele. His gracious café manager, Myra Maldonado, keeps the operation running like a, well, well-tuned engine. Cannoli curious? Verga's are not to be missed. Loosen your belt for other not-too-sweet delights like the berry and custard tart, thousand-layer cake, tiramisu, and bomboloni — an Italian custard-filled donut. Craving savory? Try the cherry tomato or eggplant focaccia warmed to order, take home a heavenly half-baked pizza like the house-made sausage and mushroom, or choose from a selection of panini offerings. For those with a hunger for Italy, Café Gran Milan can satisfy it. Café Gran Milan, 5327 Jacuzzi St., Richmond, 510-984-0679, GranMilan.com.
Pupusas Perfected at Taqueria La Bamba
For the love of pupusas, transport your cravings for these Salvadoran delicacies to Taqueria La Bamba, a small but bountiful restaurant known for its gracious staff and devoted customers. Listen for the chef's pat-pat-patting from the open kitchen, which happens just before your pupusa is slapped on the griddle to order. These sizzling-hot masa cakes — with their exquisite simplicity — are filled with ingredients like pork and cheese, refried beans, zucchini, and squash blossom. They arrive with a side of cabbage slaw with just the right balance of acidity and bright flavors. If in a breakfast state of mind, order the huevos con chorizo or casamiento, an unusual mix of rice, beans, plantains, cheese, and sour cream. Be sure to explore anything carnitas, a house specialty, and the homemade tamales. For more ambitious appetites, order the camerones al ajo (a grilled garlic shrimp plate) or the chalateco plate, a sampler of pupusas, fried plantains, refried beans, sour cream, and tortilla chips. Muy, muy bueno. Taqueria La Bamba,12345 San Pablo Ave., Richmond, 510-235-2288.
Hu'o'ng Trà Dazzles From an Unassuming Spot
Tucked away in an unappetizing strip mall on San Pablo Avenue, Hu'o'ng Trà Restaurant & Deli is anything but unappetizing. Friends, families, co-workers, and hungry culinary treasure hunters flock to this sizeable hot spot, bustling with high energy, enticing aromas, and a vast array of Vietnamese deliciousness in the form of summer rolls, papaya salad, rare beef pho, vegetarian sweet and sour soup, bun (a rice vermicelli dish) with perfectly caramelized grilled pork — this cannot be over emphasized, the pork is grilled to perfection — and egg roll, crispy squid, and vegetarian spicy "chicken" with mixed vegetables. And more. It's dishes like these that magically transform this far corner of a strip mall from undesirable to unforgettable. Hu'o'ng Trà Restaurant & Deli, 12221 San Pablo Ave., Richmond, 510-234-7428, HuongTraVietnameseRestaurant.com.
Edible Artistry at Mi Southeast
Mi Southeast Asian Eatery is a popular eatery inside the Pacific East Mall where soup is clearly trending. If a sizeable bowl of soup is the chef's canvas, the many condiments delivered to your table are the media to customize your culinary creation. Choose seafood-style or teo chew-style soup or try the preserved orange skin-braised duck featuring the house broth and ingredients like prawns, squid, pork kidney, fish cake, pork or fish balls, and lettuce. The shiitake mushroom and broccoli soup, made with a full-flavored vegetable broth, satisfies vegetarians and omnivores alike. Finally, select rice or egg noodles of varying thickness, and play with your pick of condiments until you've perfected your masterpiece worth slurping. Mi Southeast Asian Eatery, Pacific East Mall, 3288 Pierce St., Ste. B101, Richmond, 510-527-3788.
The Best of the Deep (Fried) South at Mississippi Catfish
In search of more Southern hospitality, or just an excuse to spell M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I? Attached to a smog station, oddly enough, this welcoming southern comfort kitchen, Mississippi Catfish, is only open Thursday through Saturday, so plan your visit accordingly. Like its name suggests, its signature dish is fried catfish. Devotees of this temple-of-most-things-deep-fried also praise the fried snapper and fried chicken. The combination plates include delectable hush puppies and at least one side. On Saturdays only, come for the lip-smacking, finger-licking barbecue ribs, chicken, or links. While you're at it, you can get your car smogged. Mississippi Catfish, 12440 San Pablo Ave, Richmond, 510-215-2526.
Sensational Standouts and Sultry Saxophone at Sala Thai
Do you enjoy a little live saxophone stylings with your Thai food? Don't we all? Get your jazz on the first Friday of each month, but Sala Thai deserves your attention any and every day of the week. This casual restaurant with accommodating service pays close attention to the dishes making their way tableside. Curries, limes, chilies, basil, garlic, and spices are the go-to ingredients dressing up the vegetables, noodles, fish recipes, and more. You will be back for the fresh tofu rolls, the crispy calamari, the sweet mango trout salad, the redolent Thai basil with salmon, and the tempting drunken noodles. Vegetarians take note: Many dishes can be prepared sans meat. Reservations recommended. Sala Thai, 15501 San Pablo Ave., Richmond, 510-223-2933.
Cannoli curious? Craving carnitas? Catfish crazy? Seven worthwhile Richmond eateries to explore.