Friday, September 05, 2008

Dish on Dining: Chef Lin’s Top Café

Home-style Meals on a Budget
370-372 12th St. (between Franklin and Webster Sts.), Oakland
PH: 510.251.2662
Open for lunch and dinner
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

It’s always fun to discover a dive, those out-of-the-way places that isn’t all that in appearance but offers good food and good prices. It’s like your own little secret.

I can’t classify Chef Lin’s Top Café as a dive. It’s a little brighter than a dive, the food is moderate-to-good, and the secret may already be out judging by the mix of customers eating at this spot serving up basic Cantonese-style dishes.

I noticed Chef Lin’s a few months ago while walking to Oakland’s Chinatown for lunch on a workday. Since then I’ve tried it a few times, and can always count on a filling lunch under $6.

The restaurant is by itself east of Chinatown and it’s one of those places that hang colorful papers of the day’s special dishes written in Chinese characters. While most of the servers speak Cantonese, an increasing non-Chinese clientele seem to have no problem ordering in English.

They have a special lunch menu, but it can be confusing because there’s one sheet with lunch specials that’s priced at $6. These include special dishes like clay pot and fresh fish. But on the regular menu, there are also lunch specials listed for $5, often rice dishes topped with things like beef stew or curry chicken. All lunch specials come with the daily soup—often a clear broth with vegetables and herbs like the kind my mom used to make when I was a kid.

Since I speak Cantonese, I often would ask for dishes that may not be on the lunch special menu. Here’s an example of some of the dishes I’ve tried so far:

During my first visit, I ordered their won ton noodle soup. But I wanted some protein like roast duck. But Chef Lin’s, ironically, doesn’t serve duck. The server suggested adding a traditional Chinese beef called ngo lam, which is a five-spice braised beef with a lot of fatty parts. My mom loves eating ngo lam.

My order was a nice bowl of big won tons and pieces of the beef. The won ton was packed with ground pork and the ngo lam was tender and aromatic. But the real winner to me was the noodles—they were surprisingly thin like angel hair pasta, or dare I say it, even thinner? I’ve never had noodles like this before and I’m a big fan of thin, light noodles. I just wished they gave more. Still, I really enjoyed it.

Next I tried something off of the special lunch menu and ordered the Peking Spare Ribs. The menu offers many of these Americanized dishes, such as Mongolian Beef and Kung Pao Chicken. But growing up, the tangy but crispy taste of Peking Spareribs was one of my favorites.

Chef Lin’s version came out in a big plate with rice, but not much greens. Like many Chinese dishes, meat is emphasized more than a balance with vegetables. The texture was also a bit more wet and mushy than I typically like my spareribs, so it was closer to Sweet and Sour Pork than Peking Spareribs.

During one visit, I thought I saw Singapore Fried Rice Noodles on the menu, and this is one of my favorite dishes. Again because the thin rice vermicelli noodles fried up with egg and shrimp in a curry sauce make a nice and tasty meal. But on one visit, I couldn’t find it on the menu.

When the server came to take my order, I just asked if the kitchen could make Singapore Fried Rice Noodles and she said ok, even though they don’t offer it regularly. What came out was this huge order of freshly fried noodles with chunks of shrimp, bell pepper, ham and egg. It was such a hearty dish with a lot of what’s called “wok hay” or “breath of the wok,” which is often the sign of an expert hand in using the high heat of a wok. The only negative thing I would say about this plate of Singapore Fried Rice Noodles was the processed ham used and that it had a wee bit more oil grease clinging to the noodles than I preferred. Still, that didn’t stop me from making two meals out of this one order.

In my most recent visit, I wasn’t sure what an item on the menu was. It was listed as Pork and Dry Mustard Vegetables and I wondered if it was the pickled cabbage that I love. When I asked the server, she told me it was not pickled. She briefly mentioned the pork as “kau yuk” but I think my brain zoned out on what that was and I felt pressure to order the dish after my server convinced me that it was delicious.

When the dish arrived, I realized that I’d ordered one of my mom’s favorite dishes and one that I’ve generally avoided all my life for health reasons. Kau yuk is braised pork belly and when it comes out, people wet their lips looking at the fatty portions of the sliced pork belly. Growing up, I never liked the fatty portion because it was like eating a tub of Crisco. But my mom loves it because, of course, fat is flavor, and it’s braised in a rich, intense marinade of spices and soy.

Since I already ordered the dish, I went ahead and ate at least the lean meat part of the pork belly. An old Chinese man at a nearby table saw my order and salivated at the idea of eating all that fat. He told the server that he’s too old now to eat kau yuk and only young people like myself can handle all that fat.

I didn’t want to disappoint him so I ate most of my kau yuk, which despite the fat was indeed rich in beefy flavor. It’s the kind of dish where the sauce is so good you pour it over your rice to get all of it.

Chef Lin’s dishes are the kind of hearty Cantonese meals of my childhood. And while I’ve avoided many of these dishes in recent years for health reasons, it’s nice to go back to my youth occasionally. I know this is a place my mom would love when she visits me because it’s casual, cheap and comforting.

Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (Home-cooked goodness)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner


Anonymous said...

i wonder if they do that bamboo bouncing thing to make the noodles that thin? I bet CH would love it if you found out.

Sounds like a place I would love. Thanks for the post!

SteamyKitchen said...

i tried making my own pork belly like mom does, but massive fail!

will try again but right now wishing I could order a small bowl of it.

Anonymous said...

chef ben, looks like a nice lunch spot. funny how you kept getting stuff you know your mother would like! I like the story about the fatty pork and the old guy... that first dish with the noodles, wontons and meat looked delicious!