“The flavors are really clean… and it’s so cheap!”- D.T. The Intern
9:00am last friday on a somewhat nippy East Bay Morning, the intern and I went to scour out this hidden gem in Oakland Chinatown. What’s interesting is, I’ve probably past this place three times within my entire residency of the Bay Area and not once have I taken a second thought to actually walk through its doors until that day.**
To give a bigger scoop with the historical background of this area around the (*1) 1850s (during the gold rush era of California), many Chinese immigrants searched for opportunities with the possibilities of finding Gold and new ventures during this hostile time of American frontier discovery. A plethora of them worked in the local canneries, dams and restaurants surrounding much of the “Shrimp Camps” (as they commonly referred it by) for sake of convenience and alternative residence to the already crowded San Francisco Chinatown.
(*2) Fast forward towards to the 1980s, an influx of Chinese Cambodians, Chinese-Vietnamese individuals began creating pockets of businesses (circa 1940s for the Filipino Americans who also pursued their share of the local entrepreneurial pie); this in turn is what called for many american dining establishments like this one to be opened up. After much displacement and hostility from local politicians and non-Chinese residents, much of the population finally settled within the heart of Chinatown’s District to the intersection of 8th and Webster, housing the renowned Chinese American Citizen Alliance (or C.A.C.A.; mind out of the gutter please) (*3).Later on the growth of Chinatown expanded to the future spot of the Waterfront (Warehouse) district, Harrison and 10th street.
Coming back full circle, when I was walking around the area (and discovering said spot) roughly a week and a half ago before posting this article, I remained confused as to why this hidden gem maintained its upkeep during this economy. Soon after, everything became obvious as we came across a scattered section of palettes full of produce. No area spared for comfort. Many people kept on stacking palettes on the pick up trucks, weaving in out of the corners with forklifts and lighting up a cigarette only when they felt it was necessary. **
The labyrinth of the Warehouse district constantly expanded and changed directions depending on its demand. If I were to imagine popular locales such as Pike’s Place (Seattle, WA), Fisherman’s Wharf, Embarcadero Ferry Building and certain pockets of SOMA/Potrero Hill Warehouse District (San Francisco) share the same dynamic early morning. A fleeting feeling I’m too familiar with… anyways, enough with the word imagery, here’s the spot you’ve been all wanting to know about.
For a restaurant tucked away amidst the many abandoned corners of Jack London’s Waterfront the corner is surprisingly full of color, a dilapidated hue of royal blue may suggest otherwise. The interior is cramped to the max. Slightly bigger than my Grandparent’s old victorian apartment. Limited tables and rickety chairs as if they were furnished from the Qin Dynasty. The great tile kitchen wall (like China’s Great Wall) addresses a bold statement that no one besides the restaurant personnel should peek over its borders freely. An elder Chinese Man (the owner Ben, conveniently enough), only dropped a few lines of Cantonese to the elder Chinese woman who accompanied him before picking up his knife, prepping another dish and firing it up in the wok.
One interesting phenomenon came to light: random warehouse workers came in and out of the establishment freely yelling out remarks like, “I take this ok?”
The lady took a mental note of what they had taken and went on with her daily routine. The first part of the enigma finally made sense… the restaurant served as a dining hub for all the warehouse workers to eat, relax and of course enjoy at their convenience. The second and final piece was answered, the maintenance was minimal at best because it also doubled up as a residence. We only observed the ambiance for ten minutes, the waitress dropped the menu in front of us. Two sides, no pictures and unbelievable prices.
Lemme get this straight, since 1986 they’ve managed to keep prices at an astounding $5.00 an entree and not have to worry about paying for the lease of said location? Totally unheard of and too good to be true. I’m a stickler when it comes to nice deals on food but two points come to mind when you have prices this low:
1) The entire menu is horrible (regardless if it’s food or drink)
2) The business is desperate for more customers
Thankfully neither we’re the case and when we initially asked the elder Chinese lady about which foods were popular all she could reply,
*Fairly broken English*
” Order anything, everything’s good.” *Walks away*- Elder Chinese Lady (1/2 of Ben’s Staff)
We took the chance and ordered the following items, preparing myself for disappointment as I was given the same speech at many aforementioned Asian hole in the walls of the past. Let’s start off with the Fried Chicken. With an initial glance it doesn’t hold any appealing attributes. Very similar to the offerings of many other Chinese Restaurants within the Bay Area (especially of San Tung’s version in San Francisco). I sunk my teeth into my first wing and the cookery is outstanding. There’s a fine balance of salt and pepper, the jalapeños’ kick came in comfortably at the end and there was no pink on the insides (I know, I should have taken a picture but we were hungry in our defense). Easily, you can fill yourself up with these wings or share it comfortably between two people (three or more and you probably need to buy an extra order).
The next item that comes to our table: Ben’s Chow Mein. Again, there’s nothing really fancy to look at. One could argue, the presentation is eerily similar to your Panda Express (or any typical Asian fusion chain you frequent). We bit into the thick piles of noodles and there was a nice bite to it. No remnants of “slimy wok broth”, an appearance I’m too familiar with when eating this common Cantonese dish. The components individually were all properly cooked and seasoned, beef and fish balls were tender, shrimp was fresh and deveined while the broccoli wasn’t difficult to chew through. With this platter alone you can feed two (maybe three people if you aren’t too hungry). After our two dish experience, we felt pretty light on our feet, no remnants of food coma (due to an overdose of MSG and grease). However I believe the biggest game changer within this dish was their complimentary condiment, their in-house black beack chili oil sauce. The chili oil was robust, not too oily but not too spicy either, the compound of chili flakes, bits of chili peppers and oil all molded together into a melting pot of favorable Szechuan flavors. Adding even just a tiny bit of this sauce into the clean tasting Chow Mein platter elevated the dish to new heights that even Mulan’s emperor would find it worthy of an imperial banquet. Another important item to note is the symbiotic relationship these people have with the local warehouse suppliers.
I recall the waitress emphasizing one of the special items they have as a special is white shrimp and one could assume (and confirm) this and any other produce provided to them at will allows the chef/owner to switch up the ingredients in all of his staple dishes.
Overall the experience costed us $15.00 (with tax included).I didn’t hesitate to throw down $5.00 tip, making the total cost to $20.00. Unanimously, the intern and I decided for the price, portion, presentation and pristine flavors this restaurant is worthy of the cliche title “hidden gem.” I wasn’t really sold on all the hype Yelpers gave this place but now I am definitely a part of that tiny pack of supporters. Certainly like most old-fashioned places they don’t accept card (and I am advocator of multiple forms of payment), just more convenient that way. I can’t really knock them down for it since many of the old generation have that mentality when it comes to finances. Ben’s has stood the test of time and provided a clear testament to many potential entrepreneurs (and restauranteurs) who want to be a part of Oakland’s renaissance of artisanal and cultural offerings. No matter what you’re offering, as long as you keep the customers happy and provide good food (and/or drink), then you’ll stay in business for one more day (or in this case one more year).
Now where did I put my beer opener?
(*1): http://www.oaklandchinatownhistory.org/chinatown.html; Oakland Chinatown History Overview; last updated: circa 2005, unknown; Author: William Wong ; last viewed: 12 August 2013
(*2): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinatown,_Oakland; (***although not by choice reliable footnote/reference, general overview history and overlap applicable as sound reference due to article footnotes and personal research)
(*3): http://www.cacaoakland.org/tx/oaklandlodgehist.html; Chinese American Citizens Alliance home page; last updated: Unknown; viewed 12 August 2013