We know there’s more to East Bay dining than Temescal, Rockridge and the Gourmet Ghetto. NOSH’s neighborhood guides explore the best of the rest. This month, we explore the Albany stretch of San Pablo Avenue.
With all the talk about the rise of Oakland and Emeryville bars and restaurants, it may be easy to dismiss other East Bay cities as culinary destinations. We’d like you to resist that urge. Albany, for one, is full of hidden gems and classic bars, and the city’s options are only getting better. (See our story on the transformation of the Ivy Room.) In fact, this city of only 2 square miles has so many of our favorite spots that we’ve divided up our neighborhood guide in two. This month, we trek down San Pablo Avenue. Look for our guide to Solano in the near future.
Potala Organic Café
There’s a special kind of magic in the simple, vegan cooking at Potala Organic Café. The short, mostly macrobiotic menu is a far cry from the dietary health trends du jour. There is no green juice on the menu. There are no paleo muffins. There are no kale salads in sight. Instead, the daily prix fixe menu includes a modest assortment of vegetables, legumes, grains and a salad, with tea, beer and wine to drink. (Particularly abstemious diners can opt for the “simple meal,” which doesn’t include seasonings or cooking oil.) Lunch and dinner are prepared by either Chef Palden or Chef Tenzin, who rotate in the kitchen on a daily basis. Both chefs embrace this style of healthy cooking, and they turn out dishes that taste simply of themselves — collards are supple and earthy, adzuki beans are nutty and tender, and steamed yams are sweet in the best way. No muss, no fuss. As Iris R. writes on Yelp, “You feel so good after eating here.” Potala Organic Café is at 1045 San Pablo Ave. (between Dartmouth Street and Marin Avenue), Albany. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook.
Sam’s Log Cabin
Housed in a Sears Roebuck catalog log cabin from 1930, Sam’s is likely the most iconic brunch spot in Albany. The building has housed myriad institutions; a speakeasy, a roadhouse and an off-track betting joint have all graced its doors. But today it is known for its pancakes, corned beef hash, fried chicken and epic weekend brunch lines. Rhasaan Fernandez, previously of Gather, and Mike Daillak took over the restaurant from “Sam” four years ago, and the pair have slowly upped the ante in the food department. The menu is now mostly organic and local, but with a strong sense of place — Sam’s is a diner through and through. Prepare for a long wait if you come during peak breakfast and brunch hours. You can, fortunately, sip coffee in the backyard garden while you wait. Sam’s Log Cabin is at 945 San Pablo Ave., Albany. Connect with Sam’s on Facebook.
Da Nang Krung-Thep Thai Cuisine
Da Nang Krung-Thep restaurant serves many familiar Thai and Vietnamese dishes, but the real reason to stop in is to try a simple braised pork dish: kao kha moo (listed as ka moo on Da Nang’s menu). Evocative of Chinese-style red braised dishes, kao kha moo is slightly sweet and anise-y, with a subtly aromatic broth perfect for drizzling over a bed of steamed rice. A bed of Chinese broccoli sits below the pork, offering bites of vegetal bitterness to contrast with the rich pork. Cilantro leaves offer a bit more freshness, and spicy Vietnamese nuoc cham will add heat if desired. To accompany the kao kha moo, try ka nar pla kem, stir-fried Chinese broccoli with pungent salted fish (think anchovies on steroids), or a steaming bowl of kao soi, a lime-forward coconut and fish curry broth with hand-cut egg noodles. Da Nang Krung-Thep is at 905 San Pablo Ave. (at Solano Avenue), Albany.
Over the last decade, the Ivy Room has shifted hands — and identities — three times. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, the bar was a small music venue and neighborhood watering hole run by Dot MacBeath and, later, her son Bill. In 2006, the MacBeaths sold the space to the owner of Kingman’s Lucky Lounge (now The Libertine), who transformed the dive bar into a lounge-like club. It continued to putter along in this way until 2012, when Tanya and Ronaldo Colli took over, decked out the space in reclaimed wood and rebar, and started pouring scratch-made cocktails. Now, it is amidst a renovation to bring the bar back to its roots as a neighborhood watering hole. New owners Summer Gerbing and Lani Torres are giving the bar a facelift — a fresh coat of paint, new booths, and a fresh beer list are all on the table — and they’re updating the performance space. When the Ivy Room reopens this month, it will surely be on our list for everything from happy hour to late night music shows. Ivy Room is at 860 San Pablo Ave. (at Solano Avenue), Albany. Connect with the bar on Facebook.
You can certainly go to Hamro Aangan and have a good Indian meal of lamb vindaloo, braised okra and garlic naan. You will likely be impressed by the tenderness of the lamb, the slow build of heat in the okra, and the flaky, fluffiness of the naan. You won’t be disappointed. But you really shouldn’t order any of those dishes at Hamro Aangan (OK, maybe the naan). Instead, try branching out from the familiar and order the Nepalese specials of the house. Vegetable and chicken momos (dumplings) have a supple exterior with a juicy, well-seasoned center. Dip them in the tangy, garlic-laced “Aangan sauce” for best results. Alongside, try the chicken chwela, a spicy appetizer served with beaten rice (flattened grains of white rice) and aloo ko aacha, Nepalese potato salad. Homestyle Nepalese chicken curry is all comfort food, perfect for a rainy day, and khashi ko masu transforms humble bone-in goat meat into a decadent entree. Service is hit or miss here, but you’ll always get your food with a smile. Order extra, as we do, and eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. Hamro Aangan is at 856 San Pablo Ave. (at Solano Avenue), Albany. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook.
Not to be confused with Oakland’s Mama’s Royal Café — or Royal Ground Coffee on Solano — the Albany breakfast joint gets our pick for an excellent low-pretension breakfast. The diner is decked out with retro kitsch and formica tables, and the menu includes dishes both classic and inventive. Fluffy buttermilk pancakes studded with bananas and coconut, chicken and waffles, and scones served with a generous scoop of lemon curd are all popular choices, but we are particular fans of eggs Benedict made simply with black forest ham and hollandaise. (You can, of course, go crazy with your Benedict here and get it served with Italian sausage or avocado and spinach.) Expect a wait on the weekends, but the weekday breakfast and lunch crowds are relatively tame. Royal Café is at 811 San Pablo Ave. (between Solano and Washington avenues), Albany. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook.
There may be an abundance of bars on Albany’s stretch of San Pablo, but there’s only one with a draft list that boasts over 30 beers — Albany Taproom. It certainly is the neighborhood’s best choice for serious beer nerds, and its selection is large enough that a casual pilsner lover can get along just fine with a friend who knows a gose from a saison. The taproom is also the newest bar on the block; it opened in 2013 in conjunction with the restaurant Grazzy Burgers, located next door. Albany Taproom has been described by owners as “a group of discerning beer drinkers who are obsessed with the craft and art of the brew. We came together to create a space that combines the comfort of a classic beer house, the expertise of micro-brewers, and the enthusiasm of the collector in the City of Albany and the greater Bay Area.” Albany Taproom is at 745 San Pablo Ave. (between Washington and Portland avenues), Albany. Connect with the bar on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Almost directly across the street from Albany Taproom is our favorite neighborhood spot for outdoor drinking. Club Mallard’s two-story patio is a cozy oasis from the bustle of San Pablo; it’s all tiki torches and palm trees, rattan chairs and bamboo. Sure, there are several pool tables inside and fairly epic taxidermy on the walls, but we rarely hang inside unless it’s raining. Club Mallard doesn’t make the best cocktails on the block (see below) and it doesn’t have the best tap list (see above), but it fits the bill for the kind of space where you settle in and chill for the better part of a Saturday. Club Mallard is at 752 San Pablo Ave. (at Portland Avenue), Albany. Connect with the bar on Facebook.
Tacos El Autlense and the Hotsy Totsy Club
Our favorite carnitas taco doesn’t come from the Mission or even Fruitvale. Instead, we head to Albany and visit the Tacos El Autlense truck, which sits in the Hotsy Totsy parking lot until midnight seven days a week. Tacos El Autlense does, of course, sell other tacos, but its crisp, tender pork is true carnitas perfection. The double stack of corn tortillas get a trip on the well-seasoned (and greased) flat-top, so even a meat-less bite is packed with flavor — just be sure to grab a fat stack of napkins before carrying your tacos back into the bar to eat. Yes, that’s right, the best way to enjoy El Autlense is to bring it into the Hotsy Totsy and wash down the tacos with a cold draft PBR while watching the “transgressive” 1970s B-movies always on the television. Follow your beer with a cocktail if it’s Friday. The Hotsy Totsy has been in operation since 1939; in the last few years it has transformed into a watering hole that is at once a neighborhood dive and a cocktail destination. During daylight and early evening hours, you can find Albany residents sipping on beer and gossiping with the bartenders. Later, slews of younger folks drop in for a house-carbonated “Bottled Bitter Rivers” (Citadelle gin, aperol, rhubarb bitters, grapefruit and lime juice) or a smoky “Everett and Jones” (pine smoked vermouth, orchard peach liqueur, Redemption bourbon, lemon juice, and gum syrup). Ever-changing cocktail specials are almost always a good choice for the adventurous. Tacos El Autlense is at 601 San Pablo Ave. (at Garfield Street), Albany. Connect with the truck on Facebook. Hotsy Totsy Club is at 601 San Pablo Ave. (at Garfield Street), Albany. Connect with the bar on Facebook and Twitter.
Caspers Hot Dogs
It’s easy to take comfort in restaurants like Caspers Hot Dogs, the small 80-year-old East Bay fast food chain. Caspers is far from fancy — its short and sweet menu includes just a few different styles of hot dogs, potato chips, chili, tamales (really!) and soda. The standard order comes topped with tomatoes, onion, mustard and relish, or you can go bold with chili, cheese or sauerkraut. If you’re feeling extra crazy, choose all of the above. Caspers isn’t health food, and it isn’t breaking the mold. But the hot dogs (made by parent company Spars) are solid, with a distinct natural-casing snap, and the retro interior is welcome in this era of over-designed, stark restaurant dining rooms. Caspers may be of a dying breed (see: Oscar’s), so get yourself a chili cheese dog while you still can. Caspers Hot Dogs is at 545 San Pablo Ave. (between Garfield and Brighton avenues), Albany. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook and Twitter.