In April, I first caught wind of a place called Crosta Panini Bar inside Highwire Coffee in Berkeley. Granted, I was a little skeptical. Panini are so ’90s. But hey, throwbacks to ’90s are still in (right?), so I left my inner Andy Rooney at home and headed to Crosta in July for brunch.
There, I had a flavorful porcini mushroom ragu served in the little cast iron pan it was baked in. The dish came with a simple spring salad and garlic toast marked with perfect panini grill marks. My partner had a panino (the singular for panini, I’ve learned thanks to a persistent Nosh reader) with roasted cauliflower steak, a sundried tomato and walnut tapenade, arugula and mozzarella, which sounds amazing on paper, but admittedly was not quite as good as the combination of ingredients suggested.
Still, Crosta showed promise for making fresh, interesting food that went beyond stale ’90s panini. I planned on visiting again, hoping by my next visit, the new café would’ve worked out its kinks. But before I could go again — just five months after opening — Crosta had closed.
The good news is that I would still have a chance to try the food again. Sorta. Fresh off the heels of Crosta’s closure, a new café took its place, one helmed by the former chef, but this time, with a menu of his own vision. In September, chef Sincere Justice opened his eatery, Mister Bolenca. Justice ditched the panini grill for a new type of sandwich, one made on a “funky flatbread” the chef calls a “bolenca.”
If you’ve never heard of a bolenca, it’s because Justice made the word up. But it does have a meaning. “It’s an homage to the place I grew up in Baldwin Park, California; we’d affectionatelly call it ‘Bolen’ growing up,” Justice said.
As a kid in L.A., Justice didn’t know he’d go into cooking, but he was always around food. His parents were Chinese-Vietnamese immigrants and his home was a gathering place for his extended family, where many meals were cooked and shared. Justice said of his mother, “She was the best cook since she had to cook for everyone in the family.”
It wasn’t until about six years ago that he started cooking professionally. Since then, he’s worked for various catering companies and restaurants in the Bay Area and in L.A. Locally, he was a line cook at Lalime’s, a sous chef at the now closed Flavor Mediterranean Food in the Gourmet Ghetto, a noodle maker at M.Y. CHINA in San Francisco and a stage at Millennium with Eric Tucker. Before joining Crosta, he traveled through Asia for three months, eating and learning about the food in Tokyo, Taipei, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. “All those cooking experiences have been great for structure and discipline, however, my own style is just beginning to form. As I learned in Tokyo, space isn’t as important as execution,” Justice said.
It’s evident from the menu at Mister Bolenca that Justice is a chef who’s still having fun figuring things out. As of now, Mister Bolenca serves a small menu — four sandwiches, two salads and one soup, with a couple of added daily specials — but the descriptions, ingredients and presentation of his offerings are inspired, delightful and delicious. Many dishes contain flavors and influences from around the world — a Huevos Verde sandwich made with chipotle salsa verde, a Japanese fried egg sandwich with furikake and Justice’s Middle-Eastern inspired Cesar salad, made with za’atar and harissa spiced chickpeas.
Mixing multi-cultural flavors and influences is something Justice likes bringing to his food. “I cook with what I enjoy and am familiar with or what I find interesting,” Justice said. He also runs a Wednesday pop-up at Legionnaire called Tacos Sincero, where he makes “Chino Latino” tacos.
At Mister Bolenca, Justice offers two versions of each of his sandwiches — the bolenca, with toppings piled onto an open-faced slice of grilled focaccia bread (from Berkeley’s Metropolis Baking), or for $2 more, a sandwich made with a pan petit roll (also from Metropolis) that’s cut lengthwise and filled with so many toppings that it’s also served open face.
Whenever I try a new place, I like to go with the namesake specialty, so I tried my sandwich as a bolenca. (Hungrier eaters will probably want to order the sandwich.) The Korean Chicken bolenca ($8) comes topped with flavorful, saucy cubes of marinated chicken meat, a pile of arugula, a slightly spicy gochujang (Korean spicy red pepper bean paste) slaw, house pickled cucumbers and radishes, lime aioli and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. Justice recommends adding a fried egg to it (an extra $1), but it slipped my mind when I ordered, and I got mine without. Even without the egg, it was still good. I especially loved the pickled radishes, which were crunchy, vinegary and well spiced. My one complaint is that I couldn’t keep all the toppings on as I ate the bolenca; bits of chicken, cucumber and radish slices kept tumbling onto my plate and lap with every bite.
I also ordered a bowl of the soup ($6). On my visit, Justice was serving a chickpea chili. Topped with shredded cheddar cheese and chopped green onions, the chili had a tomato base and was chock full of garbanzo beans, carrots, zucchini and onions. It had a smoky and slightly sweet flavor, which I originally thought must be from smoked paprika, but upon asking, found out was a combination of harissa and chipotle. There were small bits of what appeared to be sausage in the soup, but Justice said all of his soups are vegetarian. The bits, it turns out, are soyrizo, which also added to the deep smokiness of this chili. The bowl of chili was a hearty serving and could have easily served as my lunch without the bolenca.
My friend who joined me had The Classic bolenca ($6), topped with slices of ripe tomato and mozzarella cheese made melty and gooey with a chef’s torch, before being topped with some basil leaves, a pile of arugula, a sprinkling of parmesan cheese and a drizzle of tomato oil. If I had to compare her bolenca to mine, I’d say mine was special, hers was standard. But that’s OK; sometimes you just want what you know and love, and that’s what you’ll get with this caprese-style sandwich.
A couple things to note if you’re visiting Mister Bolenca. First, the hours — it’s only open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Second, be patient and don’t come hungry. Mister Bolenca is a one-person operation, with Sincere Justice manning the register and the kitchen, so it can take a few minutes to get your food. Fortunately, you can get a drink at Highwire, sit inside and people watch, or even better, go outside on the shared back patio, which is a pleasant little hangout spot. While I was there, a little after noon on a Wednesday, there was a growing line at Mister Bolenca, as Justice attended to a pile of orders. One customer, apparently a repeat patron who was standing in line to order, playfully scolded Justice for becoming too popular.
I have a feeling that as word gets out about Mister Bolenca, his popularity — and his lines — may continue to grow.
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