You wouldn’t be the first to mistake Face to Face as a parking attendant booth. The tiny blue-and-white snack shack stands in front of a parking lot on Milvia Street in downtown Berkeley and people regularly approach the window expecting to pay for parking. However, a big sign with photos of Chinese and Taiwanese food that adorns the front of the stand is the first tip-off that this is an eatery, not a parking kiosk. The second is the friendly and hospitable smile of shop owner, Yan Yu, who is ready to greet you and take your order.
Due to its small size, the scale of Yu’s operations is humble and homey. Face to Face is a one-person operation, with Yu greeting customers, taking orders, cooking and preparing the food on a hot plate and a microwave. Although some might feel cramped in a small space, Yu said that she doesn’t mind, as it is a comfortable size and easy to maintain, despite how busy she gets during lunch rush hours. As such, the level of direct and personal exchanges she has with each individual customer is an integral aspect that is captured in the restaurant’s name.
“Face to Face is a direct translation of the Chinese phrase, ‘mian dui mian,’” she explained. “Another reason I picked the name is because mian is also the Chinese word for noodle.”
The pun is fitting, as Yu’s lunchtime to-go spot is known for its beef noodle soup. Using a recipe passed down to Yu from her grandfather, the dish is a mixture of Shandong and Taiwanese styles, with tender chunks of braised beef and thick wheat noodles in a rich, spicy and flavorful broth topped with chili oil. Aside from the beef noodle soup, other offerings include potstickers, tea eggs and chow mein. Many of Yu’s customers are international students from China or Taiwan, looking for their hometown street snacks in Berkeley.
“It’s so good,” a Chinese girl in front of me tells me when she observes me staring at the menu. “I come here all the time for the beef wrap.”
The beef wrap was a special creation that Yu invented. After seeing the affinity Californians have for Mexican food, Yu decided to take the same beef recipe from her grandfather’s noodle soup and adapt it into an “Asian-style burrito.” Yu wraps the beef in a flour tortilla with melted cheese, lettuce and other shredded vegetables and a house made spicy sauce. Both the soup and the wrap are served in satisfyingly large portion sizes for only $7 each, and a bundle of potstickers is $5.
Prior to opening the shop in 2014, Yan Yu, who had first moved to Oakland from Shandong, China, in 2006, had been looking to start a small and independent business that wouldn’t infringe on her time and ability to care for her kids. It had to be something that would be flexible enough for her to sink her teeth into, without biting off more than she could chew. After discovering that the tiny stand was up for sale, Yu saw it as an opportunity to share her and her grandfather’s recipes with Berkeley.
There is one menu item at Face to Face, however, that may cause one to do a double take: the hot dog.
Before the booth became Face to Face, it had been a hot dog stand for many years (as Baskervilles, Little Gino’s, What’s Up Dog, District Dog and Tsunami Dogs). When she first opened Face to Face, people came to her shop seeking the classic American street snack that they were so accustomed to finding there. In the end, as an homage to the food stands that came before Face to Face, Yu decided to keep beef hot dogs on the menu.
“That way, there is a little bit of something for everyone here,” she said.
Yan Yu now lives in the American Canyon area with her family but continues to make the long commute every day south to Berkeley.
Face to Face is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday; closed on Sunday. It’s cash only, so don’t forget to visit the ATM before you visit.
Interviews for this story were originally conducted in Chinese, translated and edited for clarity by Justine Wang.