Gulf shrimp with vermicelli, a modern twist on a Vietnamese dish at Top Hatters Kitchen in San Leandro.
Gulf shrimp with vermicelli, a modern twist on a Vietnamese dish at Top Hatters Kitchen in San Leandro. Photo: Benjamin Seto

For years, San Leandro has had a reputation as an industrial backwater in the East Bay, sandwiched between its bigger sister Oakland to the north and its recently emerging sibling, Hayward, to the south.

But as with Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda, residents and businesses squeezed by the Bay Area’s ever-increasing rent have come to San Leandro for affordable housing and office spaces. And with their arrival, new restaurants have emerged.

Long home to strip malls and reasonably-priced diners and Asian eateries, San Leandro started seeing a change in its dining scene around the same time the symbolic “Truth is Beauty” sculpture went up in October 2016 at the San Leandro Tech Campus adjacent to the BART station. The 55-foot-tall female form representing safety for women — originally created for Burning Man — has become a landmark for a new San Leandro. In December 2016, Sons of Liberty Alehouse opened downtown, with hip decor and a menu of elevated pub fare such as duck carnitas tacos and poutine with oxtail gravy.

Sure, there were already establishments like Bluebird Pizzeria and the venerable Paradiso, but residents point to Sons of Liberty’s opening in 2016 as the first wave of sophisticated, urban restaurants that ushered in a surge of gourmet food establishments, such as Top Hatters, Papaito Rotisserie/Antigua Coffee Shop and As Kneaded Bakery.

“Around the same time that Sons of Liberty opened, i-Tea (a boba shop) had its grand opening at the Pelton Plaza,” said Myra Reyes, a local food blogger who started the 2.5-year-old community blog San Leandro Eats. “A popular tea franchise opening up in old-timey Pelton Plaza? That’s when we knew for sure San Leandro was going to be a happening place.”

Community-grown businesses

Reyes said she’s heard from restaurant owners that the high cost of doing business in the Bay Area is leading many to cast an eye on San Leandro. But several of the notable openings are also locally grown, opened by residents wanting to do business in their own backyard.

Iliana Berkowitz, for example, moved to San Leandro four years ago when she and her then-boyfriend (now husband) couldn’t afford anywhere else to live. She started baking bread and eventually started a business, popping up at the Cleophus Quealy Beer Company in the San Leandro warehouse district. She opened her brick-and-mortar location, As Kneaded Bakery, last November, where she steadily attracts a line of customers every weekend morning for her artisan bread.

“I love San Leandro because of the diversity. The racial and ethnic diversity in my neighbors and friends, the relative obscurity of the entire town and therefore the ability to really stand out,” said Berkowitz, whose bakery can be found on a quaint curved lane in the city’s Broadmoor neighborhood.

San Leandro is “a great jumping-off point to be anywhere in the Bay,” she said, “and it’s no longer just an exit sign on the freeway.”

Many people these days may be getting off I-580 and driving straight to Top Hatters Kitchen and Bar on MacArthur Boulevard.

Opened for less than four months, the restaurant has been packed since receiving a glowing San Francisco Chronicle review in July. Owner and chef DanVy Vu, who started cooking at her Go Streatery food truck, opened a modern Vietnamese-influenced restaurant in a former hat shop. Its contemporary decor is reminiscent of dining establishments in San Francisco.

Chopped clams and Vietnamese herbs with sesame rice crackers at Top Hatters Kitchen. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Vu and her husband have lived in San Leandro for 12 years and the city was a logical location when they were considering opening their first restaurant.

“I understand the San Leandro market,” Vu told Nosh last year. “From an outsider’s perspective, they might think we’re behind (in food culture)… but people here are spending money in Oakland and San Francisco and have elevated palates.”

San Leandro Eats’ Reyes said restaurants like Top Hatters are bringing a focus on quality, seasonal ingredients similar to top spots in San Francisco and Oakland. “We’re seeing a lot more diversity in cuisine, and more thoughtful menus at these new restaurants.”

More choices of cuisine

Papaito Rotisserie and Antigua Coffee Shop share counter space in one location, although you can’t order from both menus at the same time. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Papaito Rotisserie, a Latin-inspired eatery with a flagship restaurant in Hayward, opened its San Leandro location as a dual concept with its coffee business Antigua Coffee Shop.

Opened in April, the two concepts share counter space in a business park near the BART station, with Antigua becoming a popular stop for breakfast, while Papaito dishes up quality rotisserie chicken with an assortment of sides like kale-quinoa salad, roasted Brussels sprouts or roasted cauliflower for lunch and dinner.

Rotisserie chicken with sides of kale-quinoa salad and roasted cauliflower at Papaito Rotisserie. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Papaito’s chicken  — available whole or by the half — comes with a choice of one of four different sauces such as chimichurri. It’s nice and tender, and the sides like the roasted cauliflower are rustically presented.

Another recent opening is the Ashland Market and Café, a tiny food hall and eatery in an unincorporated area south of San Leandro known as Ashland. Opened by Oakland’s nonprofit Mandela Marketplace, the food hall serves as an incubator for new entrepreneurs, including the following vendors: I Am Café (serving sandwiches, salads and comfort food like shrimp and “gritz”), Thank Que Grill (offering Filipino fusion dishes), Jacquelynn’s Heart & Soul (serving soul food) and Andrea Marie Cakes (selling cupcakes).

New Asian eateries

With a large Asian-American population, San Leandro has its share of Asian eateries, from the new and popular Joe’s Pho to an assortment of boba tea spots. Maejoo is a tiny Korean cafe that opened late last year. But unlike your typical Korean BBQ restaurants, Maejoo has a contemporary café feel with bright walls and modern Korean artwork on display.

Maejoo serves up spicy ramen and soft tofu soup, but it’s best known for its signature dish, hot stone bibimbap, with a choice of pork, chicken, beef, seafood or crispy tofu. When I tried the seafood bibimbap ($13.95), I was impressed by the fresh ingredients and balanced, yet spicy flavor. (You can tone down the spiciness with a mild option.)

Hot stone seafood bibimbap at Maejoo. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Ten Seconds restaurant opened in the spring in San Leandro Plaza. It offers up Yunnan “Crossing the Bridge” noodles, a dish rarely found in the Bay Area.

This popular noodle soup dish from China’s Yunnan province has a tasty broth that comes piping hot to the table, with an assortment of ingredients like ham, vegetables and noodles that you add into the broth on your own. The name of the dish supposedly comes from a scholar whose soup noodles got cold after crossing the bridge so he invented the practice of adding the ingredients and noodles at the table.

The assortment of ingredients ready to add to the Yunnan “Crossing the Bridge” soup at Ten Seconds. Photo: Benjamin Seto
The assortment of ingredients ready to add to the Yunnan “Crossing the Bridge” soup at Ten Seconds. Photo: Benjamin Seto

The restaurant is popular with families, who gather to try the traditional Yunnan Crossing the Bridge broth but also others, like spicy beef brisket or tomato rice noodles. There are a few snack options, such as skewers, chicken wings, fried chicken cartilage, spicy cucumber and a garlicky-cold spicy chicken dish made with chicken neck.

“I’ve lived in San Leandro for 31 years,” said Reyes, “and only recently has there been a special surge of excitement and pride shared among the locals in our community when it comes to the good eats and drinks we have available to us today.

“Hopefully, this encourages new business and restaurants to consider San Leandro when looking for a place.“

The community is ready and extending its open arms for more.

Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap: Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.

Freelancer Benjamin Seto has worked as a reporter and editor for various newspapers around the country, and is currently a communications professional and food writer based in Oakland. Ben is also the...