A variety of dishes from Lion Dance Cafe. Photo: Thomas Vo
A variety of dishes from Lion Dance Cafe, including a version of its shaobing sandwich. Photo: Thomas Vo

If you find yourself smitten with a Lion Dance Cafe shaobing sandwich and return to the restaurant for the exact same order, you’re out of luck. The only constant about a Lion Dance shaobing is the bread.

“People ask us all the time when we’ll make the one [Chronicle food critic] Soleil Ho had again, and the answer is probably never,” said C-Y Chia, otherwise known as Marie, one of the partners of Lion Dance Café. “Now people have this expectation of it and we can’t make the exact same one again.”

Don’t be too disappointed, though. Because the next time you try it, you might get something you like even better.

On the night I tried a sandwich, Lion Dance was serving Shaobing Variation #38 — which could sound like a piece of classical music, couldn’t it? — featuring spice-braised yuba (the wonderfully textured skin that develops in tofu-making), grilled gai choy and a fermented sesame tofu cream.

Whatever number it was didn’t interest me as much as its originality.

Playing with numerous elements, all of which have different textures — some crunchy, some chewy — to make up the whole is key to Lion Dance’s shaobing.

“Besides the bread, we try to vary the textures and flavors as much as we can to keep it interesting for us, too,” said Chia. “We don’t want to get bored. Selfishly, whatever we want to eat is often the guiding principle.”

But the inventive fillings should not be allowed to overshadow the bread. Chia’s business partner and husband Shane Stanbridge bakes it himself, using sesame oil rather than olive oil to create his own Asian-style focaccia topped with sesame seeds.

Lion Dance Cafe co-owners Shane Stanbridge and Marie Chia at an S+M Vegan pop-up. Photo: Dana Chang
Lion Dance Cafe co-owners Shane Stanbridge and Marie Chia at an S+M Vegan pop-up at Red Bay Coffee. Photo: Dana Chang

“You can’t get bread anywhere like it,” he said, joking that for that reason, it “creates quite a bit of turmoil and stress.”

While reminiscent of a Chinese or Taiwanese-style bread, Lion Dance is the first to admit it’s not traditional at all. “It’s only traditional to us,” Chia said.

Lion Dance Cafe opened mid-September in the former Liba Falafel spot on 17th street in Uptown Oakland. Formerly operating a pop-up called S +M Vegan, Chia and Stanbridge have joined with a third partner, Rachel Metcalf, to open the brick-and-mortar restaurant after years of catering and pop-up events.

So far, food is available only on Friday and Saturday, and ordering opens on Wednesday at noon (the sandwich always sells out but the other items often do not).

Lion Dance Cafe laksa. Photo: Jason Addy
A bowl of Lion Dance Cafe laksa. Photo: Jason Addy

While the shaobing is what’s garnered most of the attention, the laksa, a rich, coconut soup with noodles and protein that hails mostly from Malaysia but also can be found in Indonesia and Singapore, shouldn’t be overlooked.

It has such a rich depth of flavor, we had a hard time believing there was no fish sauce or fermented shrimp paste or anything of that nature in play.

Lion Dance’s rempah, a spice paste used in Singapore and Malaysia, has 15 ingredients. The broth is made largely from simmering kombu and lemongrass; fermented tofu gives it the funk, and a good dose of dried mushroom powder gives it the requisite umami.

It’s a cliché to be sure, whenever an omnivore says “if all vegan food were this good, I could easily be vegan,” yet it definitely was uttered in our house that night, especially about the laksa.

Chia and Stanbridge say it’s the ultimate compliment for them as well, “when we have Southeast and East Asian customers who aren’t vegan coming back for it.”

We also tried the tofu nuggets. Lest you think they were your run-of-the-mill chunks of fried tofu, think again. A three-day process is involved: Hodo tofu is frozen and then defrosted it to make it more sponge-like, then brined for 24 hours and then dredged and deep-fried. The accompanying dipping sauce is a sambal combined with an eggless mayo to create an Asian-style aioli.

For those who think making high-level vegan food requires so much more time in the kitchen, this isn’t going to do anything to dispel that notion.

Deep fried tofu nuggets from Lion Dance Cafe. Photo: Emma K. Morris
Deep fried tofu nuggets from Lion Dance Cafe. Photo: Emma K. Morris

Lion Dance Café is only offering takeout for the time being, but soon will add brunch, which will feature a completely different menu. It will likely start with douhua, a Chinese-style tofu pudding, made in house from Hodo soymilk; a breakfast shaobing sandwich; an adaptation of muay (Teochew congee) and specials like scallion biscuits and laksa gravy. Later, it will bring back its grilled banana-pandan cake with coconut butter, a popular item when S+M Vegan popped up at Oakland’s Eli’s Mile High Club, but for now, diners can enjoy sundae kits with Curbside Creamery’s vegan vanilla and young coconut flavor ice cream.

And, of course, the pandemic is affecting their growth strategy. The partners are only offering weekend service now because it’s just been the three of them, and more days would require hiring more employees. They don’t want to add walk-up ordering because the lines to get food could get long and they don’t want clusters of people waiting outside.

“We just want to focus on having the work environment be as safe as possible and having an experience that feels as good as possible for customers,” said Chia. “If that means taking it slow for now, we’ll just keep doing it that way.”

Two more things they’re planning for the near future: partnering with San Jose-based Hong Kong-style vegan microbakery Tai Zhan next month and making a number of meals available free of charge to food industry colleagues out of work and front line workers.

It’s the least they can do, as they feel their community has come out in full force to support them. The Kickstarter campaign to help the partners open Lion Dance Cafe reached its $50,000 goal in 25 hours.

“It was amazing to see everyone come through for us during these times when things are tougher for everyone, and not just for us in the food industry,” Chia said. “It’s amazing to see people recognize everything we’ve built for the past six and a half years with pop-ups and catering and believe in what we were doing and wanted to carry us into this new chapter.  We couldn’t have asked for a better start.”

Lion Dance Cafe is open for takeout with online pre-ordering on Wednesday starting at noon until sold out; pickup is from 5-8 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...