Hash. How does a mixed up combination with humble beginnings, based on a French word meaning “cut in pieces,” end up on menus around the world, with creative versions served in restaurants, diners, and cafés all over the East Bay? Hash is, simply put, a comfort food, consisting of ingredients you may find lurking in your refrigerator right now.
However, several local eateries have both enhanced the traditional dish of meat and vegetables and perfected it, in a variety of ways. Nosh has done a bellyful of exhaustive research to introduce, or re-introduce, readers to the ways of hash: a hearty meal any way you want it.
But first, a little history. Hash has been around in America since the 19th century. Originally served in inexpensive hash houses (the dish came first, the name came later), it was made using leftovers from the traditional New England boiled dinner of beef, cabbage, potatoes and onions.
Corned beef gets its name from the large-grained rock salt (called “corns”) used to preserve meat. The name “hash” is from the French hacher or haché, meaning chopped. The variation called Red Flannel Hash (no beef, just beets and other vegetables) has some rather questionable origin stories, involving actual red flannel being added to the dish during a cold New England winter.
While traditionally served as a breakfast or brunch item, it’s one of those “any time of day is good” choices. Regional variations abound, but there is some uniformity of ingredients: chopped or cubed corned beef, potatoes, onions, and other vegetables mixed together and fried. Somebody somewhere has designated Sept. 27 as National Corned Beef Hash Day. We will mark our calendar. In the meantime, there was research to be done.
The biggest hash surprise was the duck variation at the Sequoia Diner in Oakland’s Laurel District. We were lucky to snag the last serving — new to the menu, this dish has been extremely popular. Sequoia also offers Red Flannel hash (garnet yams, roasted beets, butternut squash, red potatoes and onions), and a traditional beef hash with braised beef, potatoes and onions. The duck hash is made with confit duck leg, leeks and garnet yams, and includes long, tender shoestring-like potatoes, same as the ones prepped for hash browns.
The key to a tasty hash is to allow the different ingredients to shine, even though they are mixed together and fried. The chopped pieces of everything should be distinct, but no single one should dominate. The yams should stand out as yams, the potatoes as potatoes, etc. They nailed it with the duck hash: a crispy and flavorful innovation. We were offered the opportunity to substitute a “beautiful biscuit” for our toast. We did. (Pro tip: get the biscuit, and ask for all the things—butter, honey, jam—that make the melt-in-your mouth biscuit even more beautiful.)
With three options, this is a terrific way to try several types of this satisfying and delicious dish. Good luck getting the duck! Sequoia Diner, 3719 MacArthur Blvd (near Brown Avenue), Oakland.
Mama’s Royal Café
Oakland favorite Mama’s Royal Café offers a hash featuring Niman Ranch corned beef brisket, with potato, onion and bell pepper, topped with one poached egg. The beef was in Wordle-square sized cubes, with some tomatoes and carrot pieces added to the mix.
We were pleasantly surprised that the peppers didn’t overpower the other ingredients. The pieces of corned beef were crisp around the edges, a nice contrast to the soft yet firm texture of the other ingredients. We chose rye bread for our toast option, and the generous portion of dark rye paired well with our hash. One egg is just perfect. Unlike its near namesake in Albany, Mama’s Royal is open and doing well. Mama’s Royal Café, 4012 Broadway (near 40th Street Way), Oakland.
The little gray house on the corner, 900 Grayson in Berkeley, serves our current favorite version of hash, called the Tom Boy, named after a favorite chef. This corned beef hash is made with potatoes, apples, and parsnips.
There’s something about this combination that makes us keep wanting to come back for more. Comfortably seated outdoors on a late winter morning, we appreciated how the warm apple compliments the chewy/crunchy cubes of beef and the flavorful just-right potatoes. In this dish, the whole is greater than the sum of its simple parts.
Another crucial element is the poached egg. Here, along with the other places we visited, the yolks burst with the barest touch of a fork. It’s hard to play favorites with so many excellent choices, but the apples are clutch here. 900 Grayson, 900 Grayson St. (near Seventh Street), Berkeley
Sam’s Log Cabin
At historic Sam’s Log Cabin in Albany, they serve a very traditional corned beef hash: considerable size pieces of tasty corned beef with seasoned potatoes and onions.
Sam’s has been around since 1930. If it looks like it’s made from Lincoln Logs, it’s because is sort of was: built from a Sears Roebuck home kit. According to its website, Sam’s has been a “speakeasy, a roadhouse and an off-track betting joint with a direct line to the track at Golden Gate fields.” The restaurant has lots of outdoor seating, which is something we consider when making a choice of where to go to eat these days.
In the last couple of years, Sam’s has added to its outdoor seating, so you can enjoy your hash (or whatever) in the back garden. If you want to go for the tried and true version of this dish, Sam’s is an excellent choice. Sam’s Log Cabin, 945 San Pablo Ave. (near Solano Avenue), Albany
Another Oakland favorite, Aunt Mary’s, features a Fall sweet potato hash, offered on weekends only. (Difficult as it was to resist ordering the cheesy grits here, we stayed on track with our mission to seek out hash options.)
Aunt Mary’s version is made with good-size pieces of roasted sweet potato, carrots, and butternut squash, along with fennel, mushrooms and leeks — all topped with two eggs. It’s a jewel-toned dish, resplendent with fall vegetables blending together to make a colorful whole. Hash is whatever you want it to be, and this one highlights the sweetness of the individual elements. Also, another great biscuit. Aunt Mary’s, 4640 Telegraph Ave. (near 47th Street), Oakland
A special shoutout to Berkeley’s Rick and Ann’s (2922 Domingo Ave., near Russell Street) and its North East: with fresh red beets, sweet potatoes, new potatoes, red onions and bacon — so named, we imagine, because of hash’s New England roots. Although there are many excellent choices on the menu, we always wind up ordering this dish (hold the sour cream, please) and taking half of it home. It’s the quintessential version of Red Flannel hash and highly recommended for anyone who isn’t afraid to eat beets for breakfast. You only live once.
We would be remiss if we didn’t bow our heads for a moment in memory of the incomparable Maryland Breakfast at Bette’s Oceanview Diner. Not to get too maudlin, but this was, in fact, our last meal at Bette’s just days before it closed.
The menu describes it simply as “house-made corned beef hash with poached eggs and choice of muffin, toast or cream scone.” Sitting outside the restaurant, watching the passing parade on Fourth Street, we thought about all the times we’d been to Bette’s over the years — sometimes with friends, or sitting alone at the counter watching the hard-working cooks produce their wondrous soufflé pancakes, scrapple, home fries and all the rest. We didn’t know it would be our final chance to marvel at the good, solid version of this dish with its crispy on the outside and tender to bite into corned beef.
A grace note, perhaps: When it turned out the blueberry muffins were no longer available that day, the other option was a “doughnut muffin.” Assuming it would be good for a nibble or two, it turned out to be just about the best thing ever. Bette’s is gone, but we’ll always have Maryland.