Category Archives: Restaurants

Christmas Eve Dinner 2021: Moussaka Mediterranean Kitchen + Luke’s Grill

A wonderful Christmas Eve Dinner with some help from Luke’s Grill

This year, probably for the third time in two decades, I didn’t cook Christmas Eve dinner. I’m going through one of my anti-cooking spells, and the thought of making course after course of food I’d barely have time to eat before getting up to prepare the next one just wasn’t appealing. Plus, after the fiasco that was Thanksgiving Dinner, I wasn’t eager for a repeat. Moreover, with another COVID wave hitting us, we had decided that once again it would only be us having dinner.

So, I decided on take out – but what? This shouldn’t have been that hard a question, but I wanted something “special”. That meant something that we didn’t usually get for take out, something that I wouldn’t be able to make easily, something that could be eaten family style and something that would satisfy all our individual food issues. Deciding on a specific cuisine, much less a restaurant, was hard.

Ultimately, I decided upon Greek because it’s homey, it’s somewhat Christmasy and it can be served family style. We actually have two pretty good Greek restaurants in town, and rather than decide between them, we tried them both.

Items from the Zeus Platter from Luke’s Grill.

We ordered the Zeus Platter ($20) from Luke’s Grill. This appetizer combo came with Greek sausage, meatballs, tiropita, spanakopita, dolmades, tzaziki and abundant pieces of pita. Though it was a bit cold by the time we started eating it, I was quite pleased with both the sausages and the meatballs. The tiropita, phyllo dough cooked with herbed cheese, was also quite delicious, and I enjoyed the pita with the tzaziki. Unfortunately, my vegetarian daughter wasn’t in the mood for dolmades or spanakopita, so those went uneaten.

We got all our mains from Moussaka. I particularly enjoyed the Hunkar Beyendi or Sultan’s Favorite ($28), apparently an Ottoman specialty. The dish consists of a smoked eggplant and mozzarella puree topped with braised lamb and tomato sauce. It’s served with a rice/orzo combination. By the time I transferred it to a serving dish, the whole thing was mixed together but that’s how you are supposed to eat it anyway. It was delicious. I’m not a particular fan of eggplant, but it provided an amazing smokiness to the dish. The lamb was tender and flavorful and the whole dish just came together with homey umami. And it was just perfect for Christmas: it has too many elements for me to easily replicate and it’s too expensive for a regular take out meal, and thus provided the “specialness” I wanted from a Christmas Eve meal.

Manti

I was far more disappointed in the manti ($18), pasta filled with spiced beef and supposedly served with a garlic yogurt sauce, brown butter and fresh mint. The little dumplings were tasty, but they were very lightly sauced, and therefore way too dry to really enjoy. They quickly became monotonous. I wouldn’t order them from here again.

Two portions of the combo kebap (one kofta already eaten)

In order to get a good sampling of their offerings, we ordered the combo kebap ($29), which came with a meat skewer, a chicken skewer, a single kofte, a mixture of beef/lamb gyro meat, rice and a salad. The meat skewer was listed as a lamb skewer, but it was actually beef. It was very tender, very nicely spiced and just delicious – often times kebabs are dry, but this was not the case even when the leftovers were reheated.

The same cannot be said for the chicken kebaps. They were very tasty, but dry. Fortunately, the kofta was delicious.

Beef/lamb gyro meat

I’m totally in love with the beef/lamb gyro meat. I couldn’t tell a difference between each slice of meat, so I’m going to guess it was all lamb, but whatever it was was delicious. Also very tender and not dry, and perfectly seasoned.

Chicken shawarma

A dish of chicken shawarma ($20), also served with rice and salad, was equally delicious. Again, they seasoned it perfectly and managed to not make it dry.

Finally, I ordered a felafel wrap ($13) for my vegetarian daughter, and she was happy enough, though wouldn’t elaborate about it.

In all, it was a great meal and I’d order from here again for a special occasion meal.

Gateau Basque, perspective from above

We had two desserts, though we were too full to eat more than one that night, and then well after the meal. Early in my meal planning, when I still thought I’d actually cook Christmas Eve dinner, I had proposed making Gâteau Basque for dessert. My first trip with Mike after we got married was to Spain, where we spent several days in the Basque country. We had enjoyed an amazing gâteau basque at a restaurant in Aoiz, my great-grandparents’ hometown and the memory has lingered with Mike ever since. However, in the decades since, we’ve been unable to find a cake that matched those memories, either at a restaurant or at home. It’d been many years since our last try, so I was game to do it again.

This time I decided on a well reviewed recipe that I found on the internet. I was quite pleased with the flavor, both of the cake and the pastry filling, but I felt that the dough needed more flour – my daughter preferred the soft texture, however. In all, it was good but not as sublime as our memories of that cake in Aoiz.

I also bought a Tres Leches cake from Safeway, a favorite of all of us. I was lucky to get to eat a slice the next day.

Moussaka Mediterranean Kitchen
599 Dutton Ave, San Leandro
‭(510) 850-5020
Closed Mondays

Luke’s Grill
1509 East 14th St, San Leandro
510-614-1010
Closed Sundays

Restaurant Review: Awazi Kitchen – Oakland

Gored Gored

My daughter was home for the weekend from college and she wanted Ethiopian for dinner. I decided to give Awazi Kitchen a try because it was rather new and got great reviews on Yelp. It was fine, though not special enough to make me eager to come back.

The restaurant is located in downtown Oakland, next to what used to be Le Cheval. It has a large square room, with socially distanced tables. It was completely empty at 5 PM on a Saturday. This would be a good place to go with a crowd, as it has the space and at least at that time, you wouldn’t have to worry about sharing air with customers outside your group (I’m writing this review during the pandemic).

Their menu is pretty straightforward and serves the usual Ethiopian dishes you can get at most Ethiopian restaurants. You can order online and you can specify how you want your dishes made – I asked for two to be made mild and they complied.

Kik Alicha

We ordered the Kik Alicha (yellow split peas in a mild sauce, $13.3), the Gored Gored (beef cubes in sauce – $16.6) and the Meat Combo ($18), which included Doro Wot, Yebeg Alicha & Beef Wot. All the meals came with cooked vegetable sides and plenty of injera. I’d bought another portion of injera just in case, but it was completely unnecessary.

Both my husband and daughter were happy enough with their dishes – which tasted pretty much like you would expect. The wots were far less spicy than at other Ethiopian restaurants, however. The portions were generous and they both had leftovers.

I was less happy with my gored gored. Now, this is usually a raw meat dish, but in the menu description at Awazi Kitchen it said you could have it rare or medium-rare. I chose medium-rare but what I got was raw meat. I don’t necessarily have a problem with raw meat, but the beef cubes were too tough and chewy to be able to be eaten raw. If you are going to do a raw dish, you really need to use very tender meat – this wasn’t it. Fortunately, I was able to solve this problem by transferring the meat to a pot, adding some water and simmering it for about 10 minutes. It was pretty good then, but I would not order this dish again at Awazi Kitchen.

Awazi Kitchen
1009 Clay St
Oakland
(510) 817-4155
https://awazi-kitchen.business.site/

Bag O’Crab Review

They literally mean “bag”

A new Bag O’Crab franchise opened in the old The Englander spot in San Leandro, which is sad in many, many levels. My husband decided he had to try it out. While I’m not a fan of crab myself, a quick look at the menu assured me they had other stuff, including wings and fried fish, so I said I was game. He got take out and brought it home. I don’t think we’re going to make it a regular haunt.

Bag O’Crab’s menu consists of seafood and chicken cooked in a variety of ways. You can have different flavors of chicken wings ($8/$13 for 6/10 pieces) and french fries ($4/4.5), fried fish/shrimp/calamari/oysters/chicken tenders ($11-14), fish/chicken/shrimp po’ boy sandwiches ($12), a $25 lobster roll, grilled shortribs ($13) and cajun fish ($12) and a few soups, saladas, pastas and sides. But the main attraction, as suggested by the name of the restaurant, are their bags of seafood cooked in your choice of sauce at your choice of spiciness. These are sold by the pound and in combinations. My husband went for the bag of head-off shrimp, in a medium spiciness original cajun sauce ($16 for 3/4 lbs); he wasn’t impressed

The first disappointment was the bag. Now, we definitely can’t accuse Bag O’Crab of being circumspect about the fact that their bags of seafood are exactly that: plastic bags filled with seafood and sauce. It’s in the name of the store, after all, and of the particular dish he ordered. Still, we didn’t expect that they would be so literal – having the dish come in a transparent plastic bag seemed precarious and cheap. I’m assuming these are food grade plastic bags they are using, but it feels weird as they don’t look that way. They are also unwieldy and not exactly something you want to store as-in in the fridge.



I will admit that my husband is somewhat of a lazy eater. Other people may enjoy nothing more than cracking crab legs, gnawing at bones or cooking their own food at restaurants – but he wants all the work done for him in the kitchen. Thus, he was quite unhappy to find out that the head off shrimp, while indeed being devoid of heads, still had their exoskeleton (his word) on. Deshelling shrimp is never fun, but particularly not when the shrimp comes in a thin sauce. Needless to say, he wouldn’t order this again.

I should ad, that he did enjoy the flavor of the sauce, and it was correctly spiced. So there is that.

I, meanwhile, decided on the fish po’ boy sandwich ($12) with a garlic fried upgrade ($1 additional). The fries were pretty standard, thinnish and with a nice garlic flavor. It’s the type of fries you can eat a a handful of, and be done. The sandwich itself was too heavy for me. I think the combination of the oil from the fried fish and the dressing/remoulade was too much. I could only eat about half of it. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I did enjoy having the other half for lunch. Still, I can’t see ordering it again.

Indeed, I don’t see us returning to Bag O’Crab which I think it’s a good thing. Their website does not mention where they source their seafood from, and given the widespread use of slave labor in producing sea food – not to mention sustainability issues – I find this very problematic.

With this, I hope our foray into chain restaurant eating is over. And, indeed, it’s inspired me to do more cooking at home going forward.

Bag O’Crab
101 Parrott St
San Leandro, CA
(510) 878-9965

Little Caesars Pan Pizza Deserves a Thumbs Up

I wasn’t planning on writing a review of Little Caesars‘ pizza when my daughter brought me my order a couple of days ago. Indeed, when I decided that I had a hankering for pizza, Little Caesars was far from my first choice. I don’t think I’ve had it for at least twenty years, since the days my husband and I were childless and broke – not that that has changed much -, had no transportation and Little Caesars was the closest pizza joint to our rented apartment. Still, as I wasn’t particularly particular as far as my pizza hankering went, I acquiesced to my daughter’s insistence that we order from there. I’ll admit it, I was pleasantly surprised.

Little Caesars offers four different types of crust (original, think, stuffed and pan), cheese and a very limited number of toppings. This is not the place to order anything fancy. They do have plant-based pepperoni, but not plant-based cheese, which sort of ruins it for vegans. The pizzas are cheap to reasonably priced, and you can walk in and pick up a ready-made large pepperoni for $9 – or so says my daughter.

I had their deep dish supreme (a “large Detroit-style deep dish pizza with Pepperoni, Italian Sausage, Mushrooms, Onions and Green Peppers,” $16 at the San Leandro franchise) and loved its thick, spongy, flavorful crust. The toppings were also good and well balanced; I liked the somewhat sweet tomato sauce and the onions in particular. I had hesitated before ordering this pizza as often meat toppings make the whole pie taste too salty, but fortunately this wasn’t the case here. The rectangular pizza wasn’t particularly large, but it was thick and seemed relatively fairly priced.

My daughter was happy with her stuffed crust regular pizza, but then again, she’s the one who wanted to go there.

I also got their cookie dough brownies ($3.70 for 4 small brownies), which are pretty average soft (undercooked?) brownies topped with raw mini M&M cookie dough. I promptly forgot about them, but just tried one for this review. They’re OK – not as sweet as they could be, but still too sweet for my taste (and my blood!), and definitely not worth the calories.

Little Caesars
1254 Davis St
San Leandro, CA
(510) 569 – 7499









Chipotle Quesadilla Review

Good but Expensive

I’m not the biggest fan of Chipotle – mostly because it’s boring and expensive. I understand why people might seek it in places that don’t have a great taqueria (or taco truck) in every corner, but I fail to understand its appeal in California. Still, my daughter likes it, so we ordered it for lunch a few days ago.

This time I decided to try the quesadilla, which is basically a deconstructed burrito grilled long enough to melt the cheese. It’s served with 3 “sides” which really mean the ingredients you’d otherwise have inside the burrito, things like rice, beans, salsas and sour cream Burrito extras, like guacamole, are still extra for quesadillas.

The steak quesadilla was tasty, but it felt smaller than a burrito (probably just my imagination), and having the salsa/sour cream/guacamole (the latter came in a different container) outside the burrito only made it more difficult to eat. The shape of the quesadilla, and the fact that it’s cut in two diagonally made it even more impractical, the filling kept falling out as I tried to dip it.

At $11.40 (prices vary by location*), it was a pretty poor value – though I’m sure no worse than anything else at Chipotle.

On the plus side, the ingredients were fresh and the beef has less gristle/fat than that at some local taquerias. Also on the plus side, Chipotle is very vegan friendly. Not only do they offer sofritas, a plant based protein, as a vegan alternative to meats, but their rice, beans, tortillas and chips are all vegan. Often times, Mexican restaurants use chicken broth for their rice, or lard for their beans and/or tortillas.

Chipotle – San Leandro
1505 E 14th St.(510) 667-100310:45 AM – 10 PM

* For the sake of looking at how minimum wages impacted on Chipotle’s prices, I used their very helpful website to price a steak quesadilla at different Chipotles. This is what I found:

In Seattle, WA, with the highest minimum wage in the country at $16.69/hr, a Chipotle steak quesadilla is $9.85

In San Francisco, CA with a $16.32/hr minimum wage, it’s $11

In Berkeley, CA with a $16.32/hr minimum wage, it is $10.25.

In Manhattan, NY with a $15/hr minimum wage, it’s $11.15

In my city, San Leandro, CA, with a $15/hr MW, it’s $11.40

In Fresno, CA, with a $14/hr MW, it’s $9.65

In Peoria, IL with an $11/hr MW, it’s $9.65

In Tulsa, OK, with a $7.25/hr MW, it’s $9.55

In Hinesville, GA, with a $7.25/hr MW, it’s $9.65

Bara’s Deli – San Leandro – Review

Though Bara’s Deli has been in San Leandro since the ’80’s and we’ve lived here for over 20 years, I didn’t try it until recently. It’s not in “our” part of town – though it’s pretty close by -, and there were other closer sandwich places. Still, I’ve heard good things about them and when, a few weeks ago, I was looking to try a Reuben sandwich, I decided to give them a try. And then another.

So far, I’m fairly happy. These are not the best sandwiches I’ve ever tried (that distinction goes to Giugni’s Deli‘s in St. Helena where, granted, I haven’t eaten in a decade but whose sandwiches were great for the two decades before that), but they were very good anyway. The sandwiches look a bit small, but they are quite substantial and they definitely won’t leave you hungry – if you can finish the whole thing.

I’ve had the Reuben twice now, and while it’s still the only Reuben ($11) I’ve ever had, I liked it a lot. The meat to cheese to sauerkraut to bread ratio was perfect, it was a very well balanced sandwich, and made me a fan of Reubens. I just ordered the ingredients to make some myself. I’m actually not sure if this sandwich is meant to be hot – both times it came in the same bag with another hot sandwich, but it works well either hot or cold.

My husband had The Hangover from their specialties menu ($11.25), a sandwich consisting of “hot roast beef, Swiss cheese, red onions, jalapeños, mayo, BBQ sauce on Dutch crunch.” We both liked it very much, again the ingredients were well balanced.

I was less enthused by the meatballs. I had a meatball sub ($10) one time and a side order of meatballs ($6 for a small) another. The meatballs are small, are too salty and they otherwise have a very generic taste. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were commercial rather than made in house. They are a bit too dense and just not particularly tasty.

The caprese panini ($9) was better. Again, the ingredients were in the right amounts to balance each other and the bread, and the whole sandwich was tasty. My daughter – who ended up eating it – would have preferred fresh basil (in season now) to pesto, but that’s not a big deal.

A “make your own” roast beef sandwich ($10.50) was good and had ample meat.

The one real disappointment was a side of macaroni salad ($3.50) which was just a waste of calories.

In all, we’ll continue ordering from Bara and I look forward to trying other sandwiches.

El Torito’s Fiesta Packs Are a Great Deal – or at least were.

Update – My last two experiences at El Torito have been less than stellar.

Since I wrote this post the fiesta/party packs – at least at my local El Torito in San Leandro, California – have both increased in price and decreased in quality. The packs now cost $5 more, and the last couple of times we ordered, they were missing some of the sides, we originally got. I’m not sure if this is because the fiesta packs no longer include them or our El Torito was particularly busy now that California has reopened, and the workers were careless with what they packed in our orders.

The Fajita Pack

The fajitas pack is now $45 and our last order included the beef fajitas (and we felt we got less meat than in previous occasions). Still, it was very tasty. In addition to the meat, we got rice and beans, warm tortillas, guacamole and sour cream and chips and salsa. What we didn’t get was the corn pudding we enjoy so much.

The Tacos Pack

We ordered the taco pack once before and in addition to the stuff shown in the photo (meal, rice and beans, tortillas, chip and salsa and corn pudding) it came with sour cream, pico de gallo, shredded cheese and shredded lettuce. This time, the last four listed items were unavailable. That made for very, very boring tacos.

That said, the beef for tacos is very tasty, flavor wise it’s better than the fajitas. The chicken, which we got the previous time, isn’t as flavorful and it’s a bit dry. They also offer carnitas.

Photo shamelessly stolen from El Torito website

El Torito, a California-based chain of Tex-Mex (or Cal-Mex, for that matter) restaurants, is offering a great take out deal during the pandemic. For $30-$40 you can get a tacos, carnitas fajitas or combo (enchiladas, tamales or chile relleno) deals that feed at least four people. Given that an order of steak fajitas for just one person is $21.50, $40 for four times that amount is as good a deal as you are likely to get. Indeed, at $10 per person (or less, depending on how hungry you are), it’s the same or lower cost than the mid-priced meal kits I’ve used so much. For $20 more, you can add a pitcher of margaritas (not my thing).

The fajitas pack comes with large containers of beef strips and onions, Mexican rice, beans (choose between re-fried or de olla), corn pudding, salsa and guacamole, a stack of warm tortillas (your choice of corn or flour) and a huge bag of tortilla chips.

They tell you at what time the food will be ready when you order (or you can specify the time), and it’s very, very quick. El Torito offers delivery (sans alcohol) for something like $3, as well as curbside and in-restaurant pickup. The food is ready when it says it’ll be.

I used to be a huge fan of Chevy’s back in the day. Then it declined, and then the one in San Leandro closed, and then most of them closed. At some point, the remaining ones were bought by the same parent company from El Torito, which carried Chevy’s influence into El Torito’s kitchens.

You can taste this influence in the fajitas pack. The beef marinade now resembles Chevy’s, as does the salsa – while the corn pudding is practically identical to Chevy’s sweet corn tomalito. The chips are still not as thin as Chevy’s, but they’re thinner than other restaurants.

All in all I’ve enjoyed their meals, and I think I will give their other offerings a try later.

Restaurant Review: Joe’s Pho, San Leandro

This is not as much a restaurant review, as an overall praise of Joe’s Pho, a year-old restaurant located near Bayfair mall. I had never even heard of it until my friend Parker suggested we go there for dinner, as our old friend Eddie was back in town. I’m not a huge fan of pho (or soup in general), so I was reluctant at first – but Parker mentioned it had other food.

God, I’m glad we went. Joe’s Pho not only has an extensive menu, but the food we tried was delicious. Alas, I didn’t want to inconvenience everyone by asking specifically about their dishes – but everyone agreed they liked the food, including my vegetarian and vegan friends (there are plenty of choices for vegans).

Personally, I ordered the basil popcorn chicken appetizer ($9), and was very happy with how tender and flavorful it was. I’ll definitely order it again in my next visit. I also had the grilled beef banh mi ($6.50), a Vietnamese sandwich, and loved the marinated beef. The proportion of beef to veggies was also quite good, and I liked that the bread was a soft bun.

The place itself is large and informal. They have long tables, so it’s perfect for groups. Service was friendly and attentive.

I can’t wait to go there again with my family, at which point I’ll take pictures and write a better review.

Joe’s Pho
15070 Hesperian Boulevard
San Leandro, CA
(510) 363-9691
https://joespho.com/
M-Su 10 AM – 10 PM

Restaurant Review: Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles Has What It Takes

The Ethiopian Feast

Los Angeles has several Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants. Unfortunately, they are all on the same street, South Fairfax Avenue near downtown. That means that if you live in the San Fernando Valley, as does my family, you have to trek all the way to Los Angeles if you want to have some of this delicious and very unique food.

So that’s exactly what we did last month when I went to visit my family down south. My sister read of bunch of reviews and decided on Little Ethiopia (also the name of the neighborhood) – all in all, it was a good choice.

We were a large group, as quite a few of my family members went, including two babies. Fortunately, the restaurant was rather empty. We made a lot of noise! The staff was extremely accommodating and friendly. It’s definitely as family friendly a restaurant as you are likely to get.

The menu is pretty typical for an Ethiopan restaurant. We shared both the meat and the lentil sambusas as an appetizer ($8 for 3) and they were very tasty – though a bit too spicy for some of us (to be expected, this is Ethiopian food, after all). The 2-year old in our party really liked them, spice and all.

As an entree, I shared the $40 Ethiopian feast (pictured above) with my husband and daughter. It was probably not enough food for 3, but my daughter is a light eater and there was more food at the table. It comes with doro wat, alicha wat and tibs. They were all very tasty.

My vegan daughter shared the vegetarian combo ($15), which is vegan, and thought it was pretty good. She particularly liked the kik alicha (a split pea stew) and also ordered it as a side ($6).

Meanwhile, the spaghetti with tomato sauce ($11) satisfied the picky older child in our party, it was a large portion with plenty of leftovers.

While the restaurant is comfortable and very affordable, it’s probably not the most elegant restaurant on the street. If you’re in a date, one of the other ones may be better. But if you’re after good Ethiopian food in a familiar atmosphere, this will do it.

Little Ethiopia
1048 South Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA
(323)-930-2808
http://www.littleethiopiarestaurants.com/
T-Th, 11 AM – 9 PM
F- Su, 11 AM – 10 PM

Costco Has the Worst Burger EVER

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My husband went to Costco the other day and I asked him to get me a BBQ brisket sandwich for lunch. Unfortunately, our local Costco in San Leandro (at least) no longer carries them. Instead, they have added a burger to their menu and my husband figured he’d get me that instead. Bad, bad move.

He said he had an inkling that the burger wouldn’t be good when he saw the patties coming out of the steamer. And he was right. This has to be the worst burger I have ever eaten, bar none. And I’ve eaten many bad burgers in my time.

The meat (and I’m assuming it’s meat) was so incredibly dry, that I have to believe it’s mostly filling. It also tasted just like the burgers they used to serve in middle school when I was a kid – not a good memory. Except these were drier.

The patties are enormous, which in this case it’s just not a good thing. It only means you have more unappetizing food to get through.

I didn’t want to waste food, so I ate through almost half of it until I decided that I just couldn’t do this to myself. The dog ate the rest. She, at least, did not complain.

But you are warned: stay away from these burgers.