from a year I'd like to forget

Story and photos by Meredith Pakier

Opening and sustaining a restaurant or food business is a monumental undertaking in the best of times. During 2020, as an unmitigated global pandemic devastated millions of businesses and livelihoods, an indifferent government largely left the restaurant industry to fend for itself. Yet throughout the year, East Bay food entrepreneurs demonstrated remarkable resilience. Many kept venues in operation, and some moved ahead with new openings. Here is a short list of some memorable dishes from restaurants and popups that against all odds opened in 2020.

 

From left: Daughter's Diner, Mujiri, Smish Smash

 

Cured salmon roe and impeccably fresh sushi elegantly packaged from Mujiri makes takeout feel decadent––and maybe more importantly––transportive. (Just close your eyes and pretend you’re not in your living room.) The menu rotates daily, but there’s always a customizable seven-piece nigiri combo, which comes with a chef’s-choice maki. (6501 San Pablo Ave Unit B, Emeryville)

I’m a no-frills diner purist, but I’m charmed by Daughter’s Diner’s sophisticated Bay Area takes on approachable diner fare. For the ultra-power breakfast, try the aptly named Beast Mode, a housemade sausage patty, egg, gooey brie, arugula, and pickled onions all squeezed neatly between halves of Berkeley’s famed Boichik bagel. (326 23rd St Unit D, Oakland)

Shawarmaji’s housemade toum is my new kitchen staple. The potent sauce, made with a combination of garlic, canola oil, salt, and lemon juice, is whipped into a fluffy textured condiment that perfectly complements Shawarmaji’s warmly spiced succulent lamb shawarma. Available in 8-ounce containers, the toum will outlast your shawarma, so enjoy the extra as a punchy dip for cucumber, carrots, radishes, or whatever raw veggies you have on hand. (2123 Franklin St, Oakland)

For a complex, subtle heat, try doubles—a street food popular around the islands of Trinidad and Tabago—paired with the floral ginger beer they make in house at Cocobreeze. Doubles consists of curried garbanzo beans topped with coconut chutney, pepper sauce, spicy mango, kuchela, cucumber, and tamarind wrapped between two pieces of fried flatbread. Vegetarians and vegans take note: Cocobreeze boasts an extensive menu with plenty of plant-based options. (2370 High St, Oakland)

 

From left: Ono Bakehouse, Cocobreeze, Basuku Cheesecake

 

Serving up fast food–style burgers minus the fast food chain is popup Smish Smash. Operating from Neptune’s kitchen, they’re dishing out nostalgic razor-thin patties on classic potato rolls. The Signature gives you two caramelized and crispy patties of American Wagyu beef with American cheese, pickles, and grilled onions. (630 Central Ave, Alameda)

The Queen Emma Cake from Hawaiian dessert and snack shop Ono Bakehouse is as enchanting as it looks. It’s a delicate chiffon sponge cake cut with alternating layers of tart guava, passion fruit, and coconut mousse. Available by the slice, it’s ready to take home, where you can enjoy it with a cup of afternoon tea. (1922 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley)

Basuku Cheesecakes has developed a cult-like following, and it’s easy to see why. Using local cream and eggs, these “Japanese-inspired Basque Cheesecakes” achieve an almost ethereal texture––firm around the edge with a creamy, lush interior and a concentrated caramel flavor. As there is no brick-and-mortar site, and pick-up spots stretch across the Bay Area, you have to just keep an eye on their instagram (@basukucheesecakes) to find out how and where to snag yours. ♦

Meredith Pakier is an Oakland-based wine professional who has managed the beverage programs for bars, restaurants, and retail shops across the Bay Area. When she’s not experimenting in her home kitchen, she’s hiking with her dog, Nico.