Does Omicron have you craving an escape from the January doldrums? Free yourself from the tyranny of classic takeout options and try reaching for a more adventurous menu instead.
The Bay Area is full of under-the-radar eateries that feature the dishes of less familiar culinary traditions from Central Asia, Africa, and Native North America. Go ahead, order up something unexpected and reawaken those tired tastebuds.
Native American: Wahpepah’s Kitchen
Crystal Wahpepah, a member of Oklahoma’s Kickapoo Nation, grew up in Oakland’s urban Native American community on Ohlone land. Her new restaurant, Wahpepah’s Kitchen, pays homage to both traditions, along with other indigenous ingredients treasured by tribal people from the Northeast to the Southwest including chokeberries, blue corn, and prickly pear. This winter, don’t miss the Kickapoo chili with ground bison and heirloom blue corn; the wild rice and salmon prepared with hand-harvested wild rice pilaf, acorn squash and elderberry; and for dessert, traditional Mayan amaranth chocolate cake topped with warm chocolate maple sauce.
// Open for dining and takeout 11am to 6pm Wednesday through Saturday and 11am to 2pm Sunday; 3301 E 12th St #133 (Oakland), wahpepahskitchen.com.
Sudanese: Z Zoul Cafe
When Aref and Dalia Elgaali immigrated to the Bay Area with their four children in 2016, there wasn’t a single authentic Sudanese restaurant to remind them of home. So they built their own. At Z Zoul Cafe in the Tenderloin, Aref recreates family recipes handed down through the generations like fatayer, dough topped with savory thyme, cheese, ground meat, and za’atar; Sudanese lentil soup; and roasted lamb shank. Dalia crafts the sweet stuff, including creamy roz billaban (Sudanese rice pudding) and basbosa (coarse semolina dripping with sweetened syrup).
// Open for dining, takeout, and delivery 10:30am to 9:30pm weekdays and 11:30am to 8:30pm Saturdays; 295 Eddy St (Tenderloin), zzoulcafe.com.
Mongolian: Mongol Cafe
There’s a reason this unassuming little cafe on Geary is the only Mongolian restaurant in the Bay Area to have made it to 2022. The cuisine is hearty and comforting, a confluence of Chinese and Eastern European flavors with unexpected, homestyle takes on stews and soups like borsch and gulyash more commonly associated with the Russian table. Don’t miss the buuz, steamed buns filled with ground beef and Mongolia’s national dish, and the tsuivan, a traditional dish of house-made noodles combined with beef, carrot, cabbage and onion.
// Open for dining and takeout 11am to 7pm weekdays; 842 Geary Blvd. (TenderNob), mongolcafesf.com.
Tongan: Tokemoana Foods
Despite the fact that half of all Tongans in the U.S. live in the Bay Area, Polynesian cuisine is severely underrepresented here: Only a tiny handful of eateries can be found from San Francisco to San Jose. But Tokemoana Foods in Redwood City, which opened in early 2020, has already earned a reputation as one of the best. Named for owner Fusi Taaga’s father, Tokemoana, this little kitchen and market sells primarily traditional Tongan foods like lu pulu (corned beef brisket cooked with taro leaves in coconut cream), feke (octopus in coconut sauce), and braised teriyaki turkey tail. For dessert try the trifle cake cup, a popular Tongan delight made with yellow cake, custard, and fresh whipped cream layered with fruit.
// Open for takeout and delivery 11am to 5pm Wednesday through Monday; 3102 Middlefield Rd (Redwood City), tokemoanas.square.site.
Uzbek: Halal Dastarkhan
San Francisco’s first Uzbek restaurant opened in Lower Nob Hill back in 2020 and not even a global pandemic has kept them from becoming a neighborhood favorite. The cuisine is rooted in the culinary traditions of Central Asia and is rich in bread and noodles. At Halal Dastarkhan, the national dish, plov—a rice pilaf made with lamb or beef, carrots, onions, raisins, and chickpeas—is just the start. Their extensive menu features a wide range of traditional favorites including uyghur laghman (a soup made with housemade pasta, beef, green beans, and cabbage), pumpkin manti (dumplings), and the cream-and-honey infused medovik cake.
// Open for dining, takeout, and delivery 10am to 11pm daily; 1098 Sutter St (TenderNob), halaldastarkhan.com.
Côte d’Ivoire: Alloko Garden
Alloko Garden is the first to bring Ivory Coast cuisine to the Bay Area. Chef-owner Gnakouri Tohouri carefully crafts his food using traditional ingredients and West African spices in Oakland’s Jingletown Eats ghost kitchens, including the restaurant’s namesake alloko, fried plantains, which are served with a tangy, spicy sauce. Each of Tohouri’s dishes are authentic interpretations of the coastal African nation’s unique cuisine, which include zohoun saacka, (lamb slow-cooked in palm nut pulp), attiéké (fermented cassava couscous), and fonio pudding (fonio grain with baobab fruit powder and honey).
// Open for takeout and delivery 11am to 3pm and 4:30pm to 9pm Thursday through Tuesday; 2353 E. 12th St (Oakland), allokogardenoakland.com.
Indonesian: Rasa Rasa
After two years of pandemic woes, this humble food truck in Mission Bay’s Parklab Gardens is the last Indonesian eatery left standing in San Francisco. There you’ll find the island nation’s most popular dishes, many in vegan and vegetarian form, including gado gado made with fried tempeh and tofu, veggies and peanut sauce; and beef or mushroom rendang, a rich stew made with coconut milk, curry jackfruit, and sauteed greens. Wash it down with a carton of the Indonesian staple Teh Kotak, a sweet tea made with jasmine flowers.
// Open for dining, takeout, and delivery 11am to 8pm daily; 1379 4th St (Mission Bay), facebook.com/sfrasarasa1.
Ohlone: Cafe Ohlone
Although Cafe Ohlone is temporarily closed as it prepares to transition into a full-fledged restaurant and cultural space at UC Berkeley in the spring, as the only restaurant focused on the foodways of the Tribal people of the Bay Area, we felt it was essential to include in our list of rare, unexpected cuisines. Established by Vincent Medina (East Bay Ohlone) and Louis Trevino (Rumsen Ohlone), Cafe Ohlone honors the region’s heritage and indigenous foods. On their upcoming menus, expect to find seasonal delights plucked from Northern California’s waters and forests like black oak acorn bread, clams and mussels cooked with Ohlone herbs and local seaweed, and dandelion soup with Indian potatoes and wild onions, plus a whole range of wild teas including nettle, manzanita, and white sage.
// Reopening in spring 2022, location pending (Berkeley), makamham.com.