Tay Ho Oakland For The Win
I love the over-the-top luxuriousness of a fancy, hours-long, upscale tasting menu as much as the next person.
But truth be told, it’s not really the food I crave on a regular basis.
While there’s a place and time for such sumptuousness, what I truly adore is food that’s punchy, distinctive, and suffused with down-home heart and soul.
No tweezers required.
That’s what Tay Ho Oakland is all about.
I was fortunate enough to come across this family-owned Vietnamese restaurant while writing my cookbook, “East Bay Cooks: Signature Recipes from the Best Restaurants, Bars, and Bakeries” (Figure 1). Indeed, it was the last restaurant to be included in the book, the 41st one to be spotlighted with stories and recipes. And I couldn’t be more thrilled that it was.
If you already have a copy of my cookbook, you know what Owner Denise Huynh poured her life savings into what was then a struggling restaurant nine years ago that she took over from her aunt. For the first few years, sheer will-power propelled her onward, as she worked to attract diners to what was then a still very gritty, crime-laden part of the city.
Now the neighborhood, with gleaming new condos and apartments going up, has grown with her. And Tay Ho Oakland has become known for its authentic cuisine served in a relaxed, inviting and cheerful spot.
It remains a family affair with her mom Anna Ho the head chef, her brother Tony helping to oversee the dining room, and assorted cousins ferrying the dishes to tables as servers.
The moment you walk in what will catch your eye is the turquoise bike affixed perpendicularly on an interior column. It used to be where Huynh actually perched the real bike she used to ride to work each day because there was no place else to stash it. But the bike now there, adorned with a red Fernet Branca logo, was a gift from fellow chef Rob Lam of Perle Wine Bar in Oakland. He won it from Fernet-Branca after selling the most of that Italian bitter herbal liqueur at his former San Francisco bar than any other establishment in the Bay Area. Lam never rode it, but Huynh took it for one spin around the neighborhood before turning it into an art piece.
The bar has seating if you want to grab a drink and dine there after work. Her veteran bartender will whip together a special cocktail just for you, too, if you tell him what flavor profiles you like. For me, he did a riff on a classic Negroni. I’m not sure what he even blended together, but it definitely had an amplified orange note with an edge of bitter rind, which I love.
Tay Ho Oakland’s menu features dishes from central Vietnam (where Huynh’s mother grew up), as well as the southern Mekong Delta (where her father was born). They are dishes that are addictive, as I found out when I was invited in recently as a guest by Huynh to try some of her favorites.
Huế dumplings ($12) are a must-order. Filled with shrimp and pork belly, these half-moon-shaped boiled dumplings are distinctive for their tapioca-flour wrappers, which impart a unique chewy texture. It’s like Asian dumpling meets gummi bear.
You can find the recipe for those dumplings on p. 180 of my cookbook to try your hand at making them at home. Copies of the cookbook are conveniently available for purchase at Tay Ho Oakland, too.
Mekong Tumeric Cakes ($14) look a little like the famed “cupcakes” at Vung Tau in San Jose. But here, these two-bite, rice-flower cupcakes are tinged yellow from turmeric. They get all crisp on the exterior from being cooked in a cast-iron pan. They are topped with shrimp, scallions, and a touch of coconut milk to make their centers ever so creamy. Growing up, Huynh said she would eat these by the dozen. They are definitely a hard habit to break.
Spicy Kon-Tum Beef Salad ($15) brought a tangle of beef slices tossed in heady lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, chili, leeks and a fish sauce-laced vinaigrette. Fried shallots and toasted peanuts were showered overtop, and two large sesame-dotted crunchy shrimp chips perched alongside. Bright, briny, spicy and fragrant, it’s a dish that sings.
More turmeric flavored and colored morsels of catfish “La-Vong”-style ($25) that were fried perfectly, with the outsides golden and very crisp, and the flesh inside moist and flaky. Pick up a piece with your fingers to eat it fish-and-chips-style. Or use the accompanying rice vermicelli, lettuce leaves, and fresh cilantro and mint leaves to create your own lettuce wraps or noodle bowls. Drizzle on some of the wonderful pineapple-anchovy sauce for a hit of tangy-sweet, tropical spiciness.
We took leftovers home, and devoured them the next day while craving even more. Mostly, we just felt grateful that Huynh and her family persevered mightily to build this truly special place.