Ha La Sushi Restaurant

Ha La Sushi

Hidden behind a bundle of trees in a small shopping plaza in Alamo, California,  Ha-La Sushi buzzes with frenetic energy. As the regulars pile in, they are greeted with a beaming smile by an amiable, middle age man with a fun, spiky haircut. Hugging regular patrons, Ken Ma- the owner of the restaurant, always seems to remember everyone’s name, as well as what was going on in their lives. Customers seem genuinely happy to see him and the other employees of Ha-La Sushi.

Ken Ma makes sure to treat everyone who comes to Ha-La Sushi, along with his employees, as a family. It’s no wonder that most of his employees never want to leave and still work with him after many years. He accepts and values people as they are, and sympathizes with challenges - his life after immigrating to the US has taught him not to take anything or anyone for granted.

In 1996, Ken moved to the United States from Hong Kong, right before the sovereignty over Hong Kong transferred from the United Kingdom to China. This handover marked the end of the British Empire rule, along with significant trepidation in the hearts of citizens of Hong Kong regarding their future. The major fear was that Chinese culture of control and corruption would undermine Hong Kong’s economic development and free political expression.

Ken’s life flipped upside down as he left his country a prosperous businessman and came into the United States as a nobody. Instead of managing a business, Ken found himself behind a kitchen sink in a restaurant, washing dishes. While not ideal, this 2-year stint gave him the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of running a business in the United States.  From dishwasher to the waiter, to sushi helper, and finally to becoming a sushi master chef - Ken paved the way to his success by working 2 jobs with no days off for several years until he had enough money saved for a down payment on opening his own restaurant.

As Ken began to look for his own place to develop a restaurant, a major setback came crashing down on him - the loss of all the family savings. He found himself back at square one, the shining ‘end of the tunnel’ to his dream even further away. The consequences that followed had Ken battling with depression and despair - he had worked 60 hours per week for 7 years with no breaks saving every penny he was given - only to have it all vanish right in front of him.

Yet, Ken rose from the ashes once again and started his long, laboring trek by asking his family and friends to help him in finance the down payment. Because of his trustworthiness and work ethic, everyone reached out to help and Ken was soon able to open his first ever sushi restaurant in Benicia, CA  in 2003. Word about Ken’s wonderful food got around quickly wonderful food and his business grew despite being in what many would consider a “sketchy” or “unsafe” locations. Even non-local customers would come from across the bridge just to eat at Ken’s sushi restaurant.

Things started looking up as his business grew. Shortly after his restaurant opened, Ken bought his first house, got remarried and had a son. But even with his success, he never relaxed and kept working around the clock- a new idea of owning a restaurant across the bridge in the East Bay hovered in his mind.

Ha La Sushi
Ha La Sushi

A developer who visited and immediately fell in love with Ken’s sushi place searched him out and offered a new location in Alamo. Ken opened Ha-La Sushi in 2005. Currently, Ken owns 2 restaurants: one in San Leandro and the other in Alamo, managing his time between the two places. He is diligent, hard-working, and never takes anything or anyone for granted. He always appreciates the people in his life, his employees, and most importantly, his family. When you come to Ha-La Sushi, you are treated not just as a customer, but as a friend too.

Ha-La is an Asian fusion, a sushi restaurant that combines Japanese and Chinese cuisine. Ask the owner for a recommendation, and you will be in for a special treat. Ken might ask you when you come in: “What do you feel like?”, and somehow makes any desire happen. Anything from oysters, and extra special Toro, to rolls and udon, and of course, Ken's famous lamb chops - will make you happily satisfied.

Since we were at the restaurant in Alamo, we had to order the Alamo Roll. This roll has deep fried shrimp & crab on the inside, tuna & salmon on the outside, and it is completed with tobiko & spicy sauce on top.

Pork Katsu- breaded pork cutlets, is a comfort-food in Japan. Ha-La sushi is able to make these cutlets especially delicious by ensuring that the pork was filled with juicy flavor and the coated bread crumbs had just the right crunch.

Tempura Vegetables. Tempura is a Japanese dish filled with battered and deep-fried vegetables. At Ha-La, tempura tastes clean, fresh, and delicate. The coating was extra crisp, lacy and feather light.

Salmon Sashimi - The secret in Ken’s exceptional quality of food lies in his long-established relationships with produce supplies. While also being treated as one of Ken’s good friends, they are expected to deliver only the best and freshest fish. Although basic, the Salmon sashimi we ordered melted in our mouths and still lingered long after devouring it. If you are adventurous and open to trying new food, ask Ken for the Special Fish of the day and follow the question up by asking him if he has Toro. If he does, you are in luck. Toro is a term for the fatty part of the tuna, found in the belly portion of the fish. It is more expensive due to their relative scarcity, but worth the experience.

Ha La Sushi
Ha La Sushi

The Super Lion King Roll was a creamy, mouthwatering treat for my brother, who is a California roll fanatic. The Lion King rolls is essentially a California roll with the exception of being wrapped in salmon and also baked and topped with Ha-La’s special sauce. The crunchy decorations were a wonderful touch in tying the roll together.

The Caterpillar Roll at Ha-La Sushi was very carefully crafted. With unagi and crab meat on the inside, wrapped in fresh avocado, the roll looked like a beautiful caterpillar creation. We learned that Caterpillar rolls were completely an “American” invention, so it is unlikely to be found in Hong Kong or Japan. The Unagi inside the roll was grilled to perfection - crisp and coated with a sweet sauce on the outside while being tender on the inside. Ken told us that unagi is very good for one’s health: high in omega-3 helps to improve blood pressure, lower cholesterol and reduce the risks of diabetes and arthritis.

In my opinion, HaLa sushi embraces what I consider to be a truly international restaurant. A chef serving cuisine they did not grow up with in pursuit of the American Dream.

Visit:
Ha La Sushi
115-C Alamo Plaza
Alamo, CA 94507
(925) 838-5583

Yara Elian is a 10th grader at Northgate High in the San Francisco Bay Area, who loves languages, cultures, food, and writing.

Sunnin Lebanese Cafe

During the interview, George Chammaa’s mother, Fayeza Chammaa, sits in the back of the family restaurant, Sunnin Lebanese Cafe, having her mid-day meal next to her red tablet. George sits in front of me, one of Fayeza’s five children, as we sit in the airy, homey restaurant. In between our interview, he speaks Spanish to bid an employee goodbye and a customer taps on his shoulder as she leaves.Sunnin Lebanese Cafe

A neighborhood restaurant, Sunnin Lebanese Restaurant began in 1995 at the current location of its bakery on Westwood Street. (Side note: Sunnin is the name of a mountain in Lebanon). It has since expanded to a catering business and two branches‒one in Santa Monica and the other in Westwood‒with the hope to continue expansion. Jewish and Asian customers from UCLA frequent the place, dining among maroon walls and beaded lamps overhead. Service is quick and attentive, and free and plentiful parking exists!

Sunnin Lebanese Cafe

Fayeza Chammaa grew up in a small village in Akkar district, located in the North of Lebanon. In 1987, Fayeza and her husband fled the Lebanon Civil War for the United States. Even today, “things are not good,” George says. Civil unrest continues due to its proximity to war-ridden Syria and Israel and their admittance of Syrian immigrants.

Fayeza did not have any conception of the American Dream but needed to survive. Building on her cooking experience since she had always cooked for family and friends, she decided to take the risk and open a restaurant business.

Today, her children manages the restaurants, but Fayeza still comes in the morning to cook, creating dishes as authentic as the traditional fare of kibbeh laban, or “shape-of-a-ball yogurt.” Kibbeh laban are minced lamb and bulgur croquettes in a yogurt sauce lightened by mint, parsley, and olive oil.

My partner-in-crime, Gaby and I tried two dishes during the second visit: kibbeh laban and a pastry platter containing fatayeh, sanbousek, sfiha, and rekakat.

Kebbeh Laban

Sunnin Lebanese Cafe

Hot Pockets Gone Wild
[From most left to right, clockwise: sfina, fatayeh, rekakat, and sanbousek.]

Upon first bite of kibbeh laban, we discovered soft meat, whole pine nuts, and subtle spice. The croquettes were covered in a tangy, minty, creamy sauce, as if dreaming on cloud nine, accompanied by a bed of buttery rice (riiz bi sh’arieh). The rice huffed and puffed for some exposure, cheered on by vermicelli shreds for savory flavor and soft texture.
The pastry platter was a pleasant surprise with a reappearance of the pine nut. The sfina appeared as a square pastry pinched on all four corners, containing baked, spicy ground beef, onion, spice, and pine nuts−reminiscent of a Spice Girl. Tart in flavor, the triangular fatayer enveloped spinach, onion, pine nuts, and sumak−a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern plant whose fruits are red berries with a tangy, lemony flavor. As feta cheese, onion, and parsley rolled in fried, chewy filo dough, rekakat felt like a hug received upon returning home. Sanbousek, a mini Calzone lookalike, contained fried ground beef, onion, and pine nuts−easily your trustworthy meat pie.

Sunnin Lebanese Cafe
Sunnin Lebanese Cafe

The Sumak Bush and their Berries

The menu is more traditional and health-conscious, as Fayeza uses cancer-fighting spices such as turmeric and cumin. On certain days, Madame Chammaa continues to save the day by serving “Em Tony’s Specials”−”Em” for mother and “Tony” for her eldest son. Offerings include a Lebanese style Shepherd’s Pie and Stuffed Squash and Eggplant.

According to George, Lebanon cuisine is known for their mezza−similar to Spanish tapas but often taken for a whole meal. Sunnin Lebanese Cafe’s mezza includes hummus (mashed chickpeas with tahini), baba ganouj (pureed grilled eggplant with tahini), tabouleh (finely-chopped salad with parsley, tomatoes, mint, onion, and cracked wheat), warak enab (spiced rice wrapped in grape leaves), fatayer (baked spinach pie), falafel (deep-fried chickpea patties), fried kibbeh (meatballs containing bulgur and onions), and sanbousek (fried pies stuffed with meat and pine nuts). Are you hungry yet?

Before leaving, we visited the bakery and picked up two goodies‒a walnut anise cookie and a date cookie. Crumbly and fragrant, Gaby’s eyes widened and we jumped for joy inside.

Sunnin Lebanese Cafe

The Bakery’s Kitchen and Two Dainty Cookies

Sunnin Lebanese Cafe

Santa Monica Branch
Hours:
Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Sun - 11 AM-9 PM
Fri, Sat - 11:00-9:30
Address: 525 Santa Monica Blvd #120, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Phone: (310) 475 3358

Bakery
Hours:
Mon - 6 PM-12 AM
Tues, Wed, Thurs - 8 AM-12 AM
Fri, Sat - 8 AM-3 AM
Sun - 9 AM-3 PM
Address: 1779 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Phone: (310) 231 4444
Cash only

Los Angeles Branch
Restaurant
Hours: Mon to Sun - 11:30AM-10PM
Address: 1776 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Phone: (310) 395 3602

Grocery Café

Grocery Café

 Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)  Photo courtesy: Richard Shaw

I find it interesting how certain memories from ones’ childhood endure over time.  Living in Calcutta (now Kolkata) as a child, my first entre to Burmese food was ‘Khauswey’- chicken stewed in a gravy redolent with coconut milk, onions and turmeric.  It would be served either over egg noodles (traditional) or rice (completely non-traditional) and I remember literally licking our plates clean when it was on the dinner menu.  For us, it was sufficiently different from traditional Indian food, to become very enticing and almost a novelty.  It wouldn’t be till years later, and half a world away, that I would be reintroduced to Burmese food; this time in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Burma by the Bay

In 1962 the Burmese army overthrew the ruling government in a coup.  The political and economic turmoil that resulted led a number of Burmese to resettle elsewhere. Aided by the United States Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the subsequent removal of restrictions on immigration from Asia, a large number of Burmese found their way to America.  Decades later, as a result of the government crackdown following the 1988 uprising against the junta, another wave of Burmese landed on American shores.  Missing their way of life in the ‘old country’, some decided to cater to the growing Burmese diaspora in the Bay Area and open Burmese restaurants.  Burma Superstar in the inner-Richmond district was the first restaurant that actually put Burmese cuisine on the San Francisco culinary map. The number of Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area has since skyrocketed.

Serial Restaurateur

William Lue immigrated to the Bay Area in the 70’s.  A Burmese of Chinese origin, he worked in Chinese and Burmese restaurants in San Francisco through the 70’s and 80’s.  Following a lengthy hiatus, he returned to the food industry with a Burmese food truck, Burmese Gourmet in 2012.  Since then he has opened a string of Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area including Pacheco Bistro in Martinez, Refined Palate in Orinda, T.W. Burmese in San Ramon and Grocery Café in Oakland. As an immigrant, promoting his culinary heritage and helping other Burmese immigrants assimilate rank high on his list of aims, and he uses his restaurants effectively for that purpose.

Grocery Café

Grocery Café entrance

London calling

The current incarnation of Grocery Café in Jack London Square in Oakland sits in a venue vacated by a Hahn’s hibachi, a popular Bay Area Korean chain.  The original restaurant was elsewhere in Oakland, but forced to move due to extensive modifications called for by the health department.  The new larger venue is bright, airy and inviting and a brief glance at the menu assures me that none of the standards have been omitted.

Grocery Café

The Hahn’s BBQ sign hasn’t been completely removed

Grocery Café

The interior  still maintains the Hahn’s vibe, though the food is dramatically different.

Sandwiched between India, China and Thailand, Burmese cuisine is an amalgamation of the three cuisines, yet very distinct.  Turmeric and onion are almost ubiquitous flavors and nowhere is this combination more evident than in the national dish of Burma- Mohinga, a noodle based fish chowder.  Also well known are the salads or ‘thoke’, in particular laphet or tea leaf salad made with fermented tea leaves.  The version at Grocery Café is slightly Americanized, in that lettuce is added to the mix.  We started with the Burmese Paratha, a multi-layered Indian-inspired flatbread with a curry dipping sauce and then moved on to Khao Swe thoke, a noodle salad with a curried coconut dressing and condiments on the side.

Grocery Café

Paratha and curry dipping sauce

Grocery Café

Khao Swe Thoke

What about the ‘khauswey’ of my childhood?  The Ono Khao Swe came in a big bowl with wheat noodles and chicken swimming in a fragrant mild curry broth, accompanied with fried shallots and lentil fritters (referred to as exotic fritter in the menu).

Grocery Café

Ono Kahao Swe

Grocery Café

Accompaniments to the Ono Khao Swe

The flavors were spot on taking me back to my childhood and we pretty much licked the bowl clean…. some things never change!  And if one wants a little more spice, 2 kinds of chili pepper condiments, green and red are provided to kick things up a notch.

Grocery Café

Chili pepper condiments

Though I didn’t see it on the tables, ‘ngapi’ or fermented fish paste is apparently available upon request as a condiment. The other dish we could not pass up on the menu was the oxtail stew, a fragrant stew with kabocha squash, sliced ginger and mushrooms.  The Chinese influence was evident in this dish, with the ginger and the mushrooms, but the addition of bay leaves gave the dish an identity all of its own.

Oxtail Stew

It was served with a mound of coconut rice, not entirely dissimilar from the Indonesian Nasi Lemak.

Coconut Rice

The restaurant does not currently have a liquor license, though a number of tables in the know decided to B.Y.O.B. I don’t believe they charge any corkage fees either, and a nice crisp Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc would compliment the food perfectly!  They do, however, serve a selection of Burmese and Chinese teas for those so inclined.

Burmese restaurants have matured in the Bay Area and are now considered a viable alternative to the more traditional Chinese and Thai.  And with folks like Lue promoting the cuisine of their homeland, the buzz will only increase.  For a taste of Yangon, Grocery Café is just a short hop over the Bay Bridge for San Franciscans and well worth the effort.

Visit

Grocery Cafe
90 Franklin St,
Oakland, CA 94607
Phone:  925-566-4877

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant's homey Filipino food is a gift from Josie Yumul

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Lively conversation among a group of friends at Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant is halted as soon as a huge flat basket, lined with banana leaves and topped by heaps of artistically arranged food, arrives on the table.  A mound of rice is surrounded by piles of lumpia, barbequed chicken, grilled squid and pork, crunchy deep fried shrimp, a whole grilled tilapia, salted eggs, purple yams, eggplant, steamed broccoli, chopped mango, onion and tomato. Little dishes of shared dipping sauces are distributed. Each diner has a separate plate lined with a banana leaf.

Kamayan is the name of this classic Filipino preparation that is traditionally eaten with the hands, by pinching a clump of rice and adding meat and other accompaniments. “The word kamayan comes from the Tagalog word kamay, which means ‘hands,’” says Pampanguena’s chef and co-owner, Josie Yumul. “It’s our traditional way of sharing, the way we grew up eating.” Dining on banana leaves carries an additional benefit. “When hot food is placed on the banana leaves,” explains Josie, “they exude a special essence.” (If eating with your hands is not your thing, utensils are provided on request).

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Kamayan

Josie and her husband Lan opened this, their first restaurant, in 2010. It’s a homey, family-run spot in San Francisco’s Excelsior district with Filipino soap operas on the TV and wooden cutouts of fish, lobsters, and anchors brightening the walls. Josie originally prepared a daily standing buffet of hot dishes, but after two years, realized that customers would prefer made-to-order dishes. Now the Filipino-native prides herself on making everything fresh. She arrives each morning at 8am to marinate the meat, cook the pork until it’s soft, clean the fish and chop the vegetables. Then she is ready to assemble and cook up whatever diners order. She only added Kamayan-style meals a few years ago, when some customers requested them and is proud to be the only restaurant in San Francisco to currently offer them. They come in sizes for 2-6 people (the more people, the more different dishes), which are reasonably priced, considering the mountain of food included. “It’s a very popular way of eating back home,” Josie says, “so I wanted to share it here. People love it – you get to taste a big variety of things. You can also order it to go.”

A self-taught cook, Josie credits her parents and mother-in-law for getting her started. She moved to the U.S. 32 years ago and worked for many years as a medical assistant. Her husband still works the night shift, 11-7, at the Post Office and comes in to help after he sleeps.  Their children help serve on the weekends when they don’t have school.

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant
Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

The restaurant is named after Pampanga, the province in Luzon, Philippines where Josie grew up. The area is famous for its cuisine, including dishes like fresh grilled fish and sisig, a sizzling pork dish.

“Growing up in the Philippines, my parents always owned a liquor store where they also sold a few food dishes. As the oldest of six children, I was expected to help out at the store, starting when I was seven years old until I went to college at age 20.  My brothers and sisters stayed in dorms at school, but I didn’t, so that I could help my parents. My life was school, home and work, with very little time to socialize. So, at age 25, I decided to come alone as an immigrant to the US, where I had relatives. I worked and sent money back home. First, I lived in LA, where I met my husband. Then we moved to San Francisco.”

Besides the Kamayan feasts, Pampanguena serves a wide range of Filipino specialties, starting with silog, a popular breakfast style that combines elements such as pork sausage, eggs, tomato and garlic fried rice. These plates are served all day. Other dishes include soups, noodle dishes like pancit canton, BBQ pork and adobo chicken, grilled or fried fish and kare kare, which pairs tender oxtail meat with a peanut butter based sauce.

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Kare Kare

In the kitchen of Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant, with its 8-burner stovetop, Josie needs to focus. It takes concentration to make every order from scratch and have the dishes done at the same time. It’s all about timing. Since she makes every order fresh, Josie is happy to make adjustments to accommodate diners’ special requests or allergies. Many dishes can be made vegan.

Desserts include the popular turon, a caramelized banana rolled up in lumpia wrapper, silky, dense flan and halo halo, a mixture of shaved ice, ube (purple yam) ice cream and evaporated milk with toppings such as sweet beans.

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Turon

“The recipes are my own,” says Josie. “Once I eat in a restaurant, and I find something good, I figure out how to recreate that at home. I started to cook with my parents. My mother in law was a very good cook and I learned from her before she passed away Every time she taught me something I remembered and applied it. “

To describe how she made the transition from medical assistant to chef, Josie explains, “Whenever I had parties at home, my friends told me I should open a restaurant. When I brought food to potluck meals at work my co-workers also told me my food was so good I should have a restaurant.”  She heard this praise so many times, that after 25 years of working for others, she started this new venture with the support of her husband.

One thing that is sacred to this family is the need for a break. Every year, they close the restaurant for 2-3 weeks and either travel back home to the Philippines, another destination or just rest at home. Their children, now aged 22, 18, 14 have all helped out by serving in the restaurant.  “Just serving,” Josie sighs, “they are not interested in learning to cook.”

Although Pampanguena is open 10-8 everyday except Monday, they are busiest on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And note that they only accept cash, as their small business needs to avoid as many fees as possible. (There is an ATM located inside the restaurant).

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Sitaw Kalabasa

Filipino cuisine features a distinctive counterpoint of flavors: sweet, salty and sour and a mixture of influences reflecting the islands’ history. While inhabitants trace their origins back thousands of years to the Malay Islands, the archipelago of 7,000 islands in the southeastern Pacific Ocean has shared trading contacts with China, Japan, Portugal, Spain and the U.S. Each succeeding group of traders and missionaries brought their own ingredients that got adopted into local cuisine. For example, Spanish flan is an almost daily dessert. Lumpia is reminiscent of a Chinese spring roll but with a filling of garlic, pork, chicken, bean sprouts, shredded cabbage and coconut palm hearts. Rice, which is essential to meals, is also made into porridge, puddings and sweets. Native crops such as coconut, taro, bananas, mangos, breadfruit, various cabbages and many other fruits and vegetables are important ingredients in Filipino cuisine.

The Spanish exerted the strongest influence on the Philippines. Their colonization and rule lasted from 1521 to 1898. Spanish Influence is still felt in names, customs and food. Reportedly, however, the Spanish judged that the native Filipino way of eating with hands was “uncivilized” and taught them to eat with silverware instead. So, enjoying kamayan by eating with the hands may be an essential part of Filipino identity. Now Josie and her family are proudly sharing their heritage through their cooking at Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant.

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Lan & Josie

Visit

Pampanguena Cuisine

4441 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94112
(415) 586-8899