One of my favorite new spots for a casual meal these days is Baby Cafe in Oakland’s Chinatown.
The cafe, aptly named since the space is tiny, serves up westernized Chinese cuisine reflective of Hong Kong’s cha cha teng, which are like diners serving up a mix of traditional Chinese noodle soups and hybrids of Chinese-Western dishes like casseroles made with rice or spaghetti.
There are a handful of these HK-style cafes in Chinatown but Baby Cafe is the most ambitious, with an extensive menu that includes a few innovative dishes I’ve never seen at a cha cha teng that also includes several dessert options that plays up the bubble tea trend.
When I first visited, I ordered one of the classic comfort dishes, the baked pork chop rice plate ($8.50), which is a pan-fried pork chop that’s placed on top of rice (or spaghetti) and then covered with a tomato sauce with cheese. Baby Cafe’s version takes it a notch by adding a fried egg on top.
The dish was good, but a bit straight-forward. The rice was plain (I’ve had it with fried rice that provides more complexity in flavors) but I liked how everything tasted fresh.
I got to explore the menu more on my next visit when I brought along my friends Vera and Wella. Baby Cafe has some offal items like beef tongue and pig feet, but we stuck with more innovative dishes in presentation like the signature rice cube, which are square rice bowls that have been torched on the sides to brown it and give it a crispy edge. Then in the hollowed out center, the rice cube is topped with beef stew or curry chicken.
We tried the beef stew, which was a traditional comforting Chinese beef stew. The star, really, is the crispy rice bowl.
Another dish we tried was the bamboo rice salted chicken, which is a chicken stir-fry that’s served in a bamboo bowl. (I don’t think the rice was cooked in the bamboo and it was more for presentation since there wasn’t a bamboo flavor in the rice.) Vera says the presentation reminded her of some of the dishes in Indonesia.
We also enjoyed a dessert called Mango Queen, which was like a mango pudding with bubble tea and cubes of fresh mango, topped with cubes of grass jelly (that’s the clear black gelatin popular in Asian desserts). It was nice and refreshing, and the tart fresh mango mixing with the cream made me think of a Creamsicle when eating the dessert.
The last bite
Baby Cafe has a fun and creative menu filled with a lot of comfort dishes. While sometimes the cooking is straight-forward, I was struck with how when eating you can sense the expertise in the kitchen and freshness of the ingredients, making the experience satisfying.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Baby Cafe, 358 11th St. (at Webster), Oakland. PH: 510.251.0888. Open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. Facebook page
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