BUILD Pizzeria and Joshu-Ya Brasserie Lead the Way in Culinary Fusion Mash-ups

From kimchi burritos to cheesy sushi, map-bending mash-ups are pushing culinary envelopes,


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BUILD's chicken tikka masala pizza.

Photos by Pat Mazzera

Exuding perfumey plumes of steam at Berkeley’s BUILD Pizzeria Roma (www.BuildPizzeria.com), this pizza looks Italian. Melted mozzarella swirls from rim to sumptuously chewy-crispy golden rim like some lavish Homerian sea, studded liberally with “islands” of roasted red pepper, purple onion, and marinated chicken. Peeking and streaking through the satiny cheese is tomato sauce—of course.

Or of course not. Because hark: It’s house-made masala sauce. This is a chicken tikka pizza.

It’s one of several new pies on BUILD’s current menu, designed by executive chef Micheal Iles, who is a firm believer in the border-busting culinary mash-ups that are now flagrantly, fragrantly pushing so many East Bay envelopes.

Steak-and-kimchi tacos at Oakland’s Belly Uptown. Sushi burritos at downtown Berkeley’s Sushi Secrets. Tempura tilapia tacos off the Pittsburg-based Blue Saigon Fusion Grill food truck. Franks and links topped with kimchi, wasabi mayo, sweet Japanese mayo, teriyaki sauce, and pickled daikon at Alameda’s Doggy Style Hot Dogs. Kimchi-pork belly pizza and spaghetti tossed with Parmesan cheese, enoki mushrooms, and Japanese-style mentaiko: pollock and cod roe, at Alameda’s Zen Fusion Asian Tapas.

While East-West hookups are the edgiest fusion excursions, subtler ones conjoin two disparate outposts within East or West: the spicy jalapeño Baja burger at Emeryville’s Smashburger, for instance, or the boxed meals at downtown Oakland’s Taiwan Bento; bento is Japanese—although, granted, Japan ruled Taiwan for 50 years.

“Our entire menu” is an exercise in fusion, avows Jason Kwon, chef-owner of Berkeley’s Joshu-Ya Brasserie. His dazzlingly, deliberately multicultural staff work together to create map-bending masterpieces such as gochujang ginger chicken wings, Kobe beef-bacon-kimchi-cheddar sliders, salmon-cream cheese-asparagus-avocado-ponzu “Liberty Bell” sushi, and French toast with miso-maple ice cream.

This ice cream “is almost a play on salted caramel,” explains Kwon. He also owns comfort-food haven Bleecker Bistro, whose kimchi-sausage breakfast burrito “is a hit,” Kwon deduces, because the UC Berkeley students comprising the bulk of his customers already know and love its two fillings—which “just taste so much better in a tortilla.”

And that’s the basic fusion blueprint: Carby delivery vehicles bearing eclectic, exotic contents are the crucial fusion fulcrum. The world’s best ambassadors are our old friends: crusts, wrappers, and buns.

“Almost every culture has some kind of flatbread,” which can be used to bridge disparate cuisines, says BUILD’s Iles. “That’s why pizza is a great foil for whatever flavors and textures you want to experiment with.”

Iles’ other new fusiony pizzas include the “Accra,” topped with chorizo, chicken, pepperoni, salami, mozzarella, harissa cream, and cilantro; and the Thai chicken, topped with mozzarella, chicken, julienned vegetables, cilantro pesto, sweet chili sauce, and spicy peanut sauce.

“My son-in-law is from Ghana, so with the Accra, I tried to create a pizza that I knew he would like,” Iles explains.

“In Ghana, they make a lot of dishes using mixed meats: pork, chicken, beef, and fish all cooked together in stews and curries, and with tomato sauces that they call ‘gravy.’ They have a sausage that is a little vinegary—they wouldn’t call it chorizo, but that’s basically what it is.

“I combine the harissa with crème frâiche to add lightness. Otherwise the harissa would overpower all those delicious, aromatic African spices.”

He suggests pairing this pizza with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which “has some really wonderful grapefruit and lemon flavors and good carbonation. Both elements work great with spicy food.”

As for the peanut pizza, “I love Thai food, and while I was hungrily making pizza one day, I noticed some Thai peanut sauce sitting on the counter.”

With these as with future fusion creations, “I have to balance being really authentic to any given cuisine with the fact that we’re making pizzas.”

Which raises the question: At some point on the high-speed fusion superhighway, does a pizza become no longer a pizza, a hot dog no longer a hot dog but rather a grotesque horror-film hybrid?

“I am not against fusion at all,” asserts Chris Pastena, owner of Oakland’s Lungomare and co-owner of Oakland’s Chop Bar. “Many great foods of the world are based in fusion. For example, today’s Vietnamese cuisine is a fusion of French and Vietnamese food traditions and flavors.”

Successful mash-ups, Pastena says, are “clean and honest flavor combinations that make you think differently about a dish and that become something greater than the parts on their own. There’s also often an element of surprise and playfulness. If you try to overdo it, it usually fails, and just becomes confusing to the diner. But in the right hands, fusion can be extraordinary.”

At Oakland’s Homestead, “we believe in a more subtle form of fusion, by using local ingredients and trying to create traditional dishes from various cultures,” explains co-owner Fred Sassen. The ongoing trend of “making sushi into tacos has many more fails than successes, and due to that factor, to us, it seems to be a novelty and a fad. We do believe that pushing the boundaries of creativity is essential; however we believe in practicing it with restraint.”

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