The U.N. of Food
Emeryville Public Market
By Stett Holbrook
Photography By Lara Hata
Shopping mall food courts have a well-earned reputation for bad food. Often located in the harshly lit basements of malls, the food from these fast-food restaurants tastes like it all comes out of the same deep fryer. Food courts know they have a captive audience of weary shoppers, and so the food is always predictably bad: Flabby slices of pizza. Oil-soaked Chinese food. Mexican food that should come with a side of Alka-Seltzer.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. At least not when you’re at the Emeryville Public Market.
Emeryville really is one giant mall. It seems like every major retail chain and big box store in America is represented here. And as bargain hunters from across the Bay Area know, the city is home to Ikea, that great black hole into which once wide-open weekends disappear as you wander for hours like a hamster trapped in a giant Habitrail. But if you’re hungry, Emeryville Public Market offers light at the end of those seemingly endless retail tunnels of cheap pine furniture and surprisingly attractive area rugs.
Emeryville Public Market is the opposite of the American food court. Instead of the food being an afterthought to the stores, the food is the attraction here. There’s a Borders on one side and movie theater on the other, but you can find those anywhere. What you can’t find is this much food variety under one roof.
Walking down the narrow corridors of the market trying to decide what to eat can be daunting. Cuisine choices include Thai, Mexican, barbecue, Vietnamese, Afghan, burgers, crepes, Philly cheese steaks and a Chinese place that also sells fish and chips. It’s a United Nations of food.
Not all of it is great, but several of the places I tried were quite good. Pamir is definitely worth a stop. While the sign says Afghan and Persian food, it only serves Afghan food. When asked why, the cashier told me no Persians come to the market, so they stopped making Persian food. While I’m sure there are non-Persians who like Persian food, I settled for the Afghan food, which was plenty good.
Eight dollars gets you a three-item combo plate. Mine included tandoori-style chicken, stewed eggplant and chickpea curry. The chicken was tinted an earthy orange and coated in a light creamy curry that still let the tangy, smoky chicken come through. The eggplant was a simple side dish, slow cooked with onions and a multitude of spices. My favorite was the chickpea curry bathed in a moderately spiced red sauce. I also got a side of the stewed okra, a hearty dish made with tomatoes and onions. A glass of saffron-almond milk ($2) went great with my meal and helped cut the heat of the chickpea curry.
Nearby is Wazwan Indian Cuisine, one of the most consistently crowded stalls at the market. It’s fast food ladled from steam tables, but it’s fresh and light. While the naan is pretty weak, I liked the chana masala (chickpeas and in a red curry) and spinach dal, a two-item combo that set me back $5.25. And be sure to grab some of the bright orange pickled onions—the free condiments counter the richness of some of the dishes.
Across the way is California Vietnamese Cuisine. While none of the steam table food looked good to me, I had an excellent bowl of chicken noodle soup ($5.50). Known as pho ga in Vietnamese, the broth was lighter than the more popular beef version of the soup but had a clean, bright flavor. Packed with thin rice noodles and tender chunks of light and dark meat chicken, it’s a quick and healthy meal in a bowl.
Over the course of three visits to the market, my favorite vendor was Jamaica Place. The restaurant specializes in jerk chicken, grilled meat marinated in an aromatic and spicy marinade dominated by allspice, black pepper and Scotch bonnet chiles. Jamaica Place’s chicken is tamer than other versions I’ve had, but even if they tone down the heat for the masses, it’s still good. A quarter chicken with rice, beans and fried plantains goes for $7.50. For something richer and different than anything you’ll find at the typical food court, try the oxtails ($8). Braised a dark, chocolate brown, the boney morsels yield exceptionally tender meat.
But my favorite item here was not the food but the drinks. The restaurant makes its own ginger beer and a sorrel-based drink ($2.10). The beer is sweet but tempered by an assertive, spicy kick of ginger. Sorrel is made from a flesh red flower and is a different plant than the little green lettuce commonly known as sorrel. It’s tart and sweet like hibiscus, but has the pleasing punch of fresh ginger as well.
There’s a big, open seating area at the market as well as a few quieter nooks and counter spaces. I took a seat with my Jamaican food near a mini-arcade for young children that included a Bert and Ernie ride and a screened-in jumping ball pit where kids were flinging themselves with abandon. Every once and awhile, one of the brightly colored balls would roll under my table.
In addition to the wide variety of food, the market’s high wooden ceiling, red brick exterior and proximity to an Amtrak stop makes it feels like being somewhere else other than an American food court. After a day of shopping and facing a gauntlet of fast-food choices that dominate Emeryville, it’s a welcome feeling.