This summer, a funny local food story made headlines in the East Bay. East Bay Express food critic Luke Tsai got creatively duped by fabricated Yelp reviews of a “secret underground” Chinese restaurant.
Tsai went as far as looking for the place on the outskirts of El Cerrito only to find out it didn’t exist. Whether the prank’s intention was to make fun of Yelp’s authority or to conduct a social experiment, one thing was clear: we all love an exclusive, elusive food establishment, especially if a select group of people is raving about it.
It’s easy to understand, then, the motivation behind calling a place the Secret Kitchen and locating it in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking, on the rural, cloud-shrouded Bodega Highway. Owner Brenda Anderson cooked in Paris, Germany and Thailand before feeding hoards of office workers at the now-closed Life Long Cafe on Mountain View’s Google campus. The Secret Kitchen is her current project, and, as the name and location hint, it’s an ambitious one.
The restaurant feels like a road-trip pit stop with its window service and umbrella-topped outdoor tables, but the food aims higher. Attempting to marry Mexican and Asian cuisines, the menu mobilizes familiar ethnic forms—tacos, burritos, noodle and rice bowls—and fills them with creative ingredients. The idea is hardly innovative, but managing the tricky fusion lies largely in the execution, not the gimmick itself.
Classics from both cuisines are mostly well executed, and the crossover dishes benefit from the ethnic twist. The tacos, on the smaller side ($3.50 each), are a big success. The chicken tinga features chicken braised with chipotle chiles, cilantro crema, salty cotija cheese and pickled onion, my favorite ingredient these days. The tacos are juicy, flavorful and light. The Korean barbecue taco is even better. Mixing barbecued chicken with kimchi proves that anything is possible when you balance the quantities right.
This can’t be said, however, of the green Thai curry noodle bowl ($7.75, small; $12.50, large). The fried shallots, peanuts, hardboiled egg and Thai basil on top are the best part, but the curry that covers the noodles and tofu underneath is soupy and bland.
The crunchy banh mi ($9.75), ordered with tofu, is better. Substituting mayo for Sriracha and creamy, Indonesian-style peanut sauce makes it a winner that might as well become the norm. Topping the sandwich with Dr. Peppahead’s mango lime hot sauce, available in a squeeze bottle, is highly recommended. To finish the unlikely roadside lunch in style, we were offered a sticky, indulgent rum caramel cake ($3), served hot.
Unlike the dessert, a straightforward, ultra-sweet crowd pleaser, the Secret Kitchen is somewhat of a riddle. It’s off the beaten path, for sure, and isn’t your average lunch grub, but it’s also not as sophisticated as its website’s lingo would have customers think. Everything is served in takeaway containers and paper trays. It’s fun and creative, but is it a destination? That depends on how much you like to brag about “secret” lunch spots on Yelp or elsewhere.