East Bay Bite of the Week: Southeast Asian Paella at Spice Monkey
On that dreary stretch of Webster in uptown Oakland, Spice Monkey is a beating heart. It pulses, glimmers, and thrums with the promise of a good time. It endears itself in the same way a world-weary, eclectic aunt would -- the kind that sticks out by virtue of her crazy hats, but whose aphorisms to "love and be free," though you shove them off, tug secretly at your own yearning to carpe the fucking diem.
Part of the appeal is Spice Monkey's bizarre but magical setting. It's a young restaurant, only six years old, but it lives in one of Oakland's historic landmarks -- the old setting of Howden & Sons Tile Company showroom, which housed the company at the turn of the 19th century, or the "golden age" of tile in the US. That wouldn't mean much if tile showrooms weren't actually majestic mashes of strange and tiny mismatched, wildly textured, and ornately patterned art, but they are. Your first look into the space will likely land on the indoor fountain, a centerpiece to the old showroom, decked with candles and lazily dripping rivulets. Look further, and you'll see the original beams, flurry of blues on the Mexican tile staircase, a Moorish ornateness, the earthy geometry of the fireplace. Every room, item, and wall is a Bird of Paradise in mating season. And it works so well.
The other magical component is Kanitha Matoury, founder of the place. All it takes is one question about the pickled red cabbage and you're likely to find her at your tableside with a few disarming compliments in her pocket, and packed storybook about the flavors on your potatoes.
It goes like this: Matoury is Cambodian, married to an Israeli, and fills her years traveling, collecting impressions and sensations to bring home to the restaurant. You'll find the philosophy distilled in the Spice Monkey Potatoes -- thickly cut wedges encrusted with twelve herbs and spices, from French lavender to lemongrass from Thailand to the black pepper that put Kampot, Cambodia on the map. They are spicy and floral all at once. You'll find another symbiotic cultural mash in the Amazing Asian Tacos, a trio of fluffy and chewy, Tempur-Pedically soft bao buns swaddling pepper-rubbed pork, braised for a lifetime, and crowned in vinegared red cabbage slaw. It's an ebullient mix, and worth it if only for that first bite of pillowy soft, slick and yeasted bao.
Filet mignon in the Cambodian Steak Salad is without doubt, the best rendition of the cut I've ever tasted. Simply marinated -- roasted garlic and tomato -- the meat breaks down, melting like a dream. It also arrives beneath a towering, crispy nest of vermicelli noodles that you get to hack into with your chopsticks.
Best, though, is the Southeast Asian Paella, a reclaimed version of the dish that comes up more like curried coconut risotto plumped to the gills with shrimp, octopus, squid, and the rest. And it's the rustic touches that make you fall in love. A slim halo of preserved lemon brightens the bowl, while lemongrass and tart kaffir lime kick the coconut's creamy sweetness into drive. Everything here feels like the unearned spoils of long, Oceanic voyage.
Spice Monkey's virtue extends from the fact that it is first a spice house. All the curry pastes are made in house, lasting but two days, and most dishes feature something like a dozen spices. Teas are hand blended, including my favorite -- Purple Kush, a blend of chamomile, red raspberry leaf, and passionfruit vine, named for the likeness the dry mix bears to weed. As if you need another reason to come.