Atmosphere: 4/5   ♦   Service: 3/5   ♦   Food Quality: 4/5   ♦   Value: 4/5
Times Visited:  Once   ♦   Will I Return?:  Yes Indeed

Pakwan has been sitting at the bottom of the hill for some time now.  By the “bottom of the hill” I refer to the Hayward hills, housing Cal State East Bay (formerly, and better known as Cal State Hayward), and, incidentally, my house.  We refer to pretty much everything in Hayward as being “down the hill”, mostly because just about everything is.  The Hayward location of Pakwan is just near the base of Carlos Bee on Mission Boulevard (other locations in SF and Fremont), and that facility used to house a variety of mediocre Chinese restaurants over the years.

It is perhaps my memory of these previous owners, vague as they are, that kept me from dedicating a meal to Pakwan for so long.  The old places were dingy, dark, with shabby carpet and dilapidated fixtures (yes, I am offended by dilapidated fixtures).  I don’t remember the food or service being very good.  Again, I was probably a child and didn’t visit often, and there were many different owners, but that’s still the feeling I had about this establishment, warranted or not.  Plus, every time I drive by Pakwan, it looks like it’s empty.  I hate eating at completely empty restaurants, it’s always a bit awkward.

Those were the reasons that I haven’t gone until now.  These are the reasons I will go again:  Pakwan has been completely redecorated and looks great inside.  Pakwan is clean, has a hearty menu, has a friendly man at the counter, has lots and lots of business, and is extremely cheap.  Oh, and the food is good – let’s not forget that.

Order/pick-up counter on your left, seating area straight ahead and more seating to the right. Pakwan Restauran in Hayward.

I couldn’t pick the previous decor out of a lineup (…though I would be curious to see a lineup of decors…) but I do know that Pakwan has much improved whatever was there.  Tasteful soffits now line the perimeter of the dining room, warm, soft lights brighten the space, I’m pretty sure all the windows have been replaced, and there’s crown molding for heaven’s sake.  This should be someone’s motto: “Crown molding: it makes a space look goooood”.  And it does.  The mildly gaudy crystal chandeliers manage to not overwhelm the room and even, in my opinion, give it the classy feel for which they were no doubt intended.   Even their website is nice and professional looking.  You go, Pakwan, I like it.

The space is divided up a bit oddly; the whole room is a giant open rectangle, but they’ve sequestered off two of the sides to make the normal dining area a big “L”.  The remaining area is cordoned off with a large accordion, roll-away, partition, which I think messes up the grandeur of the space a bit.  This explains why my drive-bys were so fruitless; it’s this partitioned area I see when I drive down Mission Boulevard, and that area is empty on a standard night.  This often empty space is used for banquets, which can hold up to 150 people, and also for the Sunday brunch buffet, which is offered every week from 11am-3pm.

A scheming brunch buffet looks like it will be plotting its revenge every Sunday between 11-3...

Notes about the brunch buffet: 1. They offer 25 dishes of all you can eat food; 2. It’s under $13 a person; 3. As posted on a sign near the front counter, they have recently reduced the price of the brunch buffet, due to the economic crisis, to $12.76/person +tax (from $13.79/person + tax).  How adorable is that?  And they’ve increased the age of children who can eat at the buffet for free from 4 yrs. to 6 yrs., and will now charge only half price for children up to 10 yrs. of age.  If that’s not being kind to the customer, I don’t know what is.  Oh yeah, and: 4. I must return for this brunch buffet.

Notice about how they lowered the price of their brunch buffet recently, due to the economic hardships.

Ok, the food.  We ordered three vegetarian dishes – Mix Vegetable Curry, Saag Daal (spinach and lentils), and Paneer Makhani (cheese cubes in Tikka masala (creamy tomato-y) sauce), with rice and naan.  It took a bit of time to come out of the kitchen, but when it did, it was good.  The Daal was a bit spicy for my taste, but sometimes that’s just the way it is.  I utilized their napkin dispenser in retaliation.  Everything seemed well prepared, tasted fresh, hot, and yummy, and was comparable in quality and presentation to other Indian restaurants I have been.  It wasn’t fall-out-of-my-chair good, but it was come-back-soon good.

Our meal at Pakwan, Hayward. Yum!

Mix Vegetable Curry at Pakwan in Hayward.

The only thing that I didn’t love was the order/pick up at the counter style.  I don’t mind ordering at the counter, but there were a few items I found confusing about it all.  First, the drink area is serve yourself, but the drinks are not included.  That’s fine, pretty normal.  My mom wanted tea with her dinner, but apparently that is included, though I don’t think we were going to be told that had we not asked.  Also, the chutney sauces and desserts are in the drink area where you can retrieve them at your leisure, which is nice except that you are not told this.  I only saw the chutney after I waited in line to order some Gulab Jamun (donut-type pastry balls in sugary syrup) only to be told that the desserts were serve yourself.  Was I supposed to signal to the man to put the Gulabs on my tab, or was it on-your-honor?  I’m not really sure.

Additionally, the “pick up” area of the front counter seemed to be a bit confused.  Orders often came out piecewise and the staff don’t seem to have a good system for recalling who ordered what or signaling to the patrons when their order has arrived.  There was a lot of waving across the room, a little bit of microphone use (“Order of Samosas” announced to blank-faced patrons), and some hollering to nearby tables.  That’s probably the only thing that I think they could improve on – it doesn’t seem terribly difficult to assign each dish a number and have that number attached to said dish when it exits the kitchen.  A quick microphone announcement of a number wouldn’t disturb everyone very much, and all would be well in the land of pick-up-your-own-dang-food-we’re-not-walking-it-over-to-your-table.  Them’s my suggestions.

After mentioning the terrible places that used to be in this location, the awesomely remodeled interior of Pakwan, the brunch buffet, the food, and the slightly odd pick-up counter, I feel I must touch on a very important point about Pakwan.  It’s cheap.  It’s fabulously cheap. Not, like, “Oh, that’s so cheap I think they might be dumpster diving” cheap, but like, “wow, they’re really efficient and really give us a good deal” cheap.  I guess it’s also because we ordered all veggie stuff; each “Vegetarian Delight”, as they call it, is only about $5.50!  The Paneer Makhani breaks the bank on the veggie menu at $7, and all Tandoori BBQ and meat curries are about $6-$8 per dish.  It doesn’t look like a lot of food, but it’s filling and it’s good.  You can happily leave Pakwan with a full belly for probably $8 a person, or spend a couple extra bucks to fund drinks or desserts.  Any misgivings I might have had (like the weird zig-zag shaped tables – what’s up with that?) are easily soothed by the extremely reasonable price of the foods.

Pakwan: I like you and I hope we can be friends.  I will be back to see you again.

Top Thai

Atmosphere: 4/5   ♦   Service: 5/5   ♦   Food Quality: 4/5   ♦   Value: 4/5
Times Visited:  Once   ♦   Will I Return?:  Yep

I honestly don’t know of too many Thai places in the Hayward/Castro Valley area, so when my dad took us to Top Thai on Castro Valley Boulevard, I was intrigued.  There may indeed be many Thai places around, I just don’t know about them.  I’ve been to one place on Foothill in Hayward years ago, but I can’t really even think up the location of any others.  But no matter, Top Thai certainly fills the void.

TT is in a tiny, unassuming, single story building across from the ridiculously huge and sort-of-awful Rite Aid at the eastern end of CVB in Castro Valley.  I probably would have never noticed it, and even if I did, it doesn’t look terribly enticing from the outside.  One step inside the doors, however, and the scenery is transformed.  The decor at Top Thai is very nice.  So nice that it looks like a professional may have had a hand in it, either that or the owner is quite savvy.  Thai-themed artwork scattered tastefully around the walls, dark wood tables and chairs, and subdued lighting all work together for a warm, homey, classy feel inside Top Thai.  Kudos, guys.

One of two nicely decorated seating areas at Top Thai in Castro Valley.

Seat by the window at Top Thai.

The reason we came, however, was not for the wall hangings.  My dad is a true believer in this place, he will testify that the food is darn good.  After trying it, I agree.  The service when we were there was excellent, also, which makes for an even more enthusiastic desire to return.  There are many waitresses, all who are extremely polite and almost too attentive.  Your water glass is refilled before you even know it’s half empty (not being a pessimist here, half empty works better to describe a glass that needs to be refilled).  They “please” and “thank you” you nearly to death.  So polite, so helpful, so attentive.  Not really much more you could ask in that category, I suppose.

We ordered a good variety of food starting with spring rolls and ending with mango and sticky rice and fried banana with ice cream.  The menu has many meat options, but also has a plentiful vegetarian section, for all the veggos out there.  The spring rolls were good, pretty standard fare for a Thai place.  They claimed that the sauce it came with was plum sauce, but what we got was clearly sweet chili sauce (aka sweet and sour sauce).  My dad, being the waiter-questioner that he is, asked the waitress if the dish wasn’t supposed to come with plum sauce instead?  She politely informed us that the sauce on our place was plum sauce.  I beg to differ, Ms. Waitress Lady.  But, she said it with a sincere smile, so nothing could be done short of making a scene.  Plus, I like sweet chili sauce with my spring rolls, thank you very much.

Thai Spring Rolls at Top Thai.

For our entrees*, we ordered a salmon curry, vegetarian pad Thai, Green Top Thai (mixed green beans, zucchini, broccoli, and baby bok choy), and dad got BBQ beef.  There are two salmon curries on the menu, and I think I ordered the Penang curry; I did whichever one the girl recommended was less spicy.  It was quite good: tender salmon, creamy curry sauce (not too spicy, indeed), and chunky veggies.  The pad Thai was good, as usual – again, nothing terribly special about a Thai place that serves good pad Thai.  My dad enjoyed his BBQ beef and the side of sweet chili sauce it came with, which was, incidentally, the same sauce as was served with our spring rolls.  It’s gotta be one or the other, people, the same sauce can’t be both sweet chili and plum!  I digress.  The veggies were really good – it’s nice to see a mix of my favorite veggies all on one plate at a restaurant (baby bok choy far surpasses regular-sized bok choy in edibility, in my opinion).  It was certainly more than enough food, but we made sure to go on to dessert anyway.

Salmon with Penang Sauce at Top Thai.

Vegetarian Pad Thai and Green Top Thai with BBQ Beef behind at Top Thai.

BBQ Beef with rice at Top Thai.

Boyfriend ordered the mango and sticky rice, reminiscent of our trip to Thailand.  This dessert is everywhere in Thailand; the rice is sticky and sweet and made with sugar and coconut milk, giving it a dessert-y texture and taste.  We tried to make it once at home and it just wasn’t the same.  The stuff at this place was pretty much the same as what we got in Thailand, though I’m not a huge mango fan so I only tried a bite.  We also ordered fried banana and ice cream, which I thought was just ok.  But what can I say, I’m a chocolate and hot-fudge-sundae kind of gal, so these fruity desserts typically don’t strike me the same as, say, Death-By-Chocolate Pie.

Mango with Sticky Rice in front, Fried Banana and Ice Cream behind, at Top Thai.

Top Thai is certainly well named in my opinion, I’d be happy to go back again for great service, beautiful atmosphere, and delicious food.

*Side Note: Did you know they call appetizers “entrees” in Australia?  It confused the heck out of us for a long time; we could not figure out why the entrees were always listed first on all the menus.

P.S. – Sorry for the void in posts, I was in Japan on vacation for three weeks and didn’t write quite enough drafts to stave off suspicion of my absence on this site.  But, I’m back, and I’m hungry.  See you here again soon.


Atmosphere: 4/5   ♦   Service: 3/5   ♦   Food Quality: 3/5   ♦   Value: 4/5
Times Visited:  Once   ♦   Will I Return?:  Not for the brunch

Otaez is a Mexican restaurant (with full bar, as noted on their site) with two locations: Oakland and Alameda.  My family had Sunday brunch at the Alameda location a couple weeks ago and had a decent experience.  Because we only had brunch, however, I’m not qualified to comment on the diversity of their menu or the speediness of their standard service, since we only received minimal buffet-style waitress visits.  Therefore, I write only of the Otaez brunch buffet.

Mexican brunch buffet is all the rage in my little life at the moment.  Never have I had so many Mexican Sunday brunches as I have in the last couple months (note: I’ve only had about four).  See my El Torito review for further notes on this fact.  Because El Torito is actually the only other restaurant where I have experienced the Mex brunch buffet, it’s hard not to compare one to the other.  And if I had to choose, I’d choose El Torito.

The main reason I like ET better is because I do not eat meat (except for fish).  In the way of non-meaty Mex food, Otaez has far less to offer, leaving me stuck with salad with beans and rice.  My mom was kind enough to order my boyfriend and me a cheese quesadilla, and we also asked for some tortillas, but still, not much to choose from.  (Again, see the El Torito review for further info on what they offer for us vegg-os there.)  As for the other food, it looked really good and there was quite a variety.  If you eat meat, I’m sure you’d have a better time at the Otaez brunch.

One end of the Otaez brunch buffet.

That being said, I still think the the food at El Torito is better overall.  My fellow diners weren’t quite raving about the food like they do at ET.  The enchiladas were notably not worth eating, as evidenced by the one-bite-missing remainders left on everyone’s plate.  Also, there appears to be an omelette bar, as is wont to occur at a Mex buffet, but there was no one staffing it until just before we left.  We had asked our waitress if the area that looked like an omelette bar would open up and she dutifully informed us that it will not.  But then it did.  As we were leaving.  Hmm…

The other end of the Otaez brunch buffet.

Otaez does have a really nice facility, however.  It’s a large place with tons of tables, a full bar area, a sunny, open atrium where the buffet is set up, and even some outdoor seating.  Their website boasts a banquet room as well, so the place is even bigger than it looks.  It’s nicely decorated inside and out, clean and tidy, and is a great place to spend a relaxing meal with family or friends.  The lunch buffet seemed to be rather popular and they are set up to handle many large groups, so maybe we just caught it on a bad day (for the food).

The seating area in Otaez.

As for the price, the buffet here is actually really cheap!  That was one of the draws for us – we were wondering how they could offer a full brunch buffet for only $10 a person.  And I’m not really sure how they do it.  There was a large selection of food, and it didn’t seem like they really skimped on anything in particular.  Maybe they lose money on the buffet just to get people in the door, who knows.  But, if you’re a meat eater and Mexican sounds good to you for brunch, I may recommend you try it out since it’s such a good deal and such a nice place, even though it wasn’t my favorite.

Statue lady welcomes you to Otaez.

Beware of the weird guy guarding the parking lot though – I thought he was a vagabond, but we collectively decided that he was employed by Otaez to monitor the parking lot, though we weren’t exactly sure for what purpose.  Note to Otaez: either outfit this guy in a more official looking shirt or chase him outta there so your patrons stop all the wondering and flinching.

Ghion Ethiopian Restaurant

Atmosphere: 3/5   ♦   Service: 3/5   ♦   Food Quality: 4/5   ♦   Value: 5/5
Times Visited:  Once   ♦   Will I Return?:  Yes, please

Yes, Ethiopian food.  I think I made the same jokes before I tried it too.  Many people haven’t had Ethiopian food, and to them I often describe it as plops of mushy stuff with spices, sort of like Indian food, served on a giant flat pancake shaped piece of sourdough spongy bread.  Oh and by the way, you tear off pieces of the bread and scoop up the food with it to eat.  No forks.  So fun.

If you’ve never tried Ethiopian and you’re not a food prude, I’d highly recommend it.  It’s one of my favorites and was a weekly endeavor when we lived in Australia.  The food is delicious, the way you eat it is fun, and the whole thing is a different experience for us westerners.

The exterior of Ghion may be a bit forbidding, but don't let it stop you from going in!

I’ve been eating Ethiopian food only for about the last two years, and have in that time tried probably a dozen different places (mostly in Melbourne, Australia).  In my experience, most Ethiopian restaurants are the same in a very odd way.  And because Ghion fit the bill, I was both amused and impressed.  The very best Ethiopian places are dead empty when you arrive.  There is often no music playing, and no one in the facility, possibly not even a waiter. There may be a group of Ethiopian gentlemen speaking (assumingly) Ethiopian and not paying you a bit of mind.  The dining area may be scantily decorated with an appropriately African theme.

The seating area in Ghion restaurant.

When you receive the menus, it is likely that pages are missing from most of them.  I could hardly believe that we found yet another Ethiopian place where this is the case, but we did.  It’s ok though, you can assemble the information between the few of you who have arrived together to assist in understanding the full menu selection.  The waiter/owner/cook is friendly but has a heavy accent. Sometimes there are language communication difficulties, but he is polite and courteous so it’s not uncomfortable.

It doesn’t really matter anyway, because whatever comes out of the kitchen will be good; no matter if you ordered it or not.  Your only concern is to make sure you receive vegetarian food if you ordered that, and that part of the order never seems to get lost.

Our food plate at Ghion.

Up until this point, I have been describing Ghion and many other places I’ve been.  I should now discuss the food at Ghion, which was excellent.  The vegetarian combo we ordered (x2 to feed four people) was a standard combo that we’ve seen elsewhere also.  The brown lintel mush, the yellow cabbage and potato pile, the green lintel stuff, the stuff that appeared to be spinach but may have been another green, and the yellow goo that I’m not sure what it was.  De-lic-ious, even though I’m clearly not aware of the technical names or ingredients.  We also ordered an appetizer of some sort of cheese, which was also placed on the big plate (white, crumbly), and boyfriend’s favorite dish of tomato-soup-consistency goo that was really, really good.

Food plate close-up. Yum!!

All of this with a generous side of wheat injera to scoop it with, and we were stuffed in no time.  One of the other great things about Ethiopian food is that it’s typically pretty cheap.  $42 covered all four of us including two beers, and we were certainly full to the brim.  If you like Ethiopian, head down to Ghion to get your next fix, or, if you’ve never tried it, I’d say Ghion wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Note:  Wait a minute, Angie, aren’t you in Japan right now?  How are you patronizing restaurants in the Bay when you’re far far away?  Touche, fair reader, good catch.  I did not come to Japan fully unprepared – I have a few drafts waiting in the wings of this blog so as not to drop the ball while I’m away!  Haha!  Would I starve you of food posts while I travel the globe?  Surely not.  Keep your eyes peeled, I will be posting again!