Millbrae is sort of the San Gabriel Valley of the Bay—an urban-ish burb with lots of good Chinese food. We ate Shanghai-style dumplings (dim sum for dinner—who knew?) and then wandered into a place called 100% Healthy Dessert. The walls were covered with posters of bright mango- and gelatin-laden concoctions with names I can only describe as pseudo-Franco-Chinglish—stuff like “gui ling gao coco durian de tadpole.” That’s not the name of an actual dish. I probably just described a bastardized nonexistent Frankenfood, although all the offerings sort of seemed like bastardized nonexistent Frankenfoods in the best, chewiest, most red bean-stuffed sort of way.
I wanted one of the baked puddings, but after learning it would take a half hour to prepare, I randomly pointed to a frothy mango smoothie with chunks of mango and little floating, gel-covered black seeds that did indeed look like tadpole eggs (but weren’t). It tasted fresh and sweet and Nerissa said, “I’m going to call healthy on that. At least 75 percent.”
While we were waiting for our food, we met a woman named Sophie T. who was stopping to pick up her favorite spam musubi with extra hot sauce after a birthday dinner with family.
“They were taking me out, so I couldn’t tell them I wasn’t full,” she said with a conspiratorial laugh. “This place makes food like my country, Malaysia and Singapore.”
Later she said her country was Burma and directed us to a couple of good Burmese restaurants, but maybe if Burma is your native country, you find some backup countries pretty quickly.
“Do you go to church? I go the one down the street, and we’re always looking for new people.” There was the rub.
Nerissa name-checked her Catholic church and told Sophie T. we were from out of town. Sophie didn’t miss a beat. “Catholic? Oh. Well, I just started a new job if you need insurance.” She handed us each an Allstate card. “But friendship first. That’s what I always tell my boss. Friendship first.”
I’m not sure if Burma Superstar was among the Burmese restaurants Sophie T. suggested, but AK and I found ourselves eating tea leaf salad and samusa soup (which, yes, is soup floating with Burmese samosas—i.e. fried soup) there with her college friend Gerilyn the next day.
“There’s a new gelato place down the street if you guys have room,” Gerilyn said. We had just enough.
The sign told us that Scream Sorbet was closed on Mondays, but a tall guy with frazzly hair was coming out of the dark shop.
“You guys probably want me to open up, huh?” he said.
We said we would come back, but Noah would have none of it. Soon we were standing over a case of tiny tubs of sorbet, and he was telling us about the amazing machines that slice and dice deep-frozen gourmet foods into tiny pieces, turning ingredients like apple and fennel and hazelnuts into a substance as creamy as dairy.
“I’m gonna say…” he said in a tone somewhere between agonized and impassioned, “…that for the price point, this is the most gourmet food you can buy.”
If he weren’t so visibly, deeply in love with his sorbet (don’t call it gelato, by the way), statements like, “This should be a destination for tourists from Asia” might have sounded braggy, not to mention a tad unrealistic. (“Oakland? Are you sure?” said Gerilyn, who works for Lonely Planet.)
He gave us a free Madagascar vanilla and macadamia nut sorbet sandwich nestled between two of the softest, spiciest molasses cookies you could imagine. It was definitely not what I think of as sorbet—i.e. an icy, mildly disappointing low-fat alternative to ice cream. It was what sorbet wanted to be when it grew up. We took turns nibbling and gushing. We promised to spread the word, and to return.
If I lived in Hong Kong and had regular access to gui ling gao coco durian de tadpole, I’m not sure I’d fly to Oakland just for the sorbet. But next time a road trip takes me to the East Bay? Definitely.