There are a lot of reasons to run a marathon or a half-marathon. Yes, there are the fitness benefits and the slimmer waists, the sculpted calves. We run because it gives us peace of mind and makes us less likely to yell at people. We run because in the days after the attack at the race in Boston, it has become sort of an act of patriotism.
But these highfalutin goals aside, honest runners will tell you they run because it gives them a monstrous appetite that allows them to consume Michael Phelpsian portions of food without a trace of shame. In the course of training for half- and full-marathons, I have eaten three-course meals at Cure, the meat-centric restaurant in Lawrenceville, then required a 1,000-calorie portion of macaroni and cheese at midnight. I have downed two hot dogs at Station Street Dogs as a "starter," then consumed a multicourse meal an hour later. I have tiptoed downstairs in the middle of the night to eat Nutella straight from the jar, because four square meals was simply not enough.
This week, I've been in full-out binge mode, even though I only ran the half-marathon on Sunday. And it's a good thing, because the odd restaurant my boyfriend and I stumbled upon on Atwood Street in South Oakland required quite the appetite.
I used to live in this section of South Oakland, about a block away, where I dealt with the typical charms of student slums: broken bottles, screaming students, and the deafening chop of medical helicopters.
The facade of Hunan Cafe Chinese & Cuban is confusing to say the least. There is other signage that would suggest this hole-in-the-wall is named Black Bean Cuban, but that's merely a remnant of its former identity as just a Cuban restaurant. There is also signage handwritten in Chinese outside, which, in past experience, has been sometimes a beacon of authenticity.
Inside, there's industrial carpet, plastic tablecloths and rolls of paper towels on the table. A formica bar dominates the poorly lit space, which is decorated with Cuban-themed art. Nancy Grace was bellowing from a flat-screen television in one corner; an odd surveillance camera perched from some refrigerators. There was more signage in Chinese (punctuated by exclamation points) and other signs indicating we were not to use illegal drugs on the premises.
My boyfriend and I sat down and were given three menus: a Chinese (featuring Hunan and Sichuan specials), a Chinese-American and a Cuban.
"This is the most confusing restaurant I've ever been to," I said.
After perusing the volumes of menus before us, we settled on a the iconic Cuban sandwich ($6.95) and a beef empanada ($2.50) from the Cuban menu. The Sichuan and Hunan menu featured a dizzying array of food I'd never seen or heard of before -- duck with beer Hunan sauce, spicy duck tongue, steamed pork ribs with taro cubes, and, there may be a spelling error here, but beggar's chicken with human sauce.
I decided on the steamed fish filet with chopped chilies ($16.95), a long bean and eggplant stir-fry ($9.95) and lamb with cumin ($16.95).
After about 10 minutes, our small table was overwhelmed with food, the massive Cuban sandwich wedged next to the lamb stir-fry, a full-size fish fillet sharing a corner with a beef empanada. The experience was, admittedly, a little surreal.
And the food was intriguing. The boy quickly declared the Cuban sandwich -- pulled pork and cured pork pressed into a sandwich with pickles, mustard and cheese -- to be "pretty good," and perhaps his surprise came from the fact that the sandwich shared a table with chopsticks. The beef empanada was nicely crisped and stuffed with scrumptious ground beef.
I'm not sure I had ever tried Hunan food before wandering into this place. The lamb was sliced thin and stir-fried with a heavy dose of cumin, cilantros, bell peppers and dried hot peppers, giving it a nicely spicy edge. It was my favorite dish of the evening.
The long bean stir-fry was perfect, with the eggplant cooked to an ideal state of softness, while the beans remained crisp. The fish came as boneless, skinless filets submerged in an intimidating red chili oil and then topped with more chilies and cilantro. I enjoyed the accoutrements -- the fiery sauce complimented by the crisp herb -- but the actual texture of the fish was a bit off.
I could go on about how strange it was to eat a bready Cuban sandwich alongside cumin-scented Hunanese lamb, but it's actually reflective of the kind of place South Oakland has become. I used to live about a block from Atwood Street, and while my block bore the scourges of the student slums (the bro's, the yelling, the broken glass), I miss the diversity.
This block is now home to a Mexican grocer and restaurant, a Burmese-Japanese restaurant, a pan-Southeast Asian joint, an Indian grocer and restaurant and, of course, Antoon's Pizza, home of the $5 large pie.
So don't be too weirded out. Dig in with both hands -- a Cuban sandwich in one and chopsticks in another.
Hunan Bar is at 239 Atwood St., Oakland; 412-621-2326.
Moriah Balingit: email@example.com or 412-263-2533.