The April evening that Kristine “Bala” Wong flung open the door to Zen Asian Fusion Tapas and Lounge, a hipster eatery in the shadow of the renovated Alameda Theatre, no one predicted how very un-Zen the American economy would become in just a few short months. Zen’s launch coincided with the 2008 reopening of the theater, which reinvigorated the neighborhood and left it with an embarrassment of riches in the form of trattorias, brasseries, noodle shops and swanked-up gin joints. But when the market began to bottom out and banks went belly up, the owners of those new eateries understandably began to ponder their futures.
“It’s like a roller coaster right now, up and down,” concedes Wong, Zen’s chef, owner and sometime-waitress. “I mean, Fridays and Saturdays are still the busiest, but with the economy ... you just never know.”
It’s a tough break for Wong. Zen is a dream she’s nursed since her teens, and in any other economic climate, it could be a Cinderella story, one of those tales of the unexpected underdog achieving a lifelong aspiration. Born in China, Wong immigrated to Oakland at the age of 7 and spent the better part of her life in restaurants. While her father, Joe Wong, still owns New Gold Medal in Oakland’s Chinatown, Wong was always relegated to grittier duties, like waiting tables—a chore she’s had in restaurants across the Bay Area since she was 13. She earned her nickname, Bala, from coworkers in a restaurant. Wong, now 34, says that even when the odds seemed stacked against her, she always knew she’d tend stove at her own spot, even without formal culinary training. She envisioned a modern place, not one with ducks dangling in the windows and fish doing a lazy sidestroke in giant aquariums like her dad’s spot. And it wouldn’t be Chinese, either. Instead, she’d cherry-pick dishes from all the different flavors she’d tasted in her waitressing days, with an emphasis on Japanese cuisine.
“I wanted to make a fusion place,” she says. “I mean, I like Japanese very much. And I like Chinese. I like Thai. Korean. But there are so many of all of those types of restaurants in Alameda already. You don’t want to compete with people. You want to be special.”
Wong saved money for years to open Zen, which is more than just a personal meditation and is indeed special, from decor to carte du jour. Located in the unambitious space that once housed Uncle Wong’s, a Chinese spot of no relation that rarely inspired a second glance from passersby, Zen is its antithesis. There is sleek carpeting. Sofa seating. Glossy black tables. Carmine walls stretch to the ceiling, supported by clubby wood paneling below. Vermicelli-ish drapes dangle like squid ink pasta from the front window. An unending, mood-setting soundtrack of hipster tunes plays on an iPod above the bar, and indirect lighting adds to the ambience. The only recognizable remnant from the restaurant’s former incarnation is the front door: a functional piece more Laundromat than lounge.
The menu Wong has created is an amalgamation of some 45 tapas plates, not including daily specials. Calling the assortment “tapas,” however, seems a misnomer. Tapas are typically small, savory dishes; these are on steroids. The sea steak salad alone ($13), a Cobb-like presentation of organic mixed greens, avocado, asparagus, cucumber, daikon sprouts, red pepper, halved cherry tomatoes and a bounty of seared ahi tuna, all dressed in a plucky wasabi dressing, would certainly satisfy a lone diner. So too would the mentaiko spaghetti ($7), a refreshing take on Parmesan noodles, with the mentaiko (marinated cod roe) underscoring the coveted quality described by the Japanese as umami—a so-called fifth taste that has a somewhat indescribable deliciousness factor.
Comfort food is also on order at Zen, most notably in the form of kimchee fried rice ($6), a burnt-orange offering with just the right zip. Also popular are the Asian fries with aioli ($5). While fries with aioli are nothing new, these are actually tempura-battered sweet potatoes, a specialty that Wong’s mother, Miu, supervises.
Disappointments are few at Zen, but there are weaknesses. Repetition of ingredients across dishes grows tiresome, with cherry tomatoes and ahi tuna seemingly dominating every dish, from appetizers to mains. To wit: The sushi pizza ($12), a flat-bread based concoction topped with thin slices of maguro, might have been a bigger hit at our table had we not indulged in so much tuna by then. In fact, wary of the Food and Drug Administration’s tuna guidelines, one woman of childbearing age and wary of mercury intake simply pushed the tuna-topped pizza away. And adult-beverage fans craving a proper martini will also bemoan the fact that Zen doesn’t have a hard liquor license. Still, those shortcomings don’t detract much from an evening at Zen. And who knows? If Zen can ride out the nation’s economic troubles, as the restaurant deserves to do, this really will be Wong’s Cinderella story.
Zen Asian Fusion and Tapas Lounge. Asian fusion. 2315 Santa Clara Ave., (510) 521-7070. Serves dinner 5 p.m.–9:30 p.m. Mon.-Sun., closed Wednesdays.
Credit Card accepted, Beer & Wine, Wheelcahir accessible, $-$$