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3 Bottled Fish review: Oakland’s coolest Vietnamese cafe – San Francisco Chronicle

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Visiting a neighborhood restaurant can feel like going to a nearby friend’s house. The appeal might lie in its proximity, its consistency, its affordability. But the most memorable ones offer something more. My favorites put you on to something new, directing your attention to an undervalued dish from a cuisine. Or you might encounter a familiar food, done in a new way, revealing something about its maker’s whims.

3 Bottled Fish, a Vietnamese cafe brimming with personality in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, is one of those restaurants. The cafe doubles as a community space, with affordable pricing (most items cost under $16) and a focused menu, highlighting only a few dishes at a time. It’s a comfortable place that sets you at ease, where you can put your trust in the chef, and be empowered to take a chance and try something new.

You’ll find the restaurant a few blocks away from the Fruitvale banner that extends across Foothill Boulevard,  a culinary corridor for the neighborhood’s residents. You’ll need to travel past the temptation of sensational tortas, past the beckoning of street food puestos (stand), past the Guatemalans frying up birds and potatoes and the Salvadorans slapping supple pupusas. Look for a tire shop; two doors down is 3 Bottled Fish, with a green-and-blue sign. 

Inside, a TV provides an irregular soundtrack: a constant loop of Vietnamese hawker stand videos. Plants stationed throughout the compact, white-walled space lend a sense of calm. On one end, there’s a bookshelf — which I, and many others, have befriended while waiting for food, thumbing through the works of Angela Davis or Anthony Bourdain. Owner and chef Paulette Tran makes everything on the menu, a singer-songwriter crafting tunes that are extensions of herself. Here, you’re in her world, her home, where she nourishes you with housed-cured sausage and soulful bowls of soup. Her nourishment, meanwhile, comes from feeding people.

Paulette Tran, owner of 3 Bottled Fish in Oakland.

Paulette Tran, owner of 3 Bottled Fish in Oakland.

Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle

The short-and-sweet menu, inscribed on a chalkboard sign, has a few staples like punchy “Eastside” noodle bowls but items change week to week. Tran prefers small batch cooking, as if she’s “cooking for family (but) times three,” she told me.

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Sandwiches ($14) and bun nem nuong ($14), sausage rice noodle bowl, are standbys, which become paths to less common Vietnamese dishes.Instead of traditional plushy rolls for her banh mi, Tran reaches for crusty baguettes, adding unexpected crunch. Fillings range from steak and eggs to chicken slathered with seductive paté or thin slabs of house-cured pork. That pork is one of Tran’s trademark ingredients — chewy, well-spiced and easy to obsess over, featured prominently over noodle bowls with crushed peanuts, greens and herbs. 

Those dishes might lead you to come back for soulful, peppery beef porridge ($11), perfumed with ginger, or hu tieu ($16), a seafood noodle soup featuring a clean broth and fat shrimp. On occasion, you’ll encounter Mama’s pho ($16), a version of the popular soup highlighting melty beef, with flat rice noodles and a Meyer lemon wedge, to help make the dish distinct.

Another signature component is housemade fish sauce, which is featured in the first-rate dipping sauce that accompanies many dishes. Better known as nuoc cham, the sauce is as vital an element to the Vietnamese as salsa is to Mexicans or tzatziki to the Greek. Tran’s is especially nice, a venn diagram of saltiness, sourness, sweetness and spiciness (coming from bits of bird’s eye chiles).

Banh mi from 3 Bottled Fish in Oakland.

Banh mi from 3 Bottled Fish in Oakland.

Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle

If you keep returning, you’ll strike gold. One visit, all the celestial bodies aligned in my favor and I caught the majestic salmon belly com tam ($14), a delicious portrait of broken rice and fish, with skin that crackled like bruleed sugar. The fish’s shattering crunch revealed a burst of gelatinous fat. Dishes like these are rarities for the cafe, which doesn’t have a range hood, but manages to turn out vibrant food in an underprivileged environment. But that’s what the restaurant is all about: making the most with what’s available, despite limitations.

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3 Bottled Fish started as a pop-up around 2012, before joining the Stonestown farmers market a year later. Tran, an east San Jose native, has a background in social justice work, particularly youth empowerment in San Francisco, San Leandro and Oakland. So her cafe landing in east Oakland, where she has lived, where she has worked with the community over a decade ago, was no accident. This year she started doing culinary workshops at the restaurant, hosting students from nearby schools. “I love where the shop is,” said Tran.

Offering an ever-changing menu, with Vietnamese deep-cut dishes that might be unfamiliar to customers, is tricky anywhere in the Bay Area, no less in an underserved area like Fruitvale. But it’s a risk that she’s willing to take. “There’s meaning to this,” she said, “it could take me down… but I feel good about what’s happening.”

The salmon belly com tam with skin that crackles like bruleed sugar from 3 Bottled Fish in Oakland.

The salmon belly com tam with skin that crackles like bruleed sugar from 3 Bottled Fish in Oakland.

Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle

It’s easy to focus on the negativity that surrounds Oakland — critics tend to view the exit of sports teams and burger chains as bad omens signaling decline. However, Tran and her restaurant are a positive force for the Town. A good neighborhood restaurant, I would argue, should understand its surroundings and add something to them, and 3 Bottled Fish does that. It made me think of Tupac, who began his music career in Oakland, asking if we’d heard about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete. This cafe is a little reminder that beauty will always exist in areas that are counted out.

3 Bottled Fish

1924 35th Ave., Oakland. instagram.com/3bottledfish

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Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday

Accessibility: All on one floor. Tables are low to the ground. Outdoor benches available.

Noise level: Quiet to mild.

Meal for two, without drinks: $30-$40.

What to order: Salmon belly com tam ($14), banh mi ($14), rice noodle soup ($14)

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Meat-free options: None.

Transportation: Street parking. Near 40, 840 and 54 bus routes, and Fruitvale BART station.

Best practices: Visit with a friend and order the whole menu. Check Instagram for menu updates.

Reach Cesar Hernandez: [email protected]; Twitter: @cesarischafa

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