Dublin's Little Asia
Take an international culinary tour without boarding a plane.
Peking duck buns at Koi Garden.
Photography by Caren Alpert
As you drive east down Dublin Boulevard and into the Ulferts shopping and dining complex, you’re greeted by an 18-foot-high set of stainless steel chopsticks. Set next to them, cast in red and silver, are a bold cube and sphere, looking like an abstract pork bun and a piece of shiu mai. The dramatic dim sum sculpture was designed to represent the food at the Ulferts Center, where half of the businesses are restaurants, all but one of them Asian.
But the shapes are also meant to signify, and embrace, the growing cultural diversity of the region, says the center’s vice president and manager, Karen Kam. According to a Chinese book on personalities, cubes and spheres represent different ways of thinking. Placing them together, Kam explains, is a way of saying, “We want to welcome all types of people here. People of all different ages and races.”
The center’s developers estimate the Asian population living within a mile of the mall at 18 percent of the total population. Software and technology companies, which often draw workers directly from Asia, have been coming to the Tri-Valley for years now, and two of California’s largest business parks are in Dublin’s front and backyards: Bishop Ranch to the north in San Ramon and Hacienda to the south in Pleasanton. At the same time, many of the area’s Asian families are second-generation Americans who left their immigrant parents in San Francisco to take advantage of the Tri-Valley’s affordable homes and good schools.
An increasing number of Asian-owned shops, groceries, and restaurants have popped up to serve all the new residents, but Ulferts Center is the first in Dublin to concentrate so many Asian eateries together. The center has 13 restaurants and food shops, no two of which serve the same type of food. This is great for the restaurant owners, who don’t have to vie for the best kung pao chicken title. It’s also great for customers—some of whom will be venturing beyond sweet and sour pork and California rolls for the first time, while others will be familiar with dishes like Singaporean beef rendang, Macanese curry, or Japanese shabu-shabu.
Ulferts got its name from the furniture store on the center’s second floor, which manager Kam’s family owns with partners. Kam’s father was a carpenter in Hong Kong, and in the 1970s, his business partner began importing furniture from Sweden. They named the business after their Swedish dealer, Mr. Ulfertsberg. Today, there are four Ulferts furniture stores in the United States and Canada, and two Ulferts shopping centers—the first opened in Milpitas in 1998. The last shops at Dublin’s Ulferts are slated to open this spring, and a grand opening celebration is scheduled for February 29.
Although many of the eateries at the center offer quick meals, the full dining experience is also available, and almost none of the food is dumbed down for inexperienced American palates. The restaurant owners here cook in the home styles of their native lands. Diablo checked out all the food establishments at Ulferts so you could get a preview of each one.
Kam’s primary business partner and the center’s main culinary attraction is Koi Garden. The restaurant is an offshoot of Koi Palace in Daly City, arguably the best destination for dim sum in the Bay Area, and it’s expected to draw the majority of the traffic at Ulferts. With Koi Garden’s succulent Peking duck, fresh seafood, vast selection of dim sum, and upscale dining room, it’s easy to understand that prediction. For a simpler Cantonese meal, head downstairs to Just Koi for sticky BBQ pork and delicately seasoned shrimp fried rice.
At Thai Basil Express, you can order food to go or eat at small tables where gold statues of Buddhist goddesses pray over your plate of papaya salad or fresh ginger pork. No divine help is needed to enjoy the kway taw rae, or house boat noodle, a soothing beef broth–based soup. Next door, Osaka Ramen will have you forgetting the college dorm days of microwaved noodles in no time. Owner Tony Chen gets his noodles fresh from a local branch of a Japanese company. And, he simmers his own soy, pork, and miso soup stocks—some for more than 10 hours. House of Sake chef Kit Chan also focuses on the details: an amuse-bouche of crab, sesame, and bonito flakes, and a sprinkling of flying fish roe on a crisp seafood salad. Although the menu is heavy on sushi, it’s not exceptional. But, the restaurant’s trademark pineapple soaked in plum wine makes for a pleasant dessert.
At Vin Pearl, a Vietnamese restaurant, you’ll find a lovely atmosphere but not much in the way of Vietnamese food. Instead, the menu is full of odd attempts at fusion. Meanwhile, you simply can’t go wrong at Singapore Old Town Café, the first restaurant of Singapore native Pasit Raviruchiphun and his wife, Megan Chia. Within months of its opening, word about this small, sophisticated eatery and its Indian-style roti canai (a fluffy bread you dip in curry sauce), cardamom-infused beef rendang, and nasi lemak (coconut milk–stewed rice) got around, creating a line out the door.
At Halu Shabu Shabu, servers deliver plate after plate of raw, thinly sliced Angus or Wagyu ribeye beef, along with vegetables and udon noodles. You drop the ingredients into tabletop pots of seaweed-infused boiling water and flash cook them. Seconds later, you pluck them out, then dip them in either the tangy ponzu sauce or the creamy sesame sauce before popping the morsels into your mouth.
At AA Tofu House & Korean BBQ, each meal begins with traditional Korean side dishes: kimchi, bean sprouts, cucumber in chili sauce, sweet white potato, and spicy squid. Barbecued short ribs and bibimbap are both hits, but the specialty here is the tofu pot: a soup made with beef, pork, seafood, or boldly spiced gyoza (stuffed dumplings) mixed with mounds of silky tofu and a poached egg—a delightful combination of ingredients billowing in a red chili–flavored broth.
For a more casual diner-style meal, grab one of the tightly packed tables at Macau Bistro. The Chinese city of Macau was colonized by the Portuguese in the 18th century, resulting in a serious mishmash of European and Asian flavors. The bistro prepares classic Macanese dishes such as deep-fried bacalhau balls—mashed potato and salt cod puffs served without sauce—and Portuguese-style baked chicken, a creamy, sweet, yellow curry dish. But the full span of offerings, including escargot à la bordelaise, Russian borscht, and sides of spaghetti instead of rice, can leave the diner reeling with indecision. The bistro also serves Macanese desserts and a long list of teas and tapioca drinks. Or, sip one of the fusion fruit teas or smoothies at Zoie Café. Zoie is a casual order-at-the-counter café where you can get breakfast sandwiches, panini, soups, and salads. While away the hours on your laptop with Zoie’s free Internet access, nursing a caramel frappé or dessert—the decadence ranges from black sesame mousse shots to chocolate-hazelnut ganache cake. When you’re on the run, pick up a fruit tart, red bean paste pastry, or fluffy cream-filled orange sponge cake roll at the Kee Wah Bakery, a subsidiary of the famed Hong Kong bakery.
Don’t overlook the Abba Gourmet Cal-Italian Grill, even though it fits nowhere in the Ulferts Little Asia theme. Aside from being the only place in the center where you can get a decent glass of wine, Abba serves fresh, classic Italian food with some creative California twists. Don’t miss the Amalfi platter, an appetizer plate of grilled vegetables (sliced paper-thin yet grilled al dente) dressed in balsamic vinaigrette. For dessert try the coppa catalana, a custard meets crème brûlée topped with chocolate sauce and fresh raspberries. On weekends, Abba’s Middle Eastern owner offers lamb, beef, and chicken kebabs over basmati rice.
Although Ulferts draws many Asian patrons, the non-Asian community is also taking advantage of the offerings. On Friday nights, faces of every color animate the dining rooms at the restaurants at Ulferts, and on Sunday afternoons, three generations of families often fill the tables. It’s a scene befitting of Dublin, a growing city where residents of every origin come together to enjoy cuisines as diverse as their own community.
The Ulferts Center is located at 4288 Dublin Blvd. in Dublin. The website is www.ulferts.com/dublin.
AA Tofu House and Korean BBQ, (925) 828-9339, www.aatofuhouse.com.
Abba Gourmet Cal-Italian Grill, (925) 479-9771, www.abbagourmet.com.
Halu Shabu Shabu, (925) 833-9833, www.halushabushabu.com.
House of Sake, (925) 833-8448.
Just Koi, (925) 833-3938, www.koipalace.com.
Kee Wah Bakery, (925) 829-3939, www.keewah.us.
Koi Garden Seafood and Dim Sum,(925) 833-9090, www.koipalace.com.
Macau Bistro, (925) 833-8828, www.macau-bistro.com.
Osaka Ramen, (925) 833-9918, www.osakaramen.com.
Quickly Fusion Café, (scheduled to open in late February).
Singapore Old Town Café, (925) 833-8300, www.otcafe.com.
Thai Basil Express, (925) 803-5988, www.thaibasilexpress.com.