Nostalgia first drew Tony Huang to open up his new restaurant, KaoKao Grill, in Berkeley. When his parents first immigrated from China and moved to Las Vegas, they “really wanted to integrate into America,” Huang recalls. “We didn’t really have a lot of money when they first came here and so it was a lot of working long hours throughout the week to put food on the table,” he says. Every Thursday was barbecue night, he remembers — his family’s way of bonding by inviting aunts and uncles for a weekly get-together in front of their Chinatown apartment complex: They’d roll out a tiny Weber grill and, while the kids played kickball, char siu or marinated chicken sizzled on the barbecue.
When the family eventually moved to the Bay Area to open Huangcheng Noodle House in Oakland, Huang, 23, says he’d still think about those days, even 10 years later. When Huang told his father he missed those days of barbecuing with the family, his father encouraged him to start his own restaurant. So, with KaoKao Grill, Huang struck out on his own, offering a menu crafted out of the memories from those gatherings — except in a restaurant setting.
Huang calls his main items an “East meets West kind of barbecue fusion.” There are deviations from the traditional ways of making char siu, for instance, that impart a smokier flavor. Huang says he brines the pork with Sichuan peppercorns and aromatics for 24 hours, then grills it over charcoal, before smoking it over oak and cherry woods for five to six hours. It’s different than other preparations of the classic Chinese dish in that the pork isn’t marinated in the sauce used for basting, before being cooked in an oven over high heat with gas, he says. The brine and the smoke are how KaoKao separates itself. He also smokes the chicken at KaoKao, after marinating it in a spiced yogurt mix for 24 hours, before smoking it for four hours.
The KaoKao Sandwich also evokes nostalgia for Huang, incorporating bits of char siu into an egg and cheese sandwich on an English muffin. It’s how the family would eat leftover char siu, Huang says; his father would bring home English muffins leftover from the employee dining room at the casino he worked at, and make these sandwiches Friday morning for Huang to bring to school. “The way he made it was really homestyle, it was really good,” Huang says. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you just made this up and it’s not really traditional.’ But, you know, it’s what we grew up eating.” The name of the restaurant is also a nod to those barbecue days. As Huang explains, “kao” is the act of doing “shaokao,” which means to barbecue or grill. “Our name is technically ‘grill grill grill’ but my parents used to say, ‘kao kao time,’ like, ‘Everyone’s here, let’s go barbecue,’” he says. “So it’s kind of a vibe.”
The brief menu also includes a few sides, mostly the vegetable dishes his family often served during their barbecue nights, including a chickpea curry, cucumber salad in garlic-chili oil dressing, and an eggplant salad. The eggplant is another changed-up specialty from Huang’s family, with an emphasis on sesame paste, which Huang says his family loves. This time, rather than barbecuing the eggplant, he roasts it for 90 minutes with steam incorporated and the family’s house-made chili oil (which is also used at Huang Cheng Noodle House) mixed into a soy sauce, garlic, and sesame paste dressing, which gets ladled on top. Although there have been requests to add more items to the menu, such as vegetarian dishes, Huang says there may be a few more additions — such as a smoked duck special around the holidays — but not many, given that it’s a very personal menu for the family. “We’re going to really just honor most of the things that we ate as new immigrants when we came to this country,” Huang says.
KaoKao Grill (2993 College Avenue, Berkeley) is in its soft opening stage, and is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.