PEONY Neither a typical inner-city Chinatown jammed with tourists and red-lantern chintz nor a suburban car-and-mall sprawl on L.A.'s Monterey Park model, Oakland's neat 12-block Little Asia sports a buoyant identity all its own. And though Chinese predominates, its streets are a polyglot of Cambodian, Mien, and Tagalog rising above vendors' cries and the occasional clack-clack-clack of mah-jongg tiles. Peony offers a shining example of a brash convention hall-scaled Cantonese restaurant. Yes, they serve immense crab from the seafood tank and brittle-skinned suckling pig. But the menu is also a hybrid that defines Hong Kong cooking today: Muslim-style lamb with green peppercorns, Malaysian chow fun, Macao-inspired Portuguese custard tarts. In the mood for dim sum?All the dumplings are flawless, and don't pass up the loh bah—smooth turnip porridge doused with sesame oil and punctuated with crisp fried shallots. It's true that the servers aren't exactly foreigner-friendly, but it's gratifying to look up from your bowl of sweet broth afloat with tender fish balls and note that yours is the only non-Asian face in a sea of some 200 diners. 288-388 Ninth St., Pacific Renaissance Plaza; 510/286-8866; dim sum for two $25.
DOÑA TOMÁS To some, Cal-Mex means sludgy burritos and margarita-fueled happy hours. To others, it signifies the thrill of discovering an obscure East L.A. taco truck. Doña Tomás offers something else altogether: dutifully researched regional recipes, elevated by terrific ingredients. Pescado Veracruzana, where you'd normally expect to find boring red snapper, features meaty oyster-like halibut cheeks, and the ceviche has an unmistakable citrusy punch. A flourish of fresh chanterelles adds excitement to a green pozole gutsy enough to be applauded in the pozole-crazed state of Guerrero. And if the crusty, oregano-scented carnitas are even a notch above the ones at my all-time favorite fried-pork palace in Tijuana, that's because the boys at Carnitas Uruapan have never heard of stupendous Niman Ranch pork. Made up of adjoining storefronts and decorated with a tastefully folkloric flair, Doña's is the perfect spot to linger over a glass of fancy El Tesoro Paradiso tequila or a flan infused with rosewater. No reason to hurry back to San Francisco just yet. 5004 Telegraph Ave.; 510/450-0522; dinner for two $50.
SIX MORE REASONS TO CROSS THE BRIDGE
1 | Old Oakland Farmers' Market Bay Area foodies descend on Friday mornings for its amazing produce and unselfconscious air. Get there early to see local chefs stocking up. NINTH ST. AND BROADWAY; 510/745-7100
2 | Everett & Jones Grab soulful barbecued ribs and juicy links at this meeting place for Oakland's African-American community. DINNER FOR TWO $35. 126 BROADWAY; 510/663-2350
3 | Vi's Restaurant Slurp a bowl of sparkling pho (noodle soup) with tender duck or rare beef at an authentic Vietnamese spot. LUNCH FOR TWO $14. 724 WEBSTER ST.; 510/835-8375
4 | City of Oakland Walking Tours BEST VALUE Free tours of the turn-of-the-century Victorian mansions in Preservation Park and the Paramount Theater, a great example of California Deco, top our list. 510/238-3234
5 | A gondola ride Boating on 140-acre Lake Merritt—the country's oldest wildlife refuge—is the next best thing to being in Venice. FROM $45. GONDOLA SERVIZIO; 510/663-6603 www.gondolaservizio.com
6 | Black Panther Legacy Tour It's been 37 years since the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland—see where the movement began. TOURS $20. 510/986-0660; www.blackpanthertours.com