Pakwan has been sitting at the bottom of the hill for some time now. By the “bottom of the hill” I refer to the Hayward hills, housing Cal State East Bay (formerly, and better known as Cal State Hayward), and, incidentally, my house. We refer to pretty much everything in Hayward as being “down the hill”, mostly because just about everything is. The Hayward location of Pakwan is just near the base of Carlos Bee on Mission Boulevard (other locations in SF and Fremont), and that facility used to house a variety of mediocre Chinese restaurants over the years.
It is perhaps my memory of these previous owners, vague as they are, that kept me from dedicating a meal to Pakwan for so long. The old places were dingy, dark, with shabby carpet and dilapidated fixtures (yes, I am offended by dilapidated fixtures). I don’t remember the food or service being very good. Again, I was probably a child and didn’t visit often, and there were many different owners, but that’s still the feeling I had about this establishment, warranted or not. Plus, every time I drive by Pakwan, it looks like it’s empty. I hate eating at completely empty restaurants, it’s always a bit awkward.
Those were the reasons that I haven’t gone until now. These are the reasons I will go again: Pakwan has been completely redecorated and looks great inside. Pakwan is clean, has a hearty menu, has a friendly man at the counter, has lots and lots of business, and is extremely cheap. Oh, and the food is good – let’s not forget that.
I couldn’t pick the previous decor out of a lineup (…though I would be curious to see a lineup of decors…) but I do know that Pakwan has much improved whatever was there. Tasteful soffits now line the perimeter of the dining room, warm, soft lights brighten the space, I’m pretty sure all the windows have been replaced, and there’s crown molding for heaven’s sake. This should be someone’s motto: “Crown molding: it makes a space look goooood”. And it does. The mildly gaudy crystal chandeliers manage to not overwhelm the room and even, in my opinion, give it the classy feel for which they were no doubt intended. Even their website is nice and professional looking. You go, Pakwan, I like it.
The space is divided up a bit oddly; the whole room is a giant open rectangle, but they’ve sequestered off two of the sides to make the normal dining area a big “L”. The remaining area is cordoned off with a large accordion, roll-away, partition, which I think messes up the grandeur of the space a bit. This explains why my drive-bys were so fruitless; it’s this partitioned area I see when I drive down Mission Boulevard, and that area is empty on a standard night. This often empty space is used for banquets, which can hold up to 150 people, and also for the Sunday brunch buffet, which is offered every week from 11am-3pm.
Notes about the brunch buffet: 1. They offer 25 dishes of all you can eat food; 2. It’s under $13 a person; 3. As posted on a sign near the front counter, they have recently reduced the price of the brunch buffet, due to the economic crisis, to $12.76/person +tax (from $13.79/person + tax). How adorable is that? And they’ve increased the age of children who can eat at the buffet for free from 4 yrs. to 6 yrs., and will now charge only half price for children up to 10 yrs. of age. If that’s not being kind to the customer, I don’t know what is. Oh yeah, and: 4. I must return for this brunch buffet.
Ok, the food. We ordered three vegetarian dishes – Mix Vegetable Curry, Saag Daal (spinach and lentils), and Paneer Makhani (cheese cubes in Tikka masala (creamy tomato-y) sauce), with rice and naan. It took a bit of time to come out of the kitchen, but when it did, it was good. The Daal was a bit spicy for my taste, but sometimes that’s just the way it is. I utilized their napkin dispenser in retaliation. Everything seemed well prepared, tasted fresh, hot, and yummy, and was comparable in quality and presentation to other Indian restaurants I have been. It wasn’t fall-out-of-my-chair good, but it was come-back-soon good.
The only thing that I didn’t love was the order/pick up at the counter style. I don’t mind ordering at the counter, but there were a few items I found confusing about it all. First, the drink area is serve yourself, but the drinks are not included. That’s fine, pretty normal. My mom wanted tea with her dinner, but apparently that is included, though I don’t think we were going to be told that had we not asked. Also, the chutney sauces and desserts are in the drink area where you can retrieve them at your leisure, which is nice except that you are not told this. I only saw the chutney after I waited in line to order some Gulab Jamun (donut-type pastry balls in sugary syrup) only to be told that the desserts were serve yourself. Was I supposed to signal to the man to put the Gulabs on my tab, or was it on-your-honor? I’m not really sure.
Additionally, the “pick up” area of the front counter seemed to be a bit confused. Orders often came out piecewise and the staff don’t seem to have a good system for recalling who ordered what or signaling to the patrons when their order has arrived. There was a lot of waving across the room, a little bit of microphone use (“Order of Samosas” announced to blank-faced patrons), and some hollering to nearby tables. That’s probably the only thing that I think they could improve on – it doesn’t seem terribly difficult to assign each dish a number and have that number attached to said dish when it exits the kitchen. A quick microphone announcement of a number wouldn’t disturb everyone very much, and all would be well in the land of pick-up-your-own-dang-food-we’re-not-walking-it-over-to-your-table. Them’s my suggestions.
After mentioning the terrible places that used to be in this location, the awesomely remodeled interior of Pakwan, the brunch buffet, the food, and the slightly odd pick-up counter, I feel I must touch on a very important point about Pakwan. It’s cheap. It’s fabulously cheap. Not, like, “Oh, that’s so cheap I think they might be dumpster diving” cheap, but like, “wow, they’re really efficient and really give us a good deal” cheap. I guess it’s also because we ordered all veggie stuff; each “Vegetarian Delight”, as they call it, is only about $5.50! The Paneer Makhani breaks the bank on the veggie menu at $7, and all Tandoori BBQ and meat curries are about $6-$8 per dish. It doesn’t look like a lot of food, but it’s filling and it’s good. You can happily leave Pakwan with a full belly for probably $8 a person, or spend a couple extra bucks to fund drinks or desserts. Any misgivings I might have had (like the weird zig-zag shaped tables – what’s up with that?) are easily soothed by the extremely reasonable price of the foods.
Pakwan: I like you and I hope we can be friends. I will be back to see you again.