13 Facts About Oakland's Food Scene You Know If You're a Local
My brother, Hank, has been trying to get me to move to Oakland, California, since he put down roots there in the aughts. I love him, but I’m an East Coaster, and when I travel it’s usually in the opposite direction. Recently, in a last-ditch effort to lure his food-obsessed sister to the other side of the country, he designed an of-the-moment, week-long itinerary-slash-culinary guide that he knew I couldn’t resist. (It included hikes in the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve—California poppies!—and brother-and-sister foot massages on Grand Avenue—essential self-care for marathon eaters.)
Without ever crossing the Bay Bridge, we visited fried-chicken palaces, tiki joints, coffee roasters, Michelin-starred-chef ventures, bottle shops, taco trucks and female-run restaurants that started as farmers market stands. Then came the inevitable question: “Well, are you moving here?” Hank asked. “I hope you realize you’ve barely scratched the surface.” So how could I decide? I’ll just have to return for a follow-up tasting tour.
1. You can get fantastic food without spending a fortune.
Why should I (or you) listen to anything my brother says about food? Here are his bonafides: Hank raved about chef James Syhabout’s modernist locavore restaurant Commis before F&W named him a Best New Chef in 2010. The eight-course tasting menu at the now-two-Michelin-star destination has climbed to $159, but it’s still a relative bargain compared to sister-city San Francisco prices. Also, last October Syhabout debuted CDP (an acronym for chef de partie, a.k.a line cook) next door—through a mail slot window, we glimpse servers silently pouring wine in the adjacent Commis dining room. Syhabout calls CDP a cocktail lounge, and the blood orange sidecar is great, but, because the two businesses share the same wine list, the somm from Commis appears at CDP when we have questions. Plus, we’re seated at a real table (not a bar) and can assemble our own tasting menu from CDP’s list of small plates and $65 prix fixe, including the same, iconic slow-poached egg yolk with crispy dates and ethereal onion soubise that’s served on the other side of the wall. CDP Bar, 3861 Piedmont Ave., (510) 653-3902; commisrestaurant.com.
2. Oakland is a fried-chicken town.
The intensely good buttermilk fried chicken at Oakland favorite Bakesale Betty has inspired sandwiches in places as far-flung as Paris. (Expat Braden Perkins occasionally serves an homage at his wine bar, Verjus Bar à Vins, near the Louvre.) But on my recent visit, Hank and I detour across Telegraph Avenue for the double-fried, garlic-marinated and rice-flour-battered chicken thighs at Hawking Bird. As the name suggests, chicken’s the theme at this fast-casual spot opened in November by acclaimed Laotian-American chef James Syhabout. So the Southeast-Asian menu touts other poultry-based recipes like cups of fragrant chicken broth and poached chicken over rice. (Syhabout justifies the outlier tuna poke special by telling me “tuna is the chicken of the sea.”) Those who are used to Syhabout’s creative spirit will find it in his tater tots with secret (ramen) flavor; their ratio of crunch to pillowy insides is perfection. Hawking Bird, 4901 Telegraph Ave., (510) 593-2376; hawkingbird.com.
3. Tanya Holland's contribution to the Oakland foodways cannot be overstated.
One of the pluses of joining locals at their hangouts is nailing the right dishes on your first (and possibly only) visit. When we convene at Brown Sugar Kitchen for see-my-sister-Sunday-brunch, our table is covered in multiples of chef Tanya Holland’s’ sugar-dusted beignets and buttermilk fried chicken with ultra-crispy cornmeal waffles. But in front of my brother’s friend Clarissa, a Chez Panisse alum, the server drops a bowl of spicy creole shrimp and white cheddar grits. When I emote pain and envy, Clarissa patiently pushes the bowl in my direction. At summer’s end, West Oakland’s soul-food institution moves uptown, with a satellite counter planned for San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Meantime, the original will convert to a recipe-testing space and host counter-service lunches and dinner pop-ups. Brown Sugar Test Kitchen, 2534 Mandela Pkwy, (510) 839-7685; brownsugarkitchen.com.
4. Oakland was once part of Mexico (and, before that, Spain).
My brother knows things about Mexican food. Like many Californians, he practically commutes to Mexico City, Baja, Oaxaca and Puerto Vallarta. Closer to home, for years he has enjoyed the masterful carnitas, chiles rellenos and sopa de lima at restaurant Doña Tomas in the Temescal district. But, more recently and specifically when he’s in the mood for clever twists on traditional dishes, he heads to the casual Mexican cafe Nido. Looking over the dinner specials one night, he pushes the point: “When do you ever get mole negro outside of Oaxaca…with duck leg confit?” My culinary guide also calls out the farmers’ market origins of the gold and red beets, fennel and fava beans in the ensalada betabeles. But I don’t fully understand his Nido infatuation until I go to wash my hands: next to the restroom are a collection of 80 mezcals, including his favorite, Koch. Nido, 444 Oak St., (510) 444-6436; nidooakland.com.
5. The city embraces its diverse communities.
I like to think I occasionally return my generous brother’s dining favors. So while we’re at Hawking Bird, I ask James Syhabout for his local recommendations. The chef’s face lights up when he mentions the OG taco truck La Perla #2. That’s how Hank and I find ourselves at lunchtime the next day circling the West Oakland BART station, looking for legal parking. Besides tacos, the cooks at La Perla whip up old-school burritos (regular and super size), flautas, enchiladas, sopes, quesadillas and tortas. And for fillings, the menu lists everything from chicken, tripe, tongue and head to steak and pork. When I agonize at the front of the line over what to eat, a regular helps speed things up by sharing that her standard order is two tacos al pastor. With spicy, fried pork, a pool of sour cream and a whole pickled jalapeño in a double layer of corn tortillas, they’re worth having to drive away with burning-hot paper plates on our laps when the street cleaners arrive. Tacos La Perla #2, Center St. opposite the West Oakland BART station.
6. Oakland restaurants weave civic engagement into food culture.
My brother and I have crushed on Daniel Patterson since F&W sent me to check him out for Best New Chef at Babette’s, his first restaurant, in Sonoma. (He won in 1997 for pushing California cuisine forward.) After Hank moved to Oakland, we booked tables at the chef-writer-restaurateur’s growing Bay Area empire at casual spots Plum and Plum Bar in the city’s Uptown district and Haven in Jack London Square. (The lovely Plum Cocktail Bar is the only one of the three still open.) Patterson went on to co-found, with chef Roy Choi, Locol, the from-scratch, fair-wage fast-food chain, and in April, he partnered with chef Reem Assil to transform the former Haven space into Dyafa, a fine-dining Arabic restaurant. At both Dyafa and her cafe, Reem’s, a F&W 2018 Restaurant of the Year, Assil uses mana’eesh (flatbreads topped with kashkaval cheese or za’atar) to create a kind of Arab-American community center where all Oaklanders can share in the food traditions of her Syrian-Palestinian heritage. But at Dyafa she deepens the Middle Eastern-Californian understanding with uniquely American cocktails, like the Mexi-Pali, a tangy-spicy mix of beets, tamarind and tequila. Our stand-out dish: shish tawook, spicy chicken kebab with garlic aioli and pickles. Dyafa, 225 2nd St., (510) 250-9491; dyafaoakland.com.
7. Oakland is a haven for food entrepreneurs.
Like Reem Assil, self-taught-chef Nite Yun trained at San Francisco’s food incubator La Cocina and then opened a business in more-affordable Oakland. (In fact, Yun’s restaurant is around the corner from Assil’s cafe, Reem’s, next to the Fruitvale BART station.) Cambodian-American Yun, who has just been named an Eater Young Gun semifinalist, was born in a Thai refugee camp and, when we’re installed at her recently opened Nyum Bai, we’re transported to a half inside, half outside street stall in 1960s Phnom Penh. (The dining room opens directly onto a patio.) Pop star So Savoeun plays on the sound system, and transistor radios and album covers from Cambodia’s golden era are wall art. (Even the custom restroom wallpaper features singers like Pan Ron and Sinn Sisamouth amid Oakland shipping cranes.) In the snack department, we love the sticky ginger fried chicken and lemongrass beef skewers served with chile powder–sprinkled pickles. There’s only one dessert—fried sesame balls filled with palm sugar—but it hits many notes: crunchy, gooey, nutty, soft and earthy-sweet. Nyum Bai, 3340 E. 4th St., (510) 500-3338; nyumbai.com.
8. It’s not San Francisco, yet it’s still expensive to live in Oakland.
My sister-in-law, Kerry, who works in housing policy, tells me so many people are leaving the Bay Area that the cost of renting a U-Haul from San Jose to Las Vegas is 10 times the reverse route. That’s going to change, she says, because of regional plans to create affordable housing near job centers and transportation. Meantime, restaurateurs like Russell Moore are helping keep communities intact in their own way. In April, Moore, who still tends the nine-foot-fireplace at Camino in the Rockridge district, expanded his live-fire-cooking concept to The Kebabery, a not-exactly-Mediterranean fast-casual skewer spot in the rapidly changing Longfellow neighborhood. The street art here is some of Oakland’s most accomplished, and behind a spray-painted roll-up steel door, the white-tiled kitchen turns out a simple menu. The all-organic kebabs (chicken, herby ground lamb, fried summer squash) and delectable sides, like shredded carrots, red cabbage sauerkraut and vegetables pickles, are easily accessible to old timers and tech workers alike. The Kebabery, 4201 Market St., (510) 922-1601; thekebaberyoakland.com.
9. We’ll always have Paris…in Oakland.
Perle Wine Bar makes us reminisce about the trendy, stylish bars à vins where we used to hang out when I lived in Paris. With booths and a bar that’s the centerpiece of the dining room, it’s more casual than a restaurant. And two-thirds of the menu features hors d’oeuvres like charcuterie and cheese plates, raw shellfish and composed tartines and salads. But the refined service—crumbs are whisked away between volleys of plates—reminds us that the dining room is overseen by Marcus Garcia, formerly of San Francisco’s lauded California-French restaurant Fleur de Lys. Garcia also curates the six-page wine list, which is heavy on French and generally European bottles, including three-dozen wines you can order by the “taste,” glass or bottle. I love my almond and apple-y Domaine Vincent Carême sparkling Vouvray with our apps: smoked salmon on brioche toast with white fish crème fraîche, fried-oyster deviled eggs and mushroom “cappuccino” soup. Hank is practically jumping up and down at the possibility of tasting the 1992 Ronchi di Cialla made with the native Friuli Schiopettino grape for $125: “It’s exciting when you get a chance to order a wine that’s so old at this price.” Perle Wine Bar, 2058 Mountain Blvd., (510) 339-2440; perlewinebar.com.
10. Northern Californians go to Hawaii to swim.
East of the Rockies, North Americans may soak up the sun in the Caribbean, but here, the preferred tropical escape is a Hawaiian island. So a kitsch Polynesian bar with luxuriant fake foliage overhead, rattan huts and servers in loud Hawaiian shirts isn’t as much a stretch in Oakland as it is in, say, Chicago. (Plus, Trader Vic’s was founded in Oakland’s Golden Gate district.) The masterminds behind the gloriously over-the-top Kon-Tiki, which debuted in November, are veterans of Michelin-starred-chef James Syhabout’s Thai eatery Hawker Fare in San Francisco, so besides the obligatory pu-pu platter and burger (with pineapple-Maui onion jam), there are more ambitious dishes like grilled king trumpet mushrooms with miso brown butter and furikake, and short ribs with sesame-soy macaroni salad and sweet Hawaiian rolls. When we arrive early one Friday night at this beach oasis, we happily surrender to the festive happy hour—all drinks $9, and snacks, $5 to $7, including excellent curried fried chicken and edamame-and-egg toast. OK, I’m not on my way to Kauai, but my Mai Tai is far superior to the in-flight cocktails on Hawaiian Air. The Kon-Tiki, 3906, 347 14th St., (510) 823-2332; thekon-tikioakland.com.
11. Oakland is Amazon Prime–optional.
In his circle, my brother has a rep for mixing outstanding cocktails. “My friends expect something different,” he says, “and Alchemy is where I get inspired.” Poking around the small-batch bottle shop, I see every kind of bitters imaginable. Sure, I can have overnight delivery of Génépi, Falernum syrup and a dozen different kinds of Amaro, but here they’re lined up on cute shelves with staff-written tasting notes. Plus, Alchemy has drink setups with recipes; the tarnished silver trays with the fixings for caipirinha and pisco sours have me wondering if we can possibly fit in drinks and ceviche between lunch and dinner. “The best thing,” Hank says, “is that I don’t have to drive to San Francisco.” Alchemy Bottle Shop, 3256 Grand Ave., (510) 488-3637; alchemybottleshop.com.
12. Oakland supports its food artisans.
Recently, my brother and sister-in-law swapped traditional gender roles—Hank now does most of the family shopping and meal prep—and, consequently, I started fielding an unusual number of culinary queries. Not long ago he requests a good cassoulet recipe, so I refer him to Paula Wolfert’s rigorously authentic white-bean-and-pork stew, which requires hard-to-find ingredients like duck confit, Toulouse sausages and pork skin. After dinner, he reports back that his kids are now calling him “honorary Mom.” Whoa. Where’d he get the goods? I find out on our way to a between-meals hike in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, when we fuel up with sandwiches at Scott Brennan’s The Fifth Quarter: jambon-beurre (ham and butter with cornichons—my favorite baguette sandwich!) and porchetta with Calabrian mayo—both on stellar Acme bread. Last October, the Café Rouge (Berkeley)–trained Brennan opened an old-fashioned, whole-animal butcher shop and charcuterie to appreciative fans like my brother, who already knew Brennan’s merguez, pickled lamb’s tongue and headcheese from his stand at the Kensington farmers’ market. Now my brother can walk—walk!—to source his smoked beef tongue, meatballs or sustainably raised pork crown roast. Envy is a terrible thing. The Fifth Quarter, 6464 Moraga Ave., (510) 452-2887; thefifthquarter.co.
13. Just because something is made by a corporation doesn’t mean it’s evil.
Because he lives in a city of countless bean roasters—Oakland is one of the country’s largest coffee ports—my brother can be picky about his caffeine source. (More than 48 hours out of the roaster? You must be joking.) So every trip to see him involves a stop at Blue Bottle Coffee (where the roasters also pick the soundtrack—Shakira, on this visit). It does frustrate him that he can’t always get his favorites, from Chiapas and Oaxaca, since Blue Bottle’s selections are seasonal, but he’s fierce about the quality. Even when leftie friends deride founder James Freeman for selling out the company to multinational Nestlé last year, Hank is unswayed. First, with the sale, everybody got a payout, down to the tenured baristas, he says, but, more important to this Oakland resident, “Blue Bottle still makes the best coffee.” Blue Bottle Coffee, 300 Webster St., (510) 653-3394; bluebottlecoffee.com.