Eating Around Oakland
By the time I was sharing a scrumptious small plate of ribs at Calavera ‘s happy hour with Facebook friend and fellow CCA alum, Shawn Walker-Smith (who I was meeting face to face for the first time), I began to see that what I had been hearing was happening in Oakland – that it was surpassing that city on the Bay to the west of it as the Bay Area food scene – began to clearly sink in.
It took me a while because the new hot eateries are not along the traditionally more “upscale” paths like College or Piedmonte Avenues, but in spots previously less traveled by tourists, even very frequent ones, like me. I attended college in Oakland – many years ago. I fell in love with it from the beginning, and have throughout my life considered it one of my special spots in the world. I always felt it was probably one of America’s most underrated cities, and didn’t deserve the “there’s no there there” image that had been ingrained in everyone’s consciousness regarding it. Still, some of these new hot spots are in areas of the city I previously felt should most likely be avoided, especially if one was on foot – like Sequioa Diner, along a somewhat seedy stretch of MacArthur Boulevard, right near my alma mater.
I first dined at Sequoia last summer, a late breakfast with friends Keith and Beth and their family, as my last stop before heading back on the road. I was stopped in my tracks by the beautiful Plum Danish pastries on display. There were great omelettes and scrambles accompanied by yummy home fries and arugula salad. And Beth and her daughter shared a gorgeous breakfast special of poached eggs with tiny sautéed summer squashes, heirloom cherry tomatoes and fresh garbanzo beans. Even for me, who can’t stand runny egg yolks, it looked pretty darn appealing. Then this summer, Shawn showed me a picture he had taken of their luscious looking version of the classic strawberry shortcake. Okay, something’s happening here…
Another couple of Bay Are friends e-mailed to say they had been wanting to try a couple of places in Oakland, and gave me a choice of where I wanted to meet them for lunch – either Brown Sugar Kitchen or Miss Ollie’s. “Oooh, tough choice”, Shawn said, when I presented my options to him. Tanya Holland, chef behind Brown Sugar Kitchen, has attracted quite a bit of media attention for her “New Soul Cooking” at her eateries, which also include B-Side BBQ (now closed), in West Oakland, a still fairly rough and tumble section of town. We opted for Ms. Ollie’s, though, located in Swan’s Market, an early 20th century marketplace in downtown Oakland (a formerly blighted section that’s come up greatly in the world, due in large part to a plan first put into motion by Jerry Brown who had served as mayor 20 years or so earlier, when I was in culinary school in the Bay area, as a matter of fact), renovated into a new community center which includes living spaces, small businesses and non-profits. I told Shawn that I had looked at Ms. Ollie’s menu, and was a little wary when I saw jerk dishes there, as so often I find “jerk” dishes I order fall way short.” They know what they’re doing at Ms. Ollie’s,” he assured me, and the food did not disappoint. Not only were the jerk shrimp delicious, but I was introduced to a completely new dish – phoularie, described on the menu as split pea fritters, filled with okra and served with a tamarind sauce. Yum!
BTW, as we were leaving, I made my way to the restroom and passed a line of customers that trailed into the street waiting at Taylor’s Sausage, one of the other businesses in the space. Next time…
Then there was Calavera (located in The Hive (another “live, work, eat space in downtown Oakland) and those ribs we shared at happy hour. The ribs were accompanied by a shrimp ceviche flavored with pineapple and habaneros, and washed down with a very spicy, citrusy Margarita. Calavera is part of the nationwide movement towards a new wave of fine Mexican restaurants. The layers of spice in the food are richly textured and quite original (the ribs had hints of fennel), and the cocktail menu offers new and well thought out takes on Margaritas and related cocktails. The decor keeps your eyes searching the interesting folksy art objects placed throughout the eatery.
Yep, there is definitely a there there.
3719 MacArthur Blvd.
Oakland, CA 94619
901 Washington St
Oakland, CA 94607
Calavera: Mexican Kitchen & Agave Bar
Oakland, CA 94612