How We Eat in Oakland

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[Photographs: Chris Rochelle]

Tchotchkes clutter your field of vision, the way stickiness hangs in the air from the Greyhounds everyone drinks. They're sour, these Cafe Van Kleef Greyhounds, astringent, made from fresh grapefruit squeezed on-site so the odors of oils and pulp merge, deploying a potent miasma through the room. Liquor bottles rise in tiers, garish in the glow of colored lightbulbs; the two guys next to me at the bar rapid-talk in some language I can't decipher. Van Kleef is the lit altar to an Oakland that's gathered: the Oakland of indies, artists, and misfits, people who can't afford or can't deal with San Francisco, its lines for bougie ice cream and $3,000 rents.

And yet, Cafe Van Kleef feels like places in the Mission District used to, before the last couple of waves of gentrification banished the freaky and painted over their scuff marks. To sit here sipping a Greyhound, your tongue constricting at the tartness, your lips backstopping an ice cube, is like huffing a pure draft of Oakland, city of offbeat beauty and broken things.

There isn't any one face of Oakland, a city that thrives and fails and claps back on assumptions. Other cities have famous centers, miracle miles, grand squares, plazas, malls. Oakland is a woven aggregate of residential zones, edged with commercial strips like raw selvage, each proud of what it is, committed to what it could be.

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There are problems: crime, poverty, racism, police scandals, and spiking rents. Oakland still has the biggest percentage of black citizens of any municipality in California, but since 2000, many families have been forced to leave. Some in the new wave of residents believe they discovered Oakland. They feel entitled to power-wash away the fried-fish shops and pirate recording studios to prep for a new economy of indie entrepreneurs, some of whom have little interest in even learning about the culture of the old indie entrepreneurs they're displacing.

Uptown, where I'm sitting now, trying to catch the Van Kleef bartender's eye so I can point to my Greyhound glass, empty but for ice and the grapefruit slice still hanging on the rim—Uptown's a nightlife ghetto, comatose at 2 p.m. "Hot" neighborhoods, like Temescal, know the blight of speculative landlords willing to keep storefronts empty—tagged, blank-windowed shells on blocks once vibrant—waiting years for a tenant able to pay big.

I'm feeling my first drink as the second arrives. One of the guys next to me has switched from I-don't-know to English to ask the bartender about the IPAs.

Jesus, there's a lot of thrift-store crap in here.

God, I love Oakland.

City of the Linear Plaza

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Tacos at El [email protected]

Oakland's rail yards, steel mills, and food factories once recruited Mexican workers north. Families originally settled in West Oakland, the city's port and former industrial zone, then moved east to the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods. Gentrification in San Francisco's Mission District in the 1980s and '90s caused Latino families to move to the residential blocks intersecting Oakland's East 14th Street; the strip became a sort of linear, 20-block plaza central, from 30th Avenue to about 50th, a stretch of Sunday stroller-pushing walks past fruit carts, taco trucks in parking lots, and quinceañera boutiques. (East 14th Street became International Boulevard in 1996, though, for true Townies, it'll forever be East 14.) A decade ago, the food in Fruitvale traced migration chains from Michoacán and Jalisco. Today, it's skewing Salvadoran and Guatemalan.

On Foothill Boulevard, Taqueria Campos operates out of a kind of expanded taco stand at the edge of Cesar Chavez Park. Head to the back, to the dim dining room with four tables, and order goat birria, menudo, or pozole, the three defining soups of the countryside near Guadalajara. Owner Ana Maria Campos makes her own nixtamal, produces limpid broths of concentrated flavor, and knows how to simmer goat and pork shoulder so they end up juicy and soft.

Oakland's best tacos are at Taqueria El [email protected], on International at 46th Avenue, a place with an unplugged URL of a name, a security guard out front policing the always-congested parking lot, and a staff of taqueros with blessedly analog taco skills. Suadero, uncured brisket braised in rendered lard the color of tea, is chewy in a way that makes you linger over pieces that leach out flavor slowly. Hunks of tripa are firm and elastic, with a texture a little like Korean rice cakes. The salsa roja is searing, and a genuine East Oakland mix—moms and kids, businessmen with phones clipped to belt loops, guys huge like cannabis-club bouncers, queer Latinas—jam the tables.

Nido is a place where a later generation of Mexican cooking honors its first-gen roots. The current chef is Jose Ramos, one of the guys behind San Francisco's brilliant Nopalito. Ramos's thing isn't reinvention; it's translation that preserves the meaning and the spirit of the original. Likewise, at Cosecha, a place that's anchored the Swan's Market revival since 2011 (see "Revival City"), Dominica Rice-Cisneros, a member of the diaspora of former Chez Panisse cooks, makes Mexican food with a contemporary chef's instincts and supplier network. Her mole verde and wild-shrimp tacos aren't bogusly "cleaned-up" versions of immigrant-mom cooking; they express tradition with a modern vocabulary.

City of Purpose

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Fried-chicken sandwich and greens at LocoL.

Oakland was where the Marxist and black-nationalist, antifascist, antiracist Black Panther Party was born in 1966. If you haven't listened to a neighbor tell you he was with Huey P. Newton in 1989 on the day the revolutionary was shot dead in the street, you haven't lived in Oakland long enough. The city has a tradition of progressive politics and protest, from zoot suit riots and a general strike in the 1940s to Occupy and Black Lives Matter, which continues to hold a diagnostic laser to the city's conscience. That tradition includes Oakland food businesses.

Restaurants call out community responsibility on social media, highlighting support for organic and sustainable, social justice, and the local food economy. Front windows can look as messaged as fridge doors in college apartment shares: signs for Black Lives Matter and Bernie, rainbow Pride flags, "Refugees Welcome Here" posters.

The latest expression is an entire restaurant: the Uptown branch of LocoL, the new chain by Oaktown resident Daniel Patterson, LA's Roy Choi, and San Francisco restaurant financier Hanson Li. LocoL's Uptown Oakland mission stresses fundamental change: hiring and empowering East and West Oakland citizens of color, while challenging the shit-ingredient model of fast food.

The first LocoL opened in Watts in January 2016. The one here is in what used to be Patterson's serene bistro, Plum. The throwdown implicit in transferring a restaurant coded for mostly white, upper-middle-class diners to one calibrated for black kids, echoing with uncensored hip-hop under a huge photo mural of a couple of radiant black faces floating confidence over the room—well, maybe the throwdown is more explicit than implied. LocoL's fried-chicken sandwich and a side of greens (total for both: $7) is a meal that should be judged on more than a narrow reckoning of taste. It should be weighed on the scale of change it stands for.

J. Cole rumbles over the sound system: "You wanna know just where I'm at/ Well let me tell you 'bout it/ I put my city on the map." There's kind of a rough Oakland consensus that it takes more than an elevated tasting menu to get on any kind of map that matters.

City of Refuge

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A Lao feast at Vientian Cafe.

In the 1980s and '90s, relief agencies settled thousands of Lao people in Oakland, refugees of the consequences of the American retreat from its wars in Southeast Asia. This created pockets of Lao life here, mostly insulated from non-Asian Townies, with food that captures the heat and fermented-fish funk, the refreshing beef-bile bitterness and perfumes of the Mekong.

While a second generation of Lao Oaklanders has moved out of those original support communities, the culture abides at places like Champa Garden in nam khao, fried rice-ball salad with soured pork. But don't miss Vientian Cafe, in a little house on the corner in a residential strip of East Oakland. Vientian's sai oua, tangy Lao pork sausage, is fried dry and crisp, with nubby bits of sticky rice throughout—it's fermented in an elegantly restrained way, with a sourness that makes its lemongrass perfume seem extra lush. The jeow bong, or chili dipping paste, slightly smoky from grilled sun-dried water buffalo skin, is as good as the best ones I've had in Luang Prabang.

Vientian's Lao khao soi (no relation to the coconut-milk version of northern Thailand) is a spicy rice-noodle soup with ground pork and fresh tomato. The noodles are just okay (it's hard to find properly lithe and silky fresh rice noodles here), but Vientian gets the saltiness right, the warmth of fermented soybean paste, and the Bolognese-like richness of pork and tomato.

Laotian Hmong and Mien farmers from the Central Valley show up with long beans, rau ram, and eggplants the size of Skittles at the Friday Old Oakland farmers market. And Lao culture takes on new expression with Oakland's most famous culinary son, James Syhabout. In 2009, Syhabout opened Commis on Piedmont Avenue (the restaurant currently holds two Michelin stars), followed in 2011 by Hawker Fare, which Syhabout is evolving into a place with the kind of Lao-Isan food his mom cooked for him when he was a kid in Uptown.

Full disclosure: I'm working with Syhabout on a book about growing up in Oakland and recommitting to his Lao food heritage. This fact got me an invitation last summer to a barbecue at the edge of Uptown to see how the Lao community still parties here. It included chewy fresh brisket from the Weber and shots of chilled Hennessy from a shared glass. No doubt this is how a lot of other Oaklanders turn up in the backyard.

Utopian City

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Beauty's Bagels.

Oakland's progressive impulse, a subtle strain of social utopianism, is built into the restaurants it embraces tightest.

At Camino, where the live-fire open kitchen is theatrical the way offering the Host on the altar at Catholic mass is, the long shared tables stretch like ones in German beer halls. Instead of the communal table being the punitive place near the bar, the seats you're banished to if you don't book 10 weeks in advance, it's the prevailing option. It turns the idea of coming together around the table, the original and abiding ethos at Chez Panisse (where Camino's Russ Moore learned to cook), into practice.

Panisse hovers over Charlie Hallowell's restaurants, too, especially Pizzaiolo in Temescal, which he opened first. The walls are an earnest and rustic patchwork of what look like Heath tile seconds and amateur drywall mud-work. The pizzas—blistered in a wood-burning oven—both honor and improve on Chez Panisse tradition. Pizzaiolo is a neighborhood restaurant that crystallizes the progressive spirit of its newer residents. (I happen to be one of them—I moved here 11 years ago, just as Temescal's strip of Italian-American and black-owned businesses was turning over.) Pizzaiolo's website has a manifesto that could be a statement of faith for a lot of Oaklanders who care about food and have some broader belief in a notion of community: "We at Pizzaiolo," it reads, "believe that the simple act of feeding people is at the core of what it is to be human."

This faith in the power of gathering together acts out less than 10 blocks down Telegraph Avenue from Pizzaiolo, at Beauty's Bagel Shop. Since the day it opened, in 2012, Townies have mobbed this maker of wood-baked bagels, situated next to Beebe Memorial Cathedral, of the historically black Christian Methodist Episcopal church, another focus of community life in north Oakland. Beauty's has felt like a completely organic presence here from the start—the bagels, which J. Kenji López-Alt has called some of the best on the planet, and breakfast dishes like shakshuka read like statements of local pride, no typed-out manifesto needed.

Street Food City

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Tacos Sinaloa.

In 2001, Oakland passed what was then the most forward-looking street-food ordinance on the West Coast. The pilot program legalized pushcart food vendors in a limited area of East Oakland, thanks to Fruitvale community organizer Emilia Otero. Loncheras—taco trucks—were allowed to follow, after tweaks to the ordinance laid down protections for brick-and-mortar restaurants. Fruitvale became a dense zone of taco trucks and fruit carts.

Recent zoning changes granted permits to vendors outside the pilot program's narrow confines, but Fruitvale and San Antonio are still the motherland of the Oakland street taco. The corner of International and 22nd Avenue is the umbilicus of Tacos Sinaloa, the growing truck fleet tethered here to a commissary and two-truck lot with a corner shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I've never been here when the smell of weed hasn't hung in the air like cologne, and the fish tacos, with tiny cubes of beautifully browned basa, haven't been just as captivating.

If you're up early, the intersection of International and Fruitvale is where the tamale and champurrado cart zone begins. The cart that anchors this intersection, looking across at the burned-out Central National Bank building, sells Salvadoran tamales with smooth-strained corn masa and shreds of pork radiating the warmth of achiote—ask for a glug of salsa verde from the jug for a wake-up more bracing than coffee. You can get a tamal torta (a tamale sandwich) and a hot rice-and-milk drink perfumed with cinnamon, like drinkable rice pudding. Tamales y Frutas Brian parks sometimes up Fruitvale near 16th Street, other times at International and 41st Avenue. The Mexican-style pork tamales have big, fierce hunks of meat.

The greatest pleasure of the carts for me, though, is being up with the neighborhood, mingling with guys parking their trucks on the way to construction or landscaping jobs, and women stopping with sleepy, zipped-up kids before dropping them at day care. It's times and places like this that let you feel like part of the city, standing where its moving parts intersect, eating something smooth and spicy with a cheap plastic fork.

Revival City

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Inside Swan's Market.

There's a lot of Oakland to rebloom. Mua started the warehouse-conversion thing in Uptown in 2008, when it turned the old Rim and Wheel Building on Webster into a space of soaring heights, with the drama of an underground party loft. Mua's like your mad old uncle: You don't always want to deal with how intense he is, but you never doubt he's interesting.

The Hive is the latest swath of city map to undergo redevelopment, including a shared workspace, a taper-fade barbershop, a highly polished Mexican bar and restaurant (Calavera), and the spectacular Drake's Dealership, a beer hall and garden in what used to be a Dodge dealer's parts and service department, like ruin porn turned into usable space with a fine nostalgic edge.

Pal's Take Away, the space I was most excited about when it relocated here from San Francisco at the end of 2015, is now closed. Owner Jeff Mason had a different vision for the scope of his sandwich counter from that of his landlord, Firebrand Artisan Breads. I nurse a sad little hope that Mason's ferocious Lao sausage banh mi will show up someplace soon elsewhere in Oakland.

The city's most revived space has to be Swan's Market. For years, the 100-year-old food hall languished in redevelopment limbo. Cosecha came in 2011—for a few years, it was the only bright zone in a chilly, gray hangar. Now, show up on Friday night or Saturday afternoon and Swan's is the embodiment of new Oakland urbanism. Couples and families jockey for tables to fill up on food and drink from Cosecha, B-Dama, The Cook and Her Farmer, and Hen House/Deep Roots. It's a place to get a pretty good idea of who Oakland is: brown, black, white. Hungry, and for more than karaage and po' boys.