A Transplant’s Take on Oakland Cuisine
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Guest writer: Amanda McDowell
Growing up in the South, life revolves around eating. Between backyard barbecues and rainy days watching the Food Network, there has been no shortage of southern cuisine in my life. Because of this upbringing, I know that the best way to get to know a new place is to eat your way through it, which is exactly what I decided to do when I moved to Oakland.
Though I can’t say enough good things about my hometown, it’s food scene always left a bit to be desired — meaning my introduction to Bay Area cuisine resembled something of a rabid socialite insistent on trying every new thing she saw. While I’ve tapered down a bit due to a shrinking wallet and expanding waistline, the varied cuisines and the experiences they’ve led to is what’s made the East Bay feel like home, bacon-wrapped-hot-dogs and all. So here’s a transplant’s take on Oakland cuisine.
(Oakland) Chinatown Eats
Yes, San Francisco’s Chinatown is “the famous one”, but if you take the time to explore, you’ll find that Oakland’s Chinatown has just as much authentic cuisine — minus the “I Survived Alcatraz” t-shirts. Before Chinatown, I’d never seen dead ducks in a window or fish tanks full of future dinners, yet within just a few blocks of downtown are all the fresh meats and produce anyone could want.
If prepared food is more your style, they’ve got that too: ramen, hot pot, and traditional Chinese fares are around every corner. I don’t always know the names of where I’m eating, but I do know that it’s a world away from the dry cleaning/takeout restaurant combo my hometown had. A strange number of restaurants are only open for lunch, meaning midday is the best time if you really want to explore, but the evening scene still has quite a few tasty morsels to offer.
Lauded as “the most complicated cocktail in the world”, Chattanooga’s bustling brunch scene made me no stranger to the intricacies of a Bloody Mary. What I didn’t know is just how seriously East Bay restaurants take them, or that even restaurants that don’t serve brunch take pride in their secret recipe.
“Build your own bloody”, “award-winning bloody”, and all sorts of cutesy chalkboard signs christen every weekend morning stroll. And it’s not rare to see a few of these on a table during business lunches. While I’m not comfortable naming any single one the best, I’d recommend trying them all — the worst that could happen is you’d forget your favorite and have to start over.
I’m a bit befuddled about the “New American” trend, mainly because in Tennessee, we just called this food. When a friend visited and wanted something he “couldn’t get back home”, I discovered that every other bar in Oakland’s Uptown district is known for their gourmet burgers/grilled cheese/pickles??/etc…,.which is the normal food we eat every day in the South, just on fancier plates.
That’s not to say it isn’t good. This kind of food brings joy to my stomach and my heart, and with kitschy dishes such as a “Grown Up Happy Meal”, what’s not to love? I still don’t understand gourmet pickles and I still don’t get the East Bay’s fascination with this cuisine, but when I’m homesick, I sure am thankful for it.
Having no tapas establishments back home, I only vaguely knew of the concept: tiny foods, hefty price tags. While I won’t argue that, I would consider it an oversimplified view. What no one tells you about tapas is that they. are. delicious….and their flavor is greatly magnified by the human instinct to covet the scarcest resources.
If you’re new to tapas, don’t think it’s as simple as sharing a tiny meal with your closest pals. You’ll find out who your friends are — like when someone has the audacity to take the last crispy brussels sprout all for themselves. I don’t like confrontation, so I don’t like tapas. But I do love delicious brussels sprouts and having a fail-safe for impressing out of town friends, so I suppose it all cancels out.
Bacon- Wrapped Hot Dogs
A delicacy. A delight. A literal pardon from the Lord as you stumble out after last call. That is the Bay Area bacon-wrapped-hot-dog cart. Due to a lack of a strong nightlife (or maybe stronger food safety codes), people on the street corner don’t typically try to sell you food in Chattanooga. However, the best thing I’ve learned from my southern upbringing is that you should never be too proud to eat cheap, delicious fair food, so of course I lunged at this opportunity.
Would I order this creation at a restaurant? No. Would I eat one sober? Probably not. Do I consider these little, sketchy carts integral to the Oakland experience? Absolutely. The next time you have the drunchies and find one in your path, just go for it. Everything happens for a reason.
Do you know how rare it is to get a good fast food hamburger? If you think that In-N-Out is representative of a typical fast food burger, I promise that it isn’t. In-N-Out is the pinnacle of what you imagine other fast food burgers will taste like, but of course, they never do.
I’m sure the island of Alameda has delightful restaurants to choose from with gourmet burgers abound. But when I drive through that Webster Street tube, all my heart desires is a cheeseburger (Animal Style) and well-done fries. It’s simple, inexpensive, and it makes me smile — and in the seven months since I’ve arrived here, it’s one of the few restaurants I’ve been to more than once. All I’m saying is: don’t be too good for In-N-Out. As the red and yellow neon guides you to your sodium coma, let the siren song of the milkshake machine beckon you home.