It seems that Oakland has been recently attracting more and more attention for being a culinary capital of the US.
Many pieces about Oakland food that you’ll read from national — or even Bay Area regional — publications focus on a very small swath of the city running from Jack London Square, through downtown and Uptown, and ending in the northernly areas of Rockridge, Temescal, Piedmont Ave, and Grand Lake.
There’s plenty of great food to eat in those nabes, to be sure. That said, East Oakland, including Fruitvale where I live and work, is the city’s largest area, and it’s also one of the most diverse areas of the country I’ve ever seen or heard of. As you might imagine, we have a ton of great restaurants here. I’ve only lived here less than 3 years, and there’s lots of places I still need to try. But I’ve definitely found more places I love to eat here in East Oakland than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, or even visited for a long time.
And, since you’re (at this point, at least) unlikely to read too much about these places in the latest Oakland-is-the-new-Brooklyn listicle, I thought I’d share a few with you. The people who operate these restaurants work hard and are awesome, and I hope it’s helpful to shine some light their way, however little it may be. So, here’s an incomplete, non-authoritative list of eateries I often patronize, on the sunny side of the Lake.
Oakland is deservedly well-known for coffee because of its excellent roasters like Blue Bottle, Highwire (technically in Emeryville) and Roast Co. However, when it comes to a retail coffee experience, I prefer cafés closer to my home. Here are three of my favorites:
Cafe 3016. Very small — the husband and wife owner are almost always the ones working. They serve Wrecking Ball coffee, Authentic Bagel Company bagels and delicious sandwiches. Their coffee is basically always perfect, as far as I can tell.
Haddon Hill Cafe. A nice little spot in a posh part of the region up near the lake. Four Barrel coffee and great pastries (both house made and from Starter Bakery).
Hive: the place to bee. A chill laptop-friendly hangout with Highwire coffee and delicious breakfast sandwiches.
Fruitvale also has its own quality coffee roaster, Red Bay coffee. They expect to open a retail shop at their roastery in the future, which I’m very looking forward to.
American diner-style food is among the least-represented cuisines I’ve seen in East Oakland, which gives you a sense of our embarrassment of riches here. But we do have quite a few places, particularly old-school burger joints. And we have some newer-school places, two of which I eat at a lot.
Sequoia Diner. If there’s a better version of the classic American breakfast/lunch diner somewhere, I want to go yesterday. Approachable and familiar dishes, moderate prices, daily-changing menu from local ingredients, and delicious cooking. Plus fresh squeezed orange juice and carafes of Highwire Coffee. What more could you want before noon?
Fruitvale, our neighborhood in East Oakland, is one of the centers of Mexican cuisine and culture in the whole Bay Area. The Mexican food here is superb.
Taqueria Campos. Probably the most famous eatery on this list, being covered by both multiple regional and national media. But you wouldn’t know it from the cozy old six-table dining room and warm hospitality. And the cooking is astounding. It’s not really a taqueria in the Mission burrito sense — they specialize in Jalisco-style stews and other homestyle dishes.
La Torta Loca. It’s a Mexico-City style torta shop in the foyer of a laundromat, which itself is awesome, but not as awesome as the tortas are! I also like their “flautas” (which are basically what we expat San Diegans call “rolled tacos”).
El Huarache Azteca. These folks are wizards with the masa-based dishes of Mexico City such as huaraches, sopes and (thick corn masa) quesadillas. Their blue masa tlacoyo really scratches an itch for me.
We’ve got at least two great Lao restaurants in these parts, and I’ve heard of a third (here in Fruitvale) but I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet. The two below also serve Vietnamese and Thai dishes. We always stick to pretty much our favorite order at either: Nam Kao (rice ball salad), avocado/shrimp spring rolls, Lao sausage, and maybe one other item. The food at both of these places is dependably very delicious.
Vientiane Cafe. This is in the Allendale neighborhood, doesn’t serve beer or wine, and usually (in my experience) does not have a wait for seating. We generally order to-go because we like to enjoy some wine with our meal.
Champa Garden. Regionally famous (Michelin Bib Gourmand) and usually a wait for a table. They offer some interesting beers (I like the Beer Lao dark) and a selection of Navarro wines. It’s closer to the lake on 8th Avenue in the San Antonio/Clinton neighborhood.
Fists of Flour. One of the best pizzerias in the Bay Area, and they deliver. So, you know, perfect.
BBQ & Soul Food
Ginny’s BBQ. A genuine wood-fired BBQ and soul food joint with equally genuine hospitality. The BBQ is very good (I particularly enjoy the ribs and brisket) but I crave the fried chicken. I also love the stacks of firewood in the dining room.
Nieves Cinco de Mayo. Our neighbor in the Fruitvale Public Market, Luis Abundis is an dessert alchemist who makes hand-cranked ice cream flavored with fresh produce and other honest ingredients. He’s been doing it for 25 years and his family did it for years before that in the state of Jalisco. It’s really good.
Beer is food, right? Here in the Fruitvale/Jingletown neighborhood, we’ve got our own delightful brewery, Ale Industries. Their tasting room is open daily and is well worth a visit. Some favorite brews of mine include Cherry Kush, Uncle Jesse, Rye’d Piper, East Bay IPA, Beast Oakland, and Pink Drank.
Bun Mam Soc Trang. Even though it’s been closed for a few months since suddenly losing its lease, I can’t not include it, because the restaurant was/is amazing. They specialize(d) in a seafood-based Vietnamese soup called Bún mắm, and everything on their menu was/is impeccably awesome. I’ve heard from the owner that they do expect to open again somewhere in East Oakland, and I have a feeling it will be packed when they do, from all the pent-up longing for their food!
Like I said above, this list is totally incomplete and clearly reflects the fact that I spend most of my time in the area between 23rd Ave and High Street, and haven’t been here that many years to begin with. I’ve heard/read about of some great-sounding places in the more eastern parts of East Oakland, that I’m looking forward to trying. This part of the city is a big area with enough great food options that everyone can and will experience it differently. Which, in my opinion, is kind of the signature of an ideal food town.