In the first part of this travel series, we had just begun peeling back the multifarious layers of Oakland,California a fusion of distinctive neighborhoods and one of the most diverse cities in the country.
Oakland has been described as offering everything from the sophisticated to the gritty, layered on top of each other and yielding a bevy of authentic experiences, amazing diversity, outstanding culinary options, fantastic year-round weather, acres of picturesque parkland, a thriving and accessible waterfront, a captivating art and music scene and more. One of the biggest city draws in recent years is its dynamic gastronomic landscape, offering ethnic fare that aptly captures and extols the delicious flavors and traditions of the folks speaking some 100 languages and dialects here. From Thai to Indian, Japanese, seafood, Spanish, Mexican, Vietnamese, vegan/vegetarian, Chinese, Italian—you name it and you will find authentic expressions of it here.
Reportedly, over 60 new restaurants staked claim in Oakland in 2012, bringing numerous top chefs from San Francisco and further afield, each with their own backgrounds and vibes that have infused Oakland with a vitality and excitement reflecting the love of their craft and how essential the Oakland “ingredient” is to their recipes and success. I checked out several African-American-owned entities here that have created quite a following across all racial and ethnic lines, offering sumptuous fare at reasonable prices that are more than sure to satisfy.
Born in London and raised in Barbados, Sarah Kirnon (pronounced kerr-non) is the face behind Ms. Ollie’s. This downtown restaurant features outstanding “food from the diaspora” with an emphasis on Creole and Caribbean entrees. Known for their fried chicken, the rest of the menu changes daily, highlighted by salt fish and ackee with plantains, scotch bonnet, spring onions and sweet peppers; lamb patties with radishes and fresh herbs; rice and peas; tostones; oxtails, phoularie (split peas with okra fritters) with shado beni and tamarind sauces; and vegetable curry with seasonal vegetables, roasted Fresno chili oil, Basmati rice and avocado, just to name a few.
Owner Michael LeBlanc has created a phenomenal hit with Picán Restaurant. I think their motto says it best: “Tantalizing aromas, rich tastes, stimulating colors, layered textures, enveloping sounds. The tradition of the South. The sophistication of California cuisine. Vibrant cosmopolitan energy.” House specialties here include Sea Island she crab soup, Louisiana blue crab and lobster thermidor, jumbalaya risotto, molasses-brined Prather pork chop, vegan dirty rice, fire-dusted eggplant fritters and sides including rib ends hoppin’ John, crawfish mac and cheese, and Chicken Drippin’s Hasselback potatoes. LeBlanc also founded the Royale Bourbon Society, offering the most comprehensive whiskey selection in the Bay Area (with over 106 bourbons, whiskeys and ryes) with dinners, tastings and other activities centered around the Kentucky Derby.
When the line is out the door … on a Friday morning … in February, you know it must be worth the wait at Brown Sugar Kitchen. Owned by husband and wife duo Phil Surkis and Tonya Holland, who is also the executive chef (Holland of Food Network fame), the restaurant is a reflection of their desire to create an upscale bistro showcasing a positive spin on the African-American community through food and wine. And it’s become something that the crunchy yet evolving West Oakland neighborhood in which it’s located takes great pride.
Holland’s background as a chef and caterer as well her experience with, art history , and design is infused into every aspect of the ambiance and food. Their flagship dish is the buttermilk fried chicken and cornbread waffles, served with a light brown sugar butter with apple cider syrup. Other mouthwatering options are the barbecue shrimp and grits; baked egg and vegetable tart with choice of salad or breakfast potatoes; bacon-cheddar-scallion biscuits; and organic cheddar cheese grits with two poached eggs for breakfast. For lunch, there’s smoked chicken and shrimp gumbo; an oyster po-boy sandwich with spicy cabbage slaw; brown sugar pineapple glazed barbecue baby back ribs; and creole barbecue shrimp with steamed basmati rice and baby spinach, just to name a few.
A few blocks away is their other restaurant, B Side BBQ, featuring chili with burnt ends and scallion sour cream; Dark and Stormy St. Louis Ribs; smoked brown sugar-rubbed brisket; spicy baked chicken wings with Rogue Creamery smoked blue cheese dip; and tasters and sides like fried okra bites with creole aioli, Yukon gold potato salad, smoked mashed yams, and barbecue braised tofu nuggets and seasonal vegetables, all set against a backdrop décor designed to honor the Black cowboys and annual Black Cowboy Parade and Heritage Festival celebrating over 30 years here.
Don’t judge the book by the (slanted media) cover
As I said in part one of this series, Oakland, like many cities across the country, has undergone its share of social, political, and economic issues among others. However, it has continued to thrive, forging its own new face through development, technology, business and an evolving sense of community across a wide swath of its landscape.
I met with several African-American residents and business people here—including Martin Reynolds, senior editor for community engagement, Bay Area News Group; Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education; and Fred Blackwell, the city administrator of Oakland—who are right on the pulse of the city, each offering their unique personal and professional snapshots of the city.
Among their comments about what it really means to live, work and visit Oakland is the notion that people are passionate about Oakland, but for different reasons. There is a momentum and a cultural richness not found in many other places. The eclectic restaurants and shops (90 percent of which are mom-and-pop-owned), organizations and so forth are direct reflections of the burgeoning neighborhoods, and the walkability of many areas is a highly desirable lifestyle amenity.
The crime rates, they say, have ebbed and flowed. However, the media’s “fear factor” is disproportionate. In recent years, Oakland has experienced some of the highest crime reductions in the nation.
Together, these various aspects constitute a city that really feels like a special small town. There’s a great deal more to come about Oakland, a jewel in the Bay Area.
Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.Examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website. Lysa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- B Side BBQ: 510-595-0227, http://bsidebbq.com
- Black Cowboy Parade and Heritage Festival: www.blackcowboyassociation.org
- Brown Sugar Kitchen: 510-839-7685, http://brownsugarkitchen.com
- Ms. Ollie’s: 510-285-6188, www.missolliesoakland.com
- Picán Restaurant: 510-834-1000, www.picanrestaurant.com
- Visit Oakland: 510-839-9000, http://visitoakland.org