Welcome to the kickoff edition of CHOW’s Destination Guides, in-depth profiles of cities worth eating around. First up: Sarah Henry’s culinary love letter to Oakland, San Francisco’s spirited neighbor to the east.

Cut the “gritty” crap: From street eats to fine dining, these days the food scene in Oakland, California, is glittery. Restaurants in this art, music, and style hub are less pricey and pretentious than their cousins in San Francisco, less politicized than their siblings in Berkeley. But no comparisons are necessary: Oakland is a town where creative types—including chefs, urban farmers, and edible entrepreneurs—can still take risks. Here are 10 reasons to celebrate Oakland’s culinary life.

All that kvetching around the country about not enough women behind the stoves? Not a problem here. Both as owner-operators of neighborhood spots and head chefs at destination restaurants, girls rule. It’s an exciting time for female talent in this city, where women do their own thing across a range of cuisines. In Old Oakland, Caribbean soul food is the focus at Sarah Kirnon’s Miss Ollie’s (think skillet-fried chicken, salt fish, and plantains). Practically right next door at Cosecha, Dominica Rice-Cisneros cooks Mexican fare with a Northern California approach to sourcing—even humble dishes like tortas or beans ooze flavor. In Uptown, Kim Alter favors contemporary and farmers’ market fresh at Daniel Patterson’s Plum (relaunching soon as Ume), while in Temescal, Julya Shin keeps the Cal-Med fires blazing at Pizzaiolo. Also in Temescal, Chef Preeti Mistry (pictured) draws a diverse crowd for her modern twist on chaat and other Indian-influenced dishes at Juhu Beach Club. In West Oakland, Tanya Holland pays homage to soul food at Brown Sugar Kitchen (the chicken and waffles have a following approaching cult); her second spot, B-Side BBQ, serves smoked meats, greens, okra, and creamy mac ‘n’ cheese. Self-taught chef Silvia McCollow offers a refreshing spin on coastal Mexican at Nido in Jack London Square, and at Stag’s Lunchette, Alexeis (Lexi) Filipello keeps the sandwiches nearly as meaty as her charcuterie platters at Bar Dogwood in Uptown.

As for the guys, they’ve got swagger: Four chefs preside over multiple concepts, spanning some pretty varied food, even by Oakland standards. At Commis, a storefront without a sign on Piedmont Avenue, local-kid-turned-Michelin-starred-chef James Syhabout (above) coaxes elevated flavors from humble ingredients. Hawker Fare, his rice-bowl place in Uptown, is a labor of love (his mom had a Thai restaurant in the same space), and last year in Rockridge, Syhabout added the stepped-up pub grub Box and Bells to his portfolio. Chef Daniel Patterson oversees, Plum, the chic neighborhood spot in Uptown; its baby sis Plum Bar; and in Jack London Square, Haven. Chris Pastena counts the casual Chop Bar and Italian-influenced Lungomare in Jack London Square in his mini empire, which also includes gastropubby Tribune Tavern downtown. Chez Panisse alum Charlie Hallowell is behind Pizzaiolo and its younger sibling Boot and Shoe Service on Grand Avenue, also the site of his latest, Penrose, which favors Middle Eastern and North African flavors.

Oakland is a bit like an urban public school: It doesn’t need to talk up its diversity, it’s just … diverse. The town comes by that pedigree genuinely, like the Mexican food on tap in this city. Fruitvale boasts taco trucks and food stands noted as far afield as The New York Times. Street-food-savvy John Birdsall favors the unpretentious fare at Pipirin, Tacos los Michoacanos (above), and Tacos El Grullo. And he wagers that over at Taqueria Campos Ana Maria Campos has been serving Fruitvale’s best posole, menudo, and goat birria from her small kitchen in a Popsicle-orange taco stand next to a park since 2006. Meanwhile, in a brick-and-mortar business at the Oaksterdam edge of Uptown, eaters enjoy the chanclas found at Manny and Rosy Torres’s Molcajete. The couple also owns the taqueria Antojeria Mexicana el Chilar, a few blocks away.

Not fusion, but cross-cultural mash-ups by chefs of mixed heritage. At Preeti Mistry’s Juhu Beach Club, the chef’s Ohio upbringing meets her Northern California sensibility in the ghee-grilled Bombay sandwich, which features Jack cheese, chaat masala, pickled onions, Chioggia beets, and Yukon Gold potatoes. In Uptown the quirky Hopscotch exudes a retro diner aesthetic, has a whiskey-based bar program, and showcases Chef Kyle Itani’s Franco-Cali-Asian interests—think fried green tomatoes with house kimchi, pickled green garlic, and black vinegar–mustard gribiche. (Itani’s Friday late-night ramen fests may be one of the worst-kept secrets in Oakland.) And then there’s FuseBox—see John Birdsall’s take on Sunhui Chang’s modern Korean joint (above), with nods to Northern California (and a smidge of Guam) in the industrial heart of West Oakland.

Move over Blue Bottle, Oakland has another coffee roaster in town. Meet new kid on the block Keba Konte (video above), co-owner of Guerilla Café in Berkeley, known for airy waffles and activist art. After tinkering with bean blends and roasting techniques, Konte recently launched his own microroasting operation, Red Bay Coffee, in a garden garage at his home in the Fruitvale neighborhood of East Oakland. Find Red Bay brewed at enlightened Oaktown restaurants like Miss Ollie’s, Kingston 11, and the upcoming Township, and in bean form at Mandela Marketplace in West Oakland. Combine with a Baron Baking bagel—OK, baker Dan Graf just moved so technically he’s in Berkeley, but he launched his New York–style bagel business in Oakland and sells to Stag’s and Chop Bar. There’s no arguing with the hometown appeal of the wood-oven Montreal–style bagels from Beauty’s Bagel Shop—owners Blake Joffe and Amy Remsen created an instant neighborhood vibe on the edge of Temescal.

Reinvention rocks here. Paul Canales, who spent 15 years running the kitchen at the iconic Oliveto in Rockridge, is now creating his own vision in Uptown at Duende, inside the historic gem known as the Floral Depot. Canales’s Basque-inspired bites are an homage to his family background (chefs in this town tend to dig deep into their cultural roots). Traditional dishes like tapas, paella, and pintxos shine. Other Oakland hot spots featuring restaurant vets include two Rockridge restaurants: Ramen Shop (above), an industry favorite run by Chez Panisse alums, and A16, a San Francisco transplant finding its Oakland groove.

Food trucks, pop-ups, kitchen incubator programs, farmers’ market stands—Oakland is a place where it’s still possible for these businesses to morph into permanent homes. Market fish-taco vendor Cholita Linda recently opened its doors in a bright space in Temescal. The Cook and Her Farmer is slated to open in May in Swan’s Market in Old Oakland—expect California coastal meets Southern comfort from Chef Romney Steele, whose family runs the landmark Big Sur restaurant Nepenthe, and her business partner with Southern roots, Steven Day. Steele is a former tenant at Kitchener Oakland, the food incubator set to launch its own snack bar next month, with scones from Tart! Bakery, empanadas courtesy of Javi’s Cooking, and cold-pressed beverages by Uptown Juice Company. And this summer, Gail Lillian of the food truck Liba Falafel will open her doors just down the street from Stag’s. Nearby there’s Marrow, from former mobile vendor Jon Kosorek. And Kingston 11, which began as a pop-up by Nigel Jones (above, right, with partners Adrian C. Henderson and Andre King), is already drawing crowds to its new space in the Koreatown Northgate neighborhood (KONO).

Oaklanders just like to get dirty. There’s best-selling author Novella Carpenter, of Farm City and Ghost Town Farm blog fame, who co-wrote an almanac, The Essential Urban Farmer, with the founder of West Oakland’s City Slicker Farms, Willow Rosenthal. Then there’s ex–City Slicker Abeni Ramsey (above), an urban grower, who initially raised food to feed her family out of necessity. Ramsey’s about to launch an ambitious double-whammy in Uptown. Her restaurant Township will feature the city’s only rooftop garden and edible green wall, while a companion shop, City Girl Farmstore, is slated to sell seeds, starters, and other accouterments for urban growing. The store joins Pollinate Farm & Garden, another urban farm supply retailer, which launched in Fruitvale last year. Meanwhile, WOW Farm (short for West Oakland Woods) teaches local high school students about the business of farming. They sell their organic produce to the restaurant Flora in Uptown.

Camino on Grand Avenue—launched in 2008—continues to be a popular spot for restaurant insiders and dining civilians. It’s the creation of live-fire lover Chef Russell Moore (above) and his wife, Allison Hopelain; Moore is another veteran of Alice’s kitchen. Husband-and-wife team Rebekah and Rich Wood own the rustic Rockridge bistro Wood Tavern, packing them in since 2007. Newbie chef couples include Fred and Elizabeth Sassen at charming Homestead on Piedmont Avenue, and Melissa Axelrod and William Johnson, who share kitchen duties at Mockingbird on the outskirts of Uptown.

The flurry of new culinary energy in Oakland shouldn’t distract from the pioneers who took chances on untested neighborhoods ahead of the pack. Kudos to Dona Savitsky and Thomas Schnetz, who led the way in Temescal with upscale Mexican food at Doña Tomás (it opened all the way back in 1999). The business partners followed up with three venues clustered in Uptown: restaurant Flora in 2007, the taqueria Xolo in 2011, and the bar Fauna in 2012. Hats off to Tamarindo, the elegant game-changer in Old Oakland, which began serving traditional Mexican cuisine in 2005. And in Uptown, Luka’s deserves credit for kick-starting the culinary revival there back in 2004 with its hearty brasserie offerings.

PHOTO CREDITS Juhu Beach Club’s Preeti Mistry by Chris Rochelle; James Syhabout from SinghaBeerUSA.com; Tacos los Michoacanos’s birria by John Birdsall; hamachi crudo at FuseBox by Chris Rochelle; Keba Konte video from 8 Factors on Vimeo; the Ramen Shop by Flickr member Sharon Hahn Darlin under Creative Commons; Kingston 11’s Adrian C. Henderson, Andre King, Nigel Jones from Kingston 11 / Facebook; Abeni Ramsey from PBS/Food Forward; Camino’s Russ Moore by Flickr member star5112 under Creative Commons; Flora’s sign by Flickr member Hitchster under Creative Commons.

Sarah Henry is a freelance writer and a contributing editor at Edible East Bay. The voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale, she tweets under that moniker too.
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