In the Bay Area, the mission district of San Francisco is famous for its horrendously huge burritos, taqueria food, and even pupuserias. But across the the bay lies Oakland where Mexicans can actually still afford to live. Take the Fruitvale exit and head east to International and you've landed in the midst of another world -- taquerias, tiendas, panaderias, joyerias, fruterias, carnicerias, etc, etc, etc. Whereas the mission district is largely mixed with as much Asian influence as Latin American, the Fruitvale area of International Blvd in Oakland is aggressively Mexican. The restaurants have gorgeous murals both inside and out. Snack and fruit carts stand on every corner, waiting for the many families to walk by, kids begging for something sweet.
I've eaten one of the best tingas of my life atop a large, Mexico City style huarache at La Torta Loca. Apparently there's another outpost, but I haven't found it. This one shares a storefront with a lavanderia and is barely more than a take-out counter. But the food! Dios mio! Everything I've tried here was at least good, and it should be a first stop in an Oakland Mexican food tour. Certainly try the tinga, but also try the nopales if you haven't had them or enjoy nopales even a little bit. I'm not a Mexican sandwich person, but the pambasos look fantastico.
Just a couple doors up (south) from La Torta Loca is La Gran Chiquita. The items here are more mixed in quality and you'll have to brush up on your Spanish before entering because they don't speak English, but the quesadillas are excellent. They're the traditional folded masa quesadillas that have become way too difficult to find in the US. They offer both huitlacoche (corn fungus) and flor de calabaza (squash blossom) which makes this place an even greater find. The shell of the quesadilla is just like you'll find in Mexico and quite delicious.
Otaez is several blocks south and across the street from the previous two and marks the end of the heavy concentration of taquerias. It has both a restaurant side and a taqueria side. The desayunos and mariscos look especially alluring here, but even just the tacos are quite good. Tortillas are made to order and typical fillings like cabeza and al pastor are good.
A "do not miss" in this Mexitown-within-a-town is the agua fresca and licuado truck Ojo de Agua. Posters on Chowhound.com swear by the torta cubana as well, but I'd rather order an extra drink than waste my tummy on anything as filling as that. The tropical fruit aguas frescas such as the mango or guyaba are divine. The horchata is excellent. The licuados, such as the coco with a dash of cinnamon on top are wonderful. Do not miss!
In addition to these low-end places where brown people can afford to eat, Oakland also has a well-respected upscale Mexican restaurant serving primarily whities, Dona Tomas. The restaurant fits better as a Berkeley restaurant than an Oakland restaurant (eg, soy milk is available for your coffee), however it is truly in Oakland. Dona Tomas integrates New American/California cooking and traditional Mexican dishes. They use local and seasonal ingredients, western preparations, and simple but elegant presentations. The carnitas are made with Niman Ranch pork. The pescado en pipian verde is made with skate. The ceviche is made with salmon. The prices are fair with rarely an entree over $15 or an appetizer over $10. But don't expect the typical Tex-Mex place with overflowing plates the size of a pizza pan. The portions will stuff only the daintiest diners. I highly recommend their sopa de lima, a perfect balance of citrus, garlic, tomato, and chicken topped with crunchy tortilla strips. The pastries come across mostly uninspired, typical of even upscale Mexican restaurants, but there is a nod to seasonality even there.
Even with most of the orchards covered by blacktop, strip malls, offices, and mini-mansions, San Jose still attracts large populations of Mexicans. Thanks to a recommendation from eGullet.com member Jaymes, I took an afternoon to explore just one corner of San Jose's Mexicana, the corner of King and Story.
The intersection of these two streets acts like a magnet for Mexicans seeking food and goods. Two local supermercado powers, Mi Pueblo Food Center and Tropicana Foods, anchor competing shopping centers caddy-corner from each other. Around these and in these are taquerias, restaurantes, panaderias, carnicerias, joyerias, clothing stores, and much more -- many owned by these two anchors.
Mi Pueblo is wonderful. It's huge, clean, busy, and comprehensive. It's larger than most Safeways. The carniceria offers an enormous line of meats, poultry, and fish. They have a deli counter with prepared foods like carnitas and chicharron. They make their panes dulces right there along with tortillas. They sell their fresh masa, too. They have an extensive selection of dried chiles and a very good produce section.
Slightly smaller and a little more run down, Tropicana also provides an excellent selection of meats, produce, panes dulces, chiles, and other Mexican groceries. The taqueria in Tropicana trumps Mi Pueblo's prepared foods. There are fresh caramelly carnitas and crispy chicharron, but also several guisados and all the typical taco fillings. The taqueria inside Tropicana even sells its own lard leftover from the making of chicharron and carnitas.
Tacos al Carbon, right next to Mi Pueblo, makes tasty tacos using freshly made tortillas. You can look into the kitchen which extends down one side of the restaurant as you walk in. Notice the hanging carne seca. The opposite wall has a stage and murals. Tacos al Carbon is more than a taqueria and you can order a variety of Mexican dishes and drinks. Their cabeza and their carne asada are especially good.
Los Jarritos is an expansive one-room restaurant near Tropicana with murals on the main two walls and a partially open kitchen. The day I was there they were setting up for a wedding party with large white lilies on many of the tables, colorful balloons, and a stage. They have an extensive selection of aguas frescas and licuados. The aguas come with the bottom third of the glass filled with chopped bits of the chosen ingredient that get caught in the straw, but flavor the water perfectly. The melon agua fresca is especially good and not too sweet. There are many mariscos on the menu as well as all the typical Mexican dishes. I really enjoyed the queso fundido con chorizo.
Except for the occasional horrendous wait, I love Cheeseboard Pizza. I love the crackle of their crust. I love that the cheese comes out mottled-brown on top. I love that there's only one choice, but that it changes daily and by season. If Chez Panisse had a pizzeria, I imagine this is what it would be. No wonder they're across the street. I do wish they'd get a little more adventurous with the cheese selections. They have a cheese store two doors down, afterall. But they do add feta often. A great blend of California gourmet and classic pizza.
Okay, the soy thing sort of freaked me out. But at least they color-code so you can avoid such blasphemy. Naia Gelateria attracts lines of people out the door for a very good reason: good gelato. There are a lot of alcohol inspired flavors. I don't mean to say the owners are drunks, just that several flavors make use of liqueurs. Purists will like the fact that Naia uses a spade to scrape the ice cream into the cups and the servers behind the counter dress like they're trying out for the Italian cycling team. All the flavors I tried were tasty, but I especially liked their creme caramel.
Mitchell's makes classic ice cream in a wide variety of flavors. The texture is smooth and creamy. The flavors are intense. The Mexican chocolate actually tastes like Mexican chocolate, not just cocoa with a little cinnamon. Many of the tropical and Asian flavors are quite interesting, too. Everyone needs to have a taste of durian at least once in their life.
Screamin' Mimi's was a bit of a disappointment. It's a cute place. The people are nice. The flavors are interesting, but the sorbets lack intensity and have an icy texture. The ice creams are decent, but nothing special. I wanted to like this place more. Perhaps try the ginger ice cream.
With how slammed Dolce Spazio was, if Los Gatos ever gets a truly good ice cream place in downtown expect to see lines around the block. Some items are better than others, and I'm not sure that it's gelato as the sign claims, but it's worth eating.
For the interstate traveller, Dixon is barely more than a series of exits punctuated with gas stations and fast food chains. However, it provides a couple culinary points of interest. One of these is Pedrick Produce which announces its existence in 10 foot letters to each speeding car. The best items here are central valley specialties like pistachios and other nuts, both flavored and plain, jarred olives, and dried fruit. It's a pretty good selection and they let you taste many things.
In many ways, Berkelely Bowl is better than any farmer's market you'll ever see. It's certainly better than any grocery store or market I've been to, including the enormous markets of Mexico City and Guadalajara. The variety, except for produce, may not quite approach the Central Market chain in Texas, but the quality surpasses it, partially due, I imagine, because the place always seems to be slammed. And though you may have slight freshness advantages at farmer's markets, not even Pike Place, the Ferry Building, or Portland's farmer's markets approach the overall diversity. Even the meat counter and tuna choices are superb. They have a terrific selection of bulk goods and olives. They carry ACME breads and have a nice deli counter.
I hadn't been to the Ferry Building since the permanent spots had filled up. Since my wife and I both had to pee, the Ferry Building's decent public bathrooms made a good excuse for a stop. I have to say, it's looking great. I imagine this will only improve the quality of the overall market -- something that will be hard to do since it's clearly already one of the best farmer's markets in the country.
The Sebastopol farmer's market is a place I'd like to return to when the orchards start yielding their crops. It's small, but not bad for the size of the town. There just wasn't much produce there yet. But I think it was early in the season. Tried several types of honey, however, and got to get some fresh honey comb which I hadn't sucked on since I was a kid.