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The Oakland 100

Edited by Sara Deseran | June 2, 2014 | Story Restaurants

Editor's Note: This is one of many dispatches from Oakland that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the June "Oakland Issue." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

1. A Case for Soulful Food
Chief restaurant critic Josh Sens on Oakland's competitive edge.

At 31, Chris Kronner is the king of the fleeting stint, maestro of the small-budget success. Over the years, I’ve pulled for him through his brief stop at San Francisco’s Bar Tartine, his guest appearances at the Mill and Namu Gaji, and, more recently, his tenure at KronnerBurger, which filled the drab overflow space at Bruno’s nightclub in the Mission.

But while Kronner’s bootstrapping style has made him easy to root for, his itinerant ways have made him hard to follow. Late last year, when he vacated Bruno’s, I lost track of him, only to learn this spring that for reasons economic and aesthetic, he’d abandoned San Francisco for my hometown of Oakland and was cooking two evenings a week less than a mile from my house.

A few nights later, at a modest new Grand Avenue wine bar called Ordinaire, my wife and I enjoyed the sharp but rustic cooking I’ve come to expect from Kronner: roasted mushroom–and–cantal tartine, razor clams in leek vinaigrette, and roasted chicken with asparagus and truffles, capped by a Seville orange layer cake. With wine, four courses set us back about $100.

On our way out, I caught a glimpse of Kronner in the shoebox of a kitchen, working with only an induction burner, a convection oven, and a Barbie-size deep fryer—emblematic, somehow, of Oakland’s scrappy dining scene.

On paper, San Francisco may look powerful. More Michelin stars. More celebrity chefs than Oakland. By those measures, it outdoes my town by a long shot. But when I’m scouting restaurants, I don’t give a hoot about pedigree. I want energy and excitement, not Gallic sanction. You can take your marquee chefs and the big money behind them. I’ll take the pluck of a neighborhood restaurant, its owner in the kitchen or smiling at the door. Though I hanker for good food, my cravings run deeper. I like restaurants that reflect what we hope for in our cities: a variety of choices and a diversity of crowds, with a sense that something larger and communal is at stake. This is why Oakland, not San Francisco or Portland or L.A., is the epicenter of West Coast dining right now.

True, I’m biased, a pent-up booster who has been waiting for this chance to cheer for Oakland. When I moved here more than 20 years ago, the culinary scene aroused about as much excitement as the snack cart on a Southwest flight. In those days, no one spoke of a food rivalry with San Francisco; Oakland couldn’t even claim to be a wounded underdog. Our few restaurants of repute—BayWolf, Citron, Oliveto—felt less like Oakland products than like Berkeley exports, with tweedy-frumpy atmospheres to match.

Dives abounded. In my neighborhood, the Temescal, there was a fish-and-chips shop, an old Italian deli, a Korean barbecue joint. If you wanted to get fancy, you asked for extra onions at Original Kasper’s hot dog stand.

Kasper’s has since closed. Meanwhile, the blocks around it have evolved into a district called the “other Gourmet Ghetto.” I can walk to a whole range of easygoing but well-executed restaurants hawking Indian pavs and wood-fired pizzas, tapas, yakitori, ramen, and sushi.

As it goes in Temescal, so it goes from Uptown to Jack London Square. I could point to Eduardo Balaguer, a caterer-cum-restaurateur, whose winning Spanish joint, Venga Paella, brightens a lonely corner near the waterfront. I could mention Sunhui Chang and the Korean-style skewers and bap sets of FuseBox, his crackling restaurant on a West Oakland block that otherwise lies dormant after dark. I could give a shout-out to Sayre Piotrkowski, the cicerone at Hog’s Apothecary, a sausage-and-beer shop a quick skip from the MacArthur BART station.

My use of that c-word, cicerone, probably sounds pretentious, but the vibe of the restaurant is anything but. On a warm Friday evening a few weeks back, I showed up with my kids, ages 8 and 10, just as Hog’s opened and pulled up a wooden bench at a communal table alongside two other young families—you know, those socioeconomic units you never see at San Francisco restaurants anymore.

My kids split a corn dog. I had a duck sausage and an oyster stout and watched Piotrkowski ply the taps, pouring a wild assortment of sours, wheat beers, and saisons. The eclecticism matched the array of ages and faces in the crowd. In the Bay Area, Oakland is where this kind of scene plays out most.

“San Francisco used to be like this,” says Piotrkowski, who spent five years in the city at Monk’s Kettle and St. Vincent, among other places. “But then a monoculture took over, faster than you could see it happening.”

You’ll hear an echo of that same refrain in a lot of Oakland kitchens. In its tone, there is a swagger but also a lament: pride in Oakland’s emergence, along with a twinge of regret for what many feel has transpired across the bay. From this side of the water, the message rings clear: Oakland is the city with culinary street cred; San Francisco is the city that sold out.

Not that I agree entirely.
I’d say that “monoculture” gives short shrift to San Francisco’s restaurant scene. Then again, I wouldn’t call it a rainbow coalition. Though there remains in San Francisco an appetite for passion projects, the runaway success of convention-breaking restaurants like State Bird Provisions and Mission Chinese Food does more than demonstrate the hunger for such places. It hints at how rare they’ve become. Kronner, for one, grew tired of San Francisco’s sameness: tables filled with e-daters, diners busy Yelping before their food arrived. He couldn’t ignore his sense that Oakland had a “higher level of creative energy and offered a better opportunity for small operators to express themselves and not have to spend a million dollars to do so.”

Has San Francisco sold out? Not exactly. But it has priced out a lot of Kronners. A prime location like Hayes Valley costs up to $6 per square foot for a commercial lease, nearly twice the rent of its Oakland cousin, the upscale Rockridge district. The $6.50 per square foot you pay for a sweet spot on Valencia Street falls to about $3 on Oakland’s Grand Avenue. Throw in the price of permits, minimum wage ($10.55 per hour in San Francisco to Oakland’s $8), and healthcare subsidies, and the contrast sharpens. A full liquor license, which runs $40,000 in Alameda County, fetches $210,000-plus in San Francisco—more than Kyle Itani and Jenny Schwarz spent, all told, to open Hopscotch, their killer Japanese-inflected bistro, in the Uptown district two years ago.

Not that it’s only about economics. Oakland’s food scene has been nourished by its art scene, a link that has helped give life to a gritty, nonconformist restaurant culture. “There’s no overarching dogma that you’re stuck with in Oakland,” says Paul Canales, chef and co-owner of Duende in Uptown, a Spanish restaurant, bodega, and live music venue rolled into one. “It’s not like Berkeley, which is still largely dominated by the Chez Panisse aesthetic. And it’s not like San Francisco, where you feel pressure to either shoot for your Michelin star or act like you give a shit but not too much.” Sure, there’s some of that in Oakland, too. But as Canales puts it, “There’s more room here to do what you really want.”

A sense of frontier-style freedom is just as appealing to seasoned operators. In his 20-plus years in the industry, Doug Washington has launched more than eight restaurants, including Town Hall and Salt House in San Francisco. But his latest venture is Grand Fare, near Lake Merritt in Oakland, a café that he plans to grow into a high-minded prepared-food market.

In Oakland, Washington says, he senses an all-for-one ethos. “People are not just coming to assess you. They’re coming to support you. At the same time, the people who drop by, they bring an edge that I really like.”

Oakland’s edge, of course, cuts both ways, clearing a path for creative newbies but also lashing out against anything perceived to have a corporate tint. Those perceptions are so sensitive that they verge on paranoiac. Last year, when San Francisco’s A16 opened an Oakland offshoot on upscale College Avenue, I heard a neighbor grumble that “a chain” had moved in, as if the fine Italian restaurant were an Olive Garden. In my social circles, similar complaints arose early this year when Blue Bottle Coffee opened on Broadway. I had to remind my grousing friends that Blue Bottle’s James Freeman started blasting beans more than 10 years ago in a closet-size space in Alley 49, well before the alley became the Alley, with $3 hand-filled doughnuts and a Deadwood-hairdo barbershop.

“Edge,” in other words,
can be irritating, and if that’s all there were in Oakland, I’d move to Alameda. But my favorite restaurants here also have a quality of cooking and a sharpness of service. I’d take refined Commis or rustic Pizzaiolo over any of their genre in San Francisco. The Ramen Shop blows away the city’s finest noodle joints. Tacos? Nothing tops Cholita Linda. And I haven’t had better brisket than what Tanya Holland serves at B-Side BBQ.

Amid all the optimistic buzz in Oakland, of course, there are anguished questions about gentrification, posed most openly and most often by the gentrifiers themselves. Not long ago, over nothing less symbolic than a glass of French rosé at Ordinaire, I listened as one staffer, a barman with de rigueur facial growth, described for me a future of a sadly whitewashed Oakland.

In many respects, he said, that future is already here. In a forlorn, there-goes-the-neighborhood voice, he noted a boutique just across the street, one of those outposts that stock what he referred to disparagingly as “received fashions—like air plants and skinny jeans.” I glanced over the bar. Denim clung like Saran wrap to his legs. But if these are indicators of where the neighborhood is going, it’s more of an outgrowth than a cause.

For all the changes here, I still meet a lot of San Franciscans who say that they’re scared to come to Oakland. But just as many Oaklanders say that their greatest worry is the yuppie-ville that their town may soon be. I understand that protective instinct, even if it often comes off as misplaced romanticism.

“People talk to me about gentrification, but what do we want, junkies and boarded- up buildings?” asks Duende’s Canales. Meantime, the dormant buildings keep filling up. In the last three years, 100 new bars and restaurants have cropped up, nearly double the number that opened in the previous three years.

Of the many hotspots, one that I’m watching closely is on Piedmont Avenue, a place that until recently was a greasy spoon called J’s. As of this summer it will become KronnerBurger, its vagabond namesake having been so taken with Oakland that he signed a long-term lease. If that’s where the neighborhood is going, I’ll happily be along for the ride.

Sens’s Short List

The critic picks his ten favorite Oakland restaurants, in no particular order.

2. Commis
3859 Piedmont Ave.
Here’s Oakland’s biggest steal. Homegrown chef James Syhabout earned the city’s only Michelin star with an eight-course prix fixe (bay scallops with nasturtiums and wildflower honey; lamb saddle with turnips and pistachio sauce) for the relative pittance of $95.

3. Fusebox
2311A Magnolia St.
Few Oakland restaurants tug at my heartstrings quite like Sunhui Chang’s passion project. The West Oakland warehouse district outside is sleepy, but inside is lively—especially the cooking, a modernized Korean mix of beef short rib bap sets, pork belly tortas, and other dishes that go well with booze.

4. The Ramen Shop
5812 College Ave.
Some people complain that $15 is too much for ramen. If only there were more of those numbnuts around here, it might be easier to get a seat. The three Chez Panisse alums who run this place use housemade noodles and carefully sourced ingredients. Along with ramen, there are bright salads and sprightly crudos, all of them worth the premium.

5. B-Side BBQ
33303 San Pablo Ave.
Instead of advising a flight to Memphis for good barbecue, I now direct seekers to this sweet sit-down joint. No cloying Sauces. No rubbery ribs. With Tanya Holland (Brown Sugar Kitchen) playing pit master, the meat arrives slow-cooked, tender, and smoky. Even the southern sides are prepared just so.

6. Pizzaiolo
5008 Telegraph Ave.
Pizza’s not my first choice at the oldest and, hands down, best of Charlie Hallowell’s three Oakland restaurants. My house is just a few blocks away, so I can walk to the braised meatballs and the fried chicken with chickpeas. But if I lived in San Francisco, I’d cross the bridge for this stuff.

7. Duende
468 19th St.
To my mind, no place better embodies the energy of uptown than this big, ambitious outpost from Oliveto vet Paul Canales. It has the Bay area’s best Basque-inspired dishes (the paella is perfection). More than just a restaurant, it’s also a live music venue—so the later the hour, the more it cooks.

8. Miss Ollie's
901 Washington St.
I’d like to thank Sarah Kirnon for expanding my lexicon (pholourie, it turns out, are split pea–and–okra fritters) and my palate with boldly flavored Caribbean dishes like braised oxtail with Scotch bonnet chilies and salt fish with ackee (a lychee-like fruit). all of this with a pepper sauce that’s hot enough to melt your teeth.

9. Hopscotch
1915 San Pablo Ave.
I don’t need much more from a neighborhood bistro than a friendly welcome and smart, unpretentious food. But Yoshi’s alumnus Kyle Itani goes well beyond that, inflecting his menu with Japanese accents. The service is sharp, the cocktails are killer, and even the burger isn’t basic issue: It’s blended with griddled beef tongue, Sendai-style.

10. Juhu Beach Club
5179 Telegraph Ave.
I used to be convinced that nothing could be done with this doomed-seeming location. Then Preeti Mistry started riffing on Indian street food here. I dig the West Coast whimsy in her dishes (vindaloo chicken wings with Point Reyes blue cheese, say) and the spirit she’s infused into a once-dreary space.

11. Nido Kitchen and Bar
444 Oak St.
When I want a top-notch taco, I turn to Cosecha in Swan’s Market. But for a full menu, I come here. Silvia McCollow grew up in Mexico but has absorbed the Alice Waters ethos, and you can taste it in everything she serves, from chili-rubbed roast chicken to tasajo asado, grilled beef spiked with lime and served with black beans and cotija cheese.

1-11: The case for soulful food; Josh Sens's top 10
12-24: Fancified doughnuts; the 1 a.m. hoagie guy; so many taco trucks
25-49: Walking Chinatown; urban winetopia; a farmer's market picnic
50-82: The bagel boomlet; Uptown bar-food hopping; healthy soul food
83-100: Fried chicken sandwiches; gourmet shops; roasters to buzz about

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco.

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