Bussdown is Oakland’s new soul meals restaurant within the African diaspora

Bussdown is a new take-away restaurant specializing in Pan-African soul food. Photo: Dana PlucinskiThe Bussdown
at the Oakland Food Hall,
2353 E. 12th St. (on Miller Avenue), Oakland

For their new Oakland pan-African soul food restaurant, The Bussdown, chefs Solomon Johnson and Mike Woods shop for the freshest ingredients in local markets, making every sauce from scratch, and breaking down whole chickens with every single part of the bird – from the rendered – fat to the bone to make chicken broth.

The level of detail Johnson and Woods devote to the food they cook is not surprising given their culinary pedigree. They met at the high-end catering firm Paula Le Duc and rubbed their elbows in the kitchen of the Tribune Tavern where Woods was the head chef du cuisine just before the pandemic. They also have past experience at Copper Spoon, The Wolf, Gather, alaMar, Sobre Mesa, and other East Bay restaurants. For the past several years, Johnson ran his own catering company called Omni World Kitchen, which prepared meals for technicians and professional athletes and rappers.

Slightly more unusual, The Bussdown – a take-out, delivery-only restaurant that operates in a ghost kitchen in the Oakland Food Hall (formerly known as Jingletown Eats) – offers such a high-touch fare for take-away customers only, namely, for those who use it, third-party apps like Doordash and Grubhub. But that’s not so surprising either. In the days of the pandemic, the concept of “takeaway” has really been turned on its head. Of course, you can still get a sub-par pizza that tastes like cheese-covered puff carton, but you can also order dishes from Michelin-starred restaurants that have it delivered right to your doorstep.

“We take great care in our food. Just because it’s take away doesn’t mean it’s take away, ”Johnson said. “It is food that a plate deserves.”

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Johnson and Woods developed the concept for The Bussdown in November 2020. Both were underemployed due to the pandemic. At the time, Johnson’s catering company barely got around after being reimbursed about $ 15,000 for canceled events. A microfinance loan and private catering appearances for small groups of up to 10 people kept him afloat. Woods no longer had a full-time cooking job, but in October he temporarily took over the kitchen at Sobre Mesa, Nelson German’s new Afro-Latino cocktail lounge. It was German that encouraged the two chefs to consider a ghost kitchen for their upcoming project.

“Boss Nelson was the one who put the mistake in me and Mike’s ears,” said Johnson, “he said [a ghost kitchen] Space could be useful for keeping busy and making a decent amount of money. “

Cooks Mike Woods (left) and Solomon Johnson.  Photo: @VicecutterCooks Mike Woods (left) and Solomon Johnson. Photo: Victoria Thompson

Johnson and Woods were interested in working on a menu that spoke to them. Both are black chefs, with Johnson hailing from Maryland and having family roots in Jamaica. Woods is from Oakland and grew up in the Brookfield neighborhood. However, it was also influenced by the bold flavors he tasted while traveling to the Caribbean, New Orleans, and elsewhere.

“We sat down one day and decided to prepare food that would remind us of who we are and where we were from,” said Johnson. “It is important for us to create food that expresses the African diaspora, not only through the eyes of blacks, but also of browns.” The Bussdown tries out flavors from different cultures and weaves them together. Southern fried chicken, mac and cheese, and smoked brandy yams can be ordered along with Jamaican jerk chicken, beef patties, and fried plantains.

One of The Bussdown’s most popular dishes is the Smoked Sofrito Seafood, with shrimp topped with a charred vegetable sofrito. The dish consists of a mixture of red peas from Sea Island and rice from Carolina Gold, as well as Bussdown staples: fried plantains, charred citrus fruits, grilled fruits, house cucumber and two spices, a spicy jerk BBQ sauce and Kijani Kibichi, a ginger, light green sauce that is reminiscent of mint chutney in texture and appearance.

“Our food is meant to remind you that you’re on vacation, somewhere on the beach with a margarita,” said Johnson.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to buy your margarita or other alcoholic beverage elsewhere as The Bussdown can’t serve alcohol from the Oakland Food Hall, but there is a rotating selection of sodas – in flavors like strawberry, basil, watermelon, and brown sugar – with homemade syrups and jams.

Sofrito Smoked Seafood from The Bussdown.  Photo: Sarah Han

Sofrito smoked seafood. Photo: Sarah Han

Ginger Chicken Patties from The Bussdown.  Photo: Sarah Han

Ginger Chicken Patties. Photo: Sarah Han

While The Bussdown’s fare would definitely look fabulous on fine china, the delivery-only format means take-out containers must do the job. Only in the second month does the restaurant have promising opportunities to grow. For example, some dishes fare better than others on the way home. We liked the perfectly cooked Sofrito shrimp, the sweet brandy yams, the cheesy gangsta mac, and the light and sour pickles, but our chicken patty, while tasty, was steamed in the plastic take-away box and more humid than we would have liked .

One of the biggest problems that ghost kitchen restaurant operators in particular have is finding their audience. Johnson and Woods, while excited about the recent “Must-Try New Restaurant” mention on the San Francisco Chronicle, have already addressed a hungry community via social media and word of mouth.

“Bussdown is very active on social media, the word is starting to spread and there are more eyes to what we are doing,” said Johnson, who has done everything he can to create a brand online since the pandemic. He believed that selling goods online in the days of COVID-19 was “the safest way to make a dollar”. He made his own line of merch, including hoodies and papa hats embroidered with the word “swoop” in appropriately italic fonts. For his “tiny but mighty” following, he was Chef Swoop, where Swoop is an acronym for “Special Way of Opening the Palate” or “Special Way of Gaining Power”. Johnson has also created a spice blend with San Francisco-based Spice Tribe that is coming out soon, and his next season of merch will be out this spring.

Currently, he and Woods are the only employees at The Bussdown, which means they do almost everything themselves. When it gets going, a stationary restaurant could be on the horizon or possibly open other locations in other CloudKitchens facilities in other cities. But right now, Johnson said they are focused on “cultivating what we can with the community.” Given the work involved in all aspects of the restaurant, the two are grateful to have the other as a partner.

“We couldn’t have done it without each other,” said Johnson. “I couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone else.”

Bussdown is open Monday through Saturday from 2pm to 10pm and can be picked up at the Oakland Food Hall or delivered via UberEats, ChowNow, Grubhub and Doordash. Tableware prices from $ 6-8 for starters, $ 21- $ 30 for starters.

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