The Oakland food scene has been blown up in recent years and there are more and more delicious new restaurants. Diane Rodriguez asked Hey Area, “Where are some good restaurants in East Oakland?”
If you ask about the best restaurants in Oakland, you will likely find out about restaurants in Lake Merritt, Jack London Square, or downtown. But East Oakland? Not as much.
Of the 100 best restaurants in the San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area in 2018, only one was on the Eastside. When the listener asked Diane Rodriguez, “Where can I find good restaurants in East Oakland?” We decided to ask around.
I started my culinary investigation in the Fruitvale Public Market near the Fruitvale BART station. There are many restaurants, street vendors, and people in the market. The area reflects Latinx residents with artwork aimed at the community, and there’s been brisk development as Oakland continues to expand. Today some people drive to and from the BART station while others are on their lunch break. What better time or place is there to find the best restaurants in East Oakland?
As I ask around, the answers vary depending on who I’m talking to. “What counts as East Oakland?” answers a passerby. “Lucky Three Seven” replies another. “They have a couple of bomb wings over there. Be gossip. ”
Other favorites are “every taco truck in East Oakland”, the Mi Grullense Restaurant & Tequila Bar, and small liquor stores in the deep east for breakfast with chicken and waffles.
People around the Fruitvale Public Market gave me some interesting pointers, but I’m from East Oakland. And if you ask me, I’d tell you about Two Mammas’ Vegan Kitchen, a breakfast and lunch only two blocks from the market.
Two Mammas is inviting, bright, and rustic, with hard wooden tables and colored pencil drawings on the walls right next to the children’s playground. Myfavorite dish is the Belgian waffle, but today I have the vegan sausage Benedict with kale and a side of potato salad. And of course a cup of coffee.
When I first came to Two Mammas, I met the original owners Jules and Jess Piovarcsik-Diliberto, a lesbian couple who opened the restaurant in 2014. The food has remained good throughout, and I was surprised to learn that the restaurant’s ownership changed a few years ago. Billy Page has worked with Jess and Jules for years. When the couple decided to sell their business, Billy became the first dad of two moms.
On a Saturday morning, I visit Billy in the kitchen while he is preparing large quantities of spices for hungry customers waiting in the dining room.
“I shake a can of coconut milk,” explains Billy. “This is the basis of my vegan hollandaise sauce.”
Two mums only use fresh, regional ingredients, most of which are organically grown and of course vegan. Billy himself has been vegan for 14 years and initially switched to a plant-based diet for health reasons.
I was vegan myself for 12 years. I remember when it was difficult to find a vegan dish, let alone an entire restaurant. When I ask who his customers are, he says the customer base is “diverse” both geographically and racially.
“Lots of colored people come in to try,” says Billy. “I’ve seen that grow in the last two years.”
A 2016 report found that only 3% of African Americans in the US are vegan or vegetarian. However, this morning at Two Mammas I meet a lot of black customers and other colored guests who are concerned with plant-based nutrition. One of them is 27-year-old Avia, a caretaker and student who has her two mothers repaired at least once a week.
“I’ll take beard, drive, go, fly. I’ll do what I need, ”says Avia. “And of course it’s black-owned, and I root for all blacks.”
I also root for all blacks – and for locals. While Two Mammas is newer to the area, some restaurants have longer histories, like La Casita, a delicious Mexican restaurant that’s been here since 2004. Located on Foothill Blvd next to Cesar Chavez Park, it breathes Oakland.
“I’m looking at a mural of ‘Let’s Go Oakland! Viva Pueblo! ‘The A’s are on the wall,’ describes Christina Mitchell, a local foodie who has been documenting her culinary adventures since 2009 on her blog East Bay Dish.
“At the time, the focus was on San Francisco,” says Christina of the Bay Area food scene. “Oakland was an entirely afterthought, so I wanted to write about our food for us and for us.”
Christina has written about restaurants all over the East Bay, but La Casita remains one of her favorites. She tells me that she first discovered the restaurant when it was called Taqueria Campos and was previously owned.
“It felt like I was eating at someone’s house,” she says. “The first time I had homemade pozole, I lost my composure in this bowl. Everyone around me laughed as I exclaim and mumble, ‘Oh my goodness. ‘“
Christina has been coming back regularly since then, usually on Sunday mornings before the church crowd lines up on the sidewalk. Today Christina orders her usual steaming order from Pozole, which she describes as the “big bowl of comfort”. She explains that the menu tastes the same even when taken fresh, the nephew of the former owner, Nolberto Martinez Jr. According to Christina, La Casita has kept its home-made family recipes – including Hominy, which is still made from scratch. Nolberto also breathed new life into the atmosphere for a fresh, modern feel that exudes Oakland pride.
“I’m trying to keep this tradition alive here in Oakland and I’m very proud to be doing it here in my neighborhood,” said Nolberto Christina in an interview for East Bay Dish.
“It’s like the new generation jumping into the old traditional recipes,” says Christina of the restaurant’s focus on keeping its home-made family feel.
I find transitioning to the new while preserving the past is becoming an issue – not just for food, but for the general population here in East Oakland.
“Business is changing very quickly,” says Christina, who lives in East Oakland’s Laurel District. “This small section of MacArthur used to have a taqueria, a barber shop. But now there is a pharmacy and Sequoia Diner. “
Sequoia Diner, the final stop on my tour of the best restaurants in East Oakland, is a quaint breakfast spot with a clean retro flair. It opened in 2015, replacing the Full House Cafe, an old East Oakland treasure.
“It really had a soul. You could still see small remnants of what was there in the 1930s, ”explains Sequoia Vennari, who owns Sequoia Diner with her husband Andrew. But Sequoia says replacing a local favorite meant Sequoia Diner didn’t initially have the warmest reception in East Oakland.
“We went through a bit of harassment because the previous restaurant was so popular.”
So, Sequoia said, the business had to do everything it could to show the community what it was about.
“We have cookies, coffee, tea,” Sequoia lists. “Come and get to know us because we love you. And if not, that’s fine too. We get it. “
Ultimately, Sequoia’s changing menu, homemade jams and homemade bacon won over the community. One early weekend morning, I am immediately greeted by one of the main waitresses at Sequoia Diner.
“Have a nice Sunday,” she says with a cheer before starting the daily specials, which include fried chicken and waffles. The menu even includes a revised hash in homage to a Full House Cafe bestseller. But today I baked the halibut Benedict on a fresh biscuit this morning. “Our biscuit tastes like your grandmother’s biscuit,” the waitress tells me.
Sequoia Diner is packed with regulars like Theo Calvin III, who orders the restaurant special every weekend.
“I’m a local, born and raised here in East Oakland,” says Theo. “It took a long time to have something like Sequoia here in the Laurel District.”
This morning Theo is enjoying his meal at the counter while catching up with the staff. He tells me that while Sequoia Diner is relatively new to the neighborhood, it still has the local feel to it.
“It doesn’t feel as good as in other places,” says Theo. “I can still come here and be in my own element. That is the most important thing for me. ”
The food is very personal. It evokes memories, represents history and brings people together. East Oakland restaurants are one of the threads that binds East Oakland’s close community. Not only do they serve great food, but they also serve plenty of Oakland soul.
This story was created in collaboration between Oakland Voices and KALW as part of our Hey Area and Sights & Sounds of East Oakland projects. Asal Ehsanipour contributed as a producer.