Understory, a worker-run Oakland restaurant, is real and attractive

A selection of Understory beverages: Pandan Cold Brew, Boozy Boba offerings (ginger, lemon and rum spritzer, watermelon gin and juice, and a hibiscus margarita), and Hong Kong-style milk tea. Photo credit: Jenabi Pareja.

Understory, a new bar and restaurant in Old Oakland, tries to honor the cuisine of different communities through their food with Moroccan, Filipino and (vegan) Mexican menus. Florencio Esquivel, one of the chefs and workers’ leaders at Understory, said the restaurant is striving to “re-create a more balanced and equitable food landscape for everyone involved.” Some of the chefs involved are immigrants and many are queer. Each menu is vegan-friendly and contains a dish with a scale (from $ 0).

528 8th St. (near Clay Street), Oakland

Understory’s chefs and labor leaders – Esquivel, Jenabi Pareja, Nino Serrano, and Lily Fahsi-Haskell – all have experience as cooks or cooks and as activists. Esquivel ran the popular pop-up Hella Vegan Eats, while Pareja and Serrano both worked at Reem’s in Oakland. Fahsi-Haskell was a former campaign leader at Critical Resistance, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on ending the prison industrial complex. The restaurant was developed by the 8th Street Collective, which includes the above executives, Diana Wu of Oakland Bloom, a nonprofit focused on empowering immigrants, refugees, and colored chefs. The space also doubles as a communal kitchen for other food companies and organizations.

The staff at Oakland Bloom and Understory. Left to right: Sean Chow, Lily Haskell, Nino Serrano, Florencio Esquivel, Jenabi Pareja and Diana Wu. Photo credit: Papo Ricosuave.

Cooking and restaurant work are an avenue for many immigrant communities and working class, but workplace conditions often fail workers on many levels, from low wages, harassment and dangerous conditions to human trafficking and exploitation. The goal of worker-led Understory is to honor its workers leaders by giving them a voice in decision-making – and ultimately turning the top-down power structure in restaurants and corporate chains upside down. The collective’s values ​​also include “building color communities, building economic sustainability, creating space for building a community that affirms the principles of disability, combats gentrification and recognizes our role in it, supports ecologically and racially fair food systems, measures for Combating State Violence Seizes ”and“ Practice honesty and critical reflection ”.

It’s kind of an experiment as not many full-fledged restaurants / bars work as collectives or cooperatives. The group is not yet a full cooperative, but it hopes to become one and also hopes to add more cooks and members. The cuisines and dishes of understory features are also uncommon in the Bay Area. Currently, the menu changes every three weeks based on the chefs’ backgrounds: Filipino, Moroccan, and Mexican. Each member helps with all the kitchens, shares the work and lets the different kitchens shine. “We welcome people and invite them to try food that is outrageously authentic for us,” says Pareja.

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While Understory has a lovely dining room, this area is currently closed to indoor dining for COVID-19 security reasons (they plan to allow limited indoor dining in the coming weeks). Instead, the collective’s founding members and some volunteers built their own outdoor parklet that served seating just off 8th Street. But without the pandemic, this restaurant might not even exist: When restaurants closed in 2020, many workers were suddenly unemployed. One of those unemployed was Pareja, who was employed as a cook in a cafeteria for tech startups; and when all workers were told to work from home, Pareja was fired. “The people who were hurt the most during the pandemic were the workers,” says Pareja, which is why he turned to activism and his work with Understory. So now “we’re trying to reverse the script of treating workers in restaurant rooms,” an issue that “was highlighted during the pandemic,” says Esquivel.

Understory’s room, one block from Swan’s Marketplace, also doubles as an incubator kitchen for the nonprofit Oakland Bloom, which runs Open Test Kitchen, a cookery education program. The additional advantage is that on (most) Sundays an Oakland Bloom chef appears on site as part of a joint collaboration. For example, there was a Bosnian street food menu recently on a Sunday, including cevapi, pita stuffed with veal and beef sausage, roasted pepper sauce and onions and coleslaw. There was also a vegan cevapi from Impossible Burger to match the restaurant’s commitment to plant-based alternatives. (The current Oakland Bloom members are from Hong Kong, Eritrea, Karen State and Bosnia).

Planting Justice, a nonprofit based in Oakland, also operates its Electric Smoothie Lab Apothecary from the same kitchen, and Mak-‘amham / Cafe Ohlone also uses the location for its Ohlone takeaway boxes every third Sunday. Pareja says Understory knows a permanent location with a spacious kitchen is hard to find, so happily shares it. “It is a privilege to have an inpatient facility in the community,” says Pareja.

Understory’s goals in terms of work-sharing are exciting, but so are the dishes and kitchens. For example, there is the Filipino menu. The sinigang sa santol, a vegan and gluten-free soup, was the sliding product I visited one day. The soup was spicy and consisted of tamarind, cotton fruit, okra, taro, long beans, tomatoes and water spinach. The Tapsilog’s fermented and marinated beef had a deep taste and atchara (pickled vegetables) balanced the richness of the beef. The Silog dishes are available on Saturdays as a brunch special for $ 12.

Understory’s bar menu includes a few cocktails; A recent brunch included mango, strawberry mint, and hibiscus mimosa. There are also non-alcoholic and refreshing seasonal drinks such as watermelon and basil agua fresca. Desserts are whimsical – an ube pancake made from cream, grated ube, and eggs had the perfect pudding consistency and subtle ube flavor. Understory’s version of Halo-Halo has also appeared on the menu.

Dishes from Understory’s Moroccan menu: vegan tagine, popcorn cauliflower and Roz Bil Hleeb (orange blossom and almond sweet rice dessert). Photo credit: Momo Chang

The Moroccan menu contained a lot of dishes unknown to me, but each one I tried was delicious. For $ 6, the grilled artichoke starter is a common and healthy starter that feels like indulging in something fancy; It comes with a lemon and herb aioli for dipping. Another part that can be shared is the vegan popcorn cauliflower ($ 6), batter-baked and deep-fried pieces with a spicy harissa sauce. Finally, I tried the vegan tagine ($ 12), full of vegetables and flavor including quince, deli squash, lentils, and kale and topped with toasted sweet potato slices, a dish that reminds diners that vegetables can be just as delicious as meat.

Didn’t try the vegan Mexican menu. Until it starts rotating again, I dream of the roasted sweet potato tacos with black beans, avocado, cabbage and a mole poblano sauce in a homemade corn tortilla and the pozole based on oyster and enoki mushrooms. And I’ll definitely be back for the Sunday Pop-ups from Understory and Oakland Bloom.

Understory is open on Thursdays from 4 to 8 p.m., Fridays from 12 to 2 p.m. and 4 to 8 p.m. and on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Check out the Understory and Oakland Bloom Instagram accounts for the Sunday pop-up menus and hours of operation.

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