Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Taco Crawls And Crypt Visits! A Topographical Tour Of Oakland

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I like cities with a little grit and texture, with character. And just like with people, it’s the ups and downs that build character, not sunshine and lollipops. Oakland is a city of highs and lows. And it knows it. Lately, some things have been looking up. There’s been some smart growth downtown, and Oakland managed a spot on The New York Times’ list of "places to go in 2012." But unlike some of its more glamorous neighbors, Oakland still feels grounded and inclusive, even amid the gentrification and corporatization that comes with urban growth. There are hipsters, but they don’t all look alike. There are one-percenters, but they feel kinda guilty about it. There’s a Whole Foods, but it’s full of people of color! You get the sense that Oakland is trying incredibly hard not to be spoiled by its success. There’s nothing wrong with doing better in the world, as long as you don’t forget who you are. The city’s rich history, and the essential character of its neighborhoods, can still be sensed in the face of Oakland’s emerging, hard-won prosperity—and in the ongoing struggle to keep it real on the way to Pilates class.

In keeping with the idea of highs and lows making up the texture of city life, here’s a little topographical tour of some of the neighborhoods and attractions of Oakland. Please don’t take this as a definitive list; mostly it’s intended as a way to get you out into different parts of the city where I know you'll find lots of great sights, sounds and situations. May your experience of Oakland be pleasantly uneven.

WEST OAKLAND, elev. 11 ft.

West Oakland comes off as a barbed, rugged part of town. It’s so industrial, there are trucks and trains and cranes and chain-link fences with concertina wire. Middle Harbor Shoreline Park is right in the middle of this industrial zone, but it’s a bit of a departure from this gritty, hard-hat image. Though giant container cranes loom above each end of the park, this 38-acre recreational area serves as part of the Eastbay Regional Park system, and its once-contaminated shoreline is in the process of being restored as a tidal wetland and wildlife habitat. Shoreline Park also has some truly impressive views of San Francisco from across the bay. Definitely one of my favorite places to catch the sunset.

If that fresh San Francisco Bay air has gotten you a little peckish, drop in on the folks at Brown Sugar Kitchen. Chef/owner Tanya Holland serves up ‘new soul’ cooking that stresses local and seasonal ingredients, but doesn’t skimp on the comfort part of comfort food. The atmosphere is casual and friendly. It basically feels like the cleanest, most popular truck-stop diner you’ve ever seen. Make sure to try the cornmeal waffles with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup. They’re crispy on the outside, but strangely airy and light on the inside inside. Well, maybe they aren’t actually that light.

West Oakland is also known as the home to some of the city’s finest graffiti art. You find good examples in all kinds of places around the neighborhood, but the corner of 26th and Willow is a good place to start. There are about a half-dozen top-quality graffiti murals right in that area. Some of these definitely bring high art right down to street level.

UPTOWN OAKLAND, elev. 20 – 35 ft.

In recent years, the Uptown neighborhood has become Oakland’s hands-down favorite night spot. This kind of widespread popularity would normally irk me, and I’d eventually find something about Uptown Oakland upon which to wax righteously indignant. Unfortunately, in this case I cannot. Not only do I genuinely like going out in Uptown Oakland, I suspect I enjoy it for the very same reasons everyone else does. Whenever you’re out in Uptown you feel a sense of ownership and community. You’re not just out on the town, you’re out on our town.

The successful renovation and reopening of the Fox Theatre a few years ago was a nostalgic victory for Oakland. There was the feeling that the good old days were being restored. The Fox has been thriving, but not in such an old-fashioned way. The Fox has been booking alternative rock and indie bands and even the dirgy stylings of Mastodon. The Fox Theatre has established itself as a timelessly classy, yet current venue to see live music.

The Paramount Theatre, on the other hand, revels in its anachronistic, Art Deco splendor. Its Summer Classic Movie Series runs on Friday nights well into September, making it a natural for date night, or just as a relaxing, low-key way to start the weekend.

Speaking of relaxing, the atmosphere at Pican is awash with Southern elegance and style. Enjoy a fine sippin’ bourbon at the piano bar & lounge or enjoy a leisurely sit-down meal with friends on the outdoor patio. Or if you’d prefer an artsy, postmodern setting with your cocktails, get to happy hour at Mua just up the block. Industrial decor, tasty small plates: it’s a perfect way to start an evening out.

And if you’re planning to be in Oakland on the first Friday of the month, make sure not to miss the Oakland Art Murmur. The open galleries, street food and open-air activities exemplify the city’s spirit of creativity and community.

JACK LONDON SQUARE, elev. 12 ft.

This frowsy waterfront district is cleaning up nicely, but it still retains some of its roguish charm. Spending the day around the dilapidated wholesaler buildings just a couple of blocks from the waterfront feels a little like playing hooky around the docks. That said, things have gone a little upscale. If you enjoy starting the day with a superior cup of coffee, drop by Blue Bottle Coffee. You won’t be disappointed. You may, however, be a little intimidated by how seriously the staff and customers take their coffee. There’s even a glass-walled ‘cupping’ room where people with rimless eyeglasses slurp and aerate their black coffee quite loudly. It’s like a Scientology Center for the caffeinated.

Bay Area Bikes – Rentals is located right on the waterfront, and you can rent a variety of bikes by the hour, day or week. You can ride along the Bay Trail or pedal along on a street-level tour of Oakland’s many neighborhoods.

When you get back from your ride, check out Everett and Jones, Oakland’s preeminent barbecue destination. The pork ribs are highly recommended and the barbecue sauce is delectable.

Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon was one of the teenaged Jack London’s favorite haunts, and it has changed little from the days young Jack sat at the bar writing short stories. Today as then, Heinold’s is full of characters worthy of tipping a glass with. Soak in the old-timey atmosphere, but watch your step. The floor of the First and Last Chance Saloon is permanently warped and dipped from structural damage that resulted from the 1906 earthquake.

TEMESCAL, elev. 114 ft.

The Temescal neighborhood boasts an eclectic selection of restaurants: gourmet pizza, tapas, Eritrean, Korean, Mexican, etc. Here’s a few of my standby favorites; I think you’ll like them. But there are so many good places to eat in Temescal, all within a short walking distance from each other, right on Telegraph, that you should feel free to rely on gut instinct if you are so moved.

Bakesale Betty. It’s travesty that a restaurant that's open only 12 hours a week can be this successful. I have to admit, though, that the fried chicken sandwich is just that good. You may have to wait in line with dozens of hipsters, but they’re a pretty good-natured lot. And when it’s your turn… the ginger cookie is also spectacular.

I don’t think I had ever tried Burmese food before I first experienced a meal at Burma Superstar. It seemed to me that the food was, at the same time, both exotic and strangely familiar. Chinese and subcontinental influences melded into a kind of Asian Fusion style. I was hooked. Be sure to try the fermented tea leaf salad, I seem to have to order it every time I go to Burma Superstar.

There are quite a few Korean restaurants in the Temescal neighborhood, and most of them are pretty good. Almost every time I’m in the area, however, I go to Sahn Maru. This place specializes in homestyle Korean, and I find the array of menu options to be kind of quirky, and impressively varied. You can’t go wrong with the soft tofu stew and spicy pork barbecue combo, but if you’re feeling adventurous, try the fish roe soup, or the pork neckbone and potato stew. This place serves pretty large portions, and all meals come with the traditional, banchan, or small accompanying dishes. Enjoy the food of my people.


I may be a little odd, but my favorite two places in Oakland are a cemetery and a crematorium. Not for morbid reasons. It’s just that the Mountain View Cemetery and the nearby Chapel of the Chimes may be the most aesthetically harmonious places in the city.

The cemetery dates back to the 1860s and was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind New York’s Central Park. Mountain View Cemetery presents the visitor with a vision of nature that is romantic and expansive , but not so colossal that it dwarfs the human figure. Similarly, it’s a perfect place to take in ear-popping hilltop views of the Oakland skyline and the San Francisco Bay without feeling one has really left the city. Above all it’s a wonderful place to go for walk on a nice day, a little time-out, not an excursion.

The Chapel of the Chimes reflects a more internal, tranquil sense of well-being. The Julia Morgan design is suggestive of a library at Cordoba, or a gothic priory. Bathed in natural light and featuring exquisite, but minimalist ornamentation, the walls are just the right dimension, just the right color.

FRUITVALE, elev. 55 ft .

The International Blvd. taco crawl is, for us who live in the East Bay, a mythic quest over which nobody can triumph. The idea of consuming one taco, or burrito, or huarache, or torta from each of the taco trucks or taquerias along a umpteen-block stretch of 14th street no longer appeals to me as it once did. I’m not even sure if it’s actually physically possible. Here are my picks for a totally reasonable four-item taco crawl.

La Costa. This is one of the real traditional places to get Mexican food in Oakland. Any of the Ceviches will serve as the perfect antojito for a four-course crawl.

La Torta Loca #1. Okay, this place is actually inside a laundromat, don’t let that spook you. The tinga huarache is the standout here. And it’s a stable enough food platform that you can eat as you walk to Taqueria Sinaloa, great place for just plain tacos. I’m rather fond of their cabeza and al pastor varieties.

Now the last course is the most substantial. El Ojo de Agua is now at a new location, International Blvd and Derby. Be warned, you’re going to get a torta here, and it’ll be quite large. I recommend washing it down with a liquado smoothie.

Next stop, maybe a nap.

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Previously: A Minnesota Nice Guide To The Twin Cities and Lobstah And Crafts! A Summertime Guide To Portland (The Real One, In Maine)

Ben Choi, who writes this site's Search For The Next Sriracha column, lives in the Bay Area with his wife Erica and dog Spock.

39 Comments / Post A Comment

I would be remiss if I did not pipe up here to sing the praises of North Oakland. TO WIT: Lois the Pie Queen and Bakesale Betty.

iantenna (#5,160)

also, the kingfish. my favorite bait shop turned dive bar.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@iantenna I challenge you to a game of table shuffle board. Also I love how the Ethiopian restaurant across the street has good food and delivers to the bar.

Limaceous (#2,392)

@Choire Sicha@facebook A resounding Yes! to Lois. There are other places that are hipper brunch spots (with longer wait times), but sometimes you just want a basic breakfast. (Or great pie.)

vunder (#219,744)

Yay for Oakland. I'm so glad you included Mountain View Cemetery, which is a lovely lovely spot. You might have included a bit on the Grand Lake area too (Lake Merritt has its charms, Grand Lake movie theater is a lovely oldie with a political marquee, great restaurants down the strip), but there's only so much room.

Limaceous (#2,392)

@vunder That cemetery is, uh, my favorite place to have a picnic. Is that weird? It's just really, really lovely there. (And you can get a tour one weekend a month that is just the best!)

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

Thank you for being fair and not making the hackneyed comment/joke about the dangerous reputation. I would like to add that there are a bunch of good bars in this city that is great to live in.

@whizz_dumb Ugh, right? Yeah, NO. Oakland is one of America's most livable, happy-making cities.

iantenna (#5,160)

some solid choices here but, as the awl's resident oakland commentator (self-appointed, of course), i must point out some glaring omissions.

1. sinaloa is great for fish tacos and ceviche but fairly mediocre otherwise. tacos el gordo at 42nd and international has the best al pastor in town.
2. if you head out international blvd and skip past cam huong (vietnamese sandwiches), green papaya deli (laotian food), and chai thai noodle (thai food, duh), you're doing yourself a disservice.
3. burma superstar is overpriced and mediocre if you ask me. i don't know where else to get burmese food in oakland, but you're better off having any of our other amazing southeast asian food options (try vientian cafe on 38th ave and allendale or whatever it is) and leaving burma superstar for the hipster suckers who like waiting an hour for a table.
4. pupusas from tamales mi lupita truck at coolidge and foothill.
6. you must not like beer. beer revolution, the trappist, or the linden st. tasting room all rule.

Limaceous (#2,392)

@iantenna Oakland is such a Great. Beer. Town.

scully (#10,214)

@iantenna Loard's Lemon Chiffon. That is all. Oh no wait that's not all – there's also Linden St Black Lager. I LOVE YOU OAKLAND!!

iantenna (#5,160)

oh, yeah, also:
7. dim sum at joy luck on the weekends (you can not get more full for less than $10 a person, including tip)
8. phnom penh on 8th st for amazing cambodian food

Rebecca Pederson (#234,958)

@iantenna I love this original list and your additions! Though, let's be honest: if we're gonna try to name every great thing about Oakland, we'll be here all day ;)

vunder (#219,744)

@iantenna I also think it should be said that Everett & Jones is not that good. It's an institution and stuff but…not great, to me.

yetra (#234,967)

@vunder I don't like the Jack London Square location, but the one on San Pablo in Berkeley is awesome.

lalaland (#232,135)

How prophetic! I am actually moving to SF in August for work. My boyfriend would love to live in Oakland, but I'm worried about the commute – how bad is it from Oakland to the financial district, anecdotally? Also, errr….is it relatively safe to commute late night if I have to work late (I know crime can happen anywhere, etc. please see caveats, I hope I'm not offending anyone)?

Thank you!

@lalaland I do that commute! Just moved here last month. I'm lucky, because I live right by the Rockridge BART station, so while the rockridge area of oakland is the farthest east, I don't have to worry about how to get to the BART. because once you're at the BART it's a 22 minute (for me. 8 minutes or something ridiculously short from downtown oakland) ride into the middle of the financial district. I was looking briefly at living downtown Oakland in a kind of gritty area and farther from a BART stop rather than where I ended up, and was told it might not be ideal for working late/ i'd probably want to ride a bike or car to the BART rather than walk when it's late. Where I am now I feel very safe walking at night, but I'm in a bit of a bubble, Oakland-wise.

vunder (#219,744)

@lalaland Oakland is vast and there are lots of options, some more amenable to commuting than others, but heaps of people do it everyday for sure. You may find yourself wanting to pay a bit more premium on rent for a neighborhood that is both commute friendly (ie near BART, though transbay buses are an option too), and less sketchy at night. Once you get here, you can get a better feel for the options, especially once you get the lay of the land between BART or tranbay terminal and your office. There are neighborhoods in the city where the commute to downtown would be just as long as from Oakland.

@lalaland It's a really easy commute! I live right by the MacArthur BART station and commute to Powell St., also 22 min. I would recommend living within a couple blocks of either the Rockridge, MacArthur, or 19th St. stations. I own/work at a bar so I am often coming home on the last train (which gets in at almost 1), and I always feel safe walking home, particularly because there are always plenty of people around.

I think commuting from Oakland to the financial district is almost easier than coming from most other parts of the city, because they are both right on the BART line (the Mission is a notable exception, very fun area to live in and also right on BART). I've lived in both SF and Oakland and I doubt I'll ever leave Oakland now. My rent is about half of what a similar apartment would be in SF, the weather is better (seriously!), people are friendlier, parking is easier, and I get to go grocery shopping at Berkeley Bowl, which is pretty much the greatest place on earth. Do it!!

lalaland (#232,135)

@lalaland Thank you everyone! That helps so much.

christonacracker (#10,871)

@lalaland It's an easy commute. I recommend the transbay bus via AC Transit over BART though — it's just as fast, has wifi on board some buses, and you always get a (clean) seat. 18 minutes for me from Lake Merritt. Plus the transbay bus goes to many more neighborhoods so you're not forced to live in one of 3 areas. I'm biased, but Grand Lake area is a great value in terms of rent, safety, and community.

roboloki (#1,724)

this thread makes my heart happy.

lalaland (#232,135)

@roboloki Everyone is so helpful! I just texted my boyfriend, "let's look at options for places in Oakland." He responded back, "I thought you were scared of Oakland?" But seriously, you guys…my heart is happy too.

iantenna (#5,160)

@christonacracker yeah. the ac transit NL bus is great and goes right past my house (coolidge & macarthur) in the dimond district. as far as places to live, it might not be great for rentals (i dunno, i've never looked, it might be ok, too) but if you're looking to buy i highly recommend the dimond/laurel. our backyard is 4k square feet and our mortgage is about to be $1500 a month.

iantenna (#5,160)

@lalaland also, more to the point of the initial poster, living near bart is great for commuting but not required. in addition to the decent service of the ac transit transbay buses, there's a shitload of casual carpool pickup spots scattered around oakland.

Limaceous (#2,392)

@lalaland I'd also chime in that the Transbay bus is Not Bad At All for commuters (though some lines don't run late, so check in advance), and some of the loveliest neighborhoods aren't near BART stations. (And casual carpool is an amazing thing!)

If you're new to the bay area, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by Oakland. And if you like to have enough space to stretch your arms out and not touch both walls, or weather that doesn't mean all fog all summer, or not paying all of your paycheck in rent, then you'll like it better than SF.

scully (#10,214)

@iantenna Yup. Between BART, Transbay buses, and casual carpool Oakland is about as well connected to downtown SF as you can get. Most days my commute is cas carpool in the morning and A/C Transit bus in the afternoon – about 25 min each way. It's really tough to beat that in the bay area. In fact there are areas of SF itself from which the commute to the Financial District will be longer that the OAK to SF commute.

doctajones (#235,006)

@lalaland I used to live in Adam's Point (the northern part of Lake Merritt near Grand-Lake) and would walk from my apartment about 20 minutes to 19th Street BART. Super easy walk and I felt perfectly safe coming home in the evenings so long as it wasn't too late. There were lots of pedestrians and cars out between 5-7, lots of moms walking their kids, lots of dude walking their dogs along the Lake. It was walkable to the the awesome farmers' market and close to Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Safeway. Also next to this amazing Ethiopian restaurant called Ensarro and if you wanted to chill in the evenings downtown Oakland has great beer bars like the Trappist. A lot of my friends from college are now recognizing the awesomeness that is Oakland and moving to the East Bay, especially since rent has shot up in SF. Get in while it's still good!

Eve O'Neill@twitter (#234,960)

Ah, thanks Ben! Love this part, so true: "There are hipsters, but they don’t all look alike. There are one-percenters, but they feel kinda guilty about it. There’s a Whole Foods, but it’s full of people of color!"

sony_b (#234,961)

I'd add The Oakland Grill (jackson/2ndish?) by Jack London Square as a solid breakfast place. Nothing fancy, but you can always get a table even at 10am on a Saturday.

The farmer's markets at Jack London and Lake Merritt are something to see as well – lots more than just fresh produce.

A second vote for more coverage of the Grand Lake area- Camino, Boot and Shoe service, my old favorite Spettro, Walden Pond (indie books) are great places. I logged a zillion hours in The Alley (dark, quiet piano bar) doing my homework when I was in grad school.

If you're already going to Jack London Square, I'd suggest heading through the tube to Alameda – touring the Hornet (aircraft carrier) followed by a tasting at Hangar1/St George's Distillery is a delightful way to spend an afternoon.

girlfash101 (#234,966)

Peidmont deserves some love, our only Art theatre, our only Michelin Star restaurant; Commis, and the 115 years in a row contender for best Ice Cream in America; Fentons. Also Ethiopian food needs a shout out in the Temescal area.

scully (#10,214)

@David Segretto@facebook You mean Piedmont *AVE*!!

manasystem100 (#234,977)

Is Luka's Taproom still around? Belgian fries and all of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz you can bop too.

The Red Room and Club Radio?

iantenna (#5,160)

yes, yes, and yes (although i think you mean the ruby room?). luka's is still a good spot to catch a game and the food is decent. i went into ruby room for the first time in, shit, maybe 6 or 7 years, the other day. it's been remodeled to create a quasi-legal smoking room, still dark as fuck, and still populated by 30-40-something punks. i can't really handle that shit anymore, it was exciting when i was 22. haven't been in radio in years, last time i was in there it was way too loud and way too crowded. those were pretty much the only downtown options for years but for me they're way down the list nowadays. way mellower spots have opened in the last 5+ years, the layover being my current favorite.

@iantenna Ah, yes, the Ruby Room! It was smoky as Hell last time I was there (6-7 years ago, actually).

tonbo0422@twitter (#234,619)

Oh my GOD . . . I used to live in Oakland. Now I live in Montreal. I used to LOVE Mountain View cemetery. My friends and I would take guitars and a bottle of scotch and climb over the walls at midnight on foggy nights and play guitar and drink scotch among the eerie candle-lit gravestones. Then I used photos of it to draw my masterpiece final project at school (the nearby California College of Arts and Crafts). Then I come here, and I live across the street from Notre Dame des Neiges cemetery, which I adore — I spend many days walking through it. I used to constantly compare the two cemeteries in my mind, unable to decide which I loved more . . . and now I know why!

Because they were BOTH designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed Central Park in New York!!!! Holy headstones, Batman, thanks for the revelation! Now I KNOW why I could never make up my mind about the two cemeteries.

BTW if you've been to Mountain View cemetery you owe it to yourselves to come see his "other" one here in Montreal. You'll be blown away, if you love cemeteries like I do.

tonbo0422@twitter (#234,619)

When I moved to Oakland in the very early 80s I learned, as a college-age renter, that Oakland was one weird place; one side of a street might be deemed a "good" neighbourhood while literally, the other side was verboten.

I worked at White Horse Liquors on Telegraph Avenue — on the boundary between Oakland and Berkeley. I lived in the building next to it. There was a gay bar across the street, which is now a lesbian bar. White Horse bar . . . let me tell you, that was a lively area around 1981 . . . to say the LEAST.

But I and my wife went to White Horse bar about two years ago on a visit from Montreal. It was a lovely place and the people there were absolutely the nicest crowd a non-lesbian could ever meet. I'd move there in a trice. I just wouldn't work at White Horse Liquors this time.

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