Rooted in Oakland

Dragging a top-heavy and overloaded suitcase behind me, the path beyond the main gate became unexpectedly treacherous. Every tiny crack grabbed at the flimsy wheels, threatening to send us both tumbling into bone dry patches of bamboo. Sharp, pointed sticks poked out like spears, waiting to catch my fall. Stumbling forward in the blinding midday sun, the reward for all my efforts was a slap in the face: The key didn’t work.

I had just arrived at my new AirBnB a day before classes were scheduled to begin, and I was locked out. No amount of twisting, jiggling, or forcing the key would convince it to cooperate. No one was home. No one was answering their phones. Or emails. Or text messages. Anxious enthusiasm for the start of my new adventure faded away until only the anxiety remained, and I sat down, staring at the giant tree in the backyard dripping with crusted sap, and cried.

That was my introduction to Oakland, four years ago. Such a tiny blip on the radar now that it’s barely worth retelling, this moment stands out in my memory with new importance in hindsight. As far as I can recall, it was the one time I ever felt shut out, unwelcome, or for whatever reason, excluded. In this politically tense atmosphere, increasingly sensitive, often divisive, and blisteringly judgemental at times, where we celebrate diversity yet resist radical change, this is exceptional. I am the ignorant millennial, ruinous gentrifier, the ugly American, invading in a treasured place where I do not belong… And yet, from the moment my new landlord returned home from work and we finally got that front door open, I’ve felt like I do. Bundled along with that mailing address, I gained a network of neighbors, making a true community. Some filter through quickly, passing by in search of greener pastures, while others have set down roots that go deeper than the old oak trees themselves.

We smile and wave, stop to chat, catch up like old friends while out on the street. Everyone knows each others kids, parents, grandparents, and dogs- Even the stray cats are accounted for, taken care of in rotating shifts. When the summer heat beats down on unforgiving pavement, bowls of water appear for four-legged friends to stay hydrated. Little libraries proliferate with reading material as unique as the residents of each block. Gardens swell and overflow onto sidewalks, freely offering the overabundance to passersby.

That’s how I found myself loaded down with giant green zucchinis and explosively ripe orange cherry tomatoes. At peak ripeness, a fresher bounty could not be found, and thanks to my neighbors, it practically landed on my doorstep. Glowing orange orbs as smooth and round as glass marbles, sweeter than candy, Sun Gold tomatoes in general need little more than a touch of salt for balance. Honoring the fruit means doing as little to it as possible.

A true flash in the pan, the edible gems are seared until their skins bubble and burst to create a sauce of their own juices. Zucchini noodles are tossed into the hot mixture, just to soften, but not cook, retaining a more toothsome bite and fresh flavor.

No longer a mere AirBnB, I’m still in exactly the same place, but it feels much more like home than any other place I’ve been. I’d like to think I’ve finally put down roots of my own.

Continue reading “Rooted in Oakland”

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The Lion’s Share

Do you know where your chocolate comes from? No, not the grocery store, or even the country of origin for the beans. More to the point, do you know who your chocolate comes from?

Most of the worldโ€™s chocolate is industrial, highly processed to maintain consistency and low prices, but at the expense of nuanced flavor, to say nothing of the human cost. Only a handful of chocolate makers are producing candy for the mass market, but smaller startups are turning the cacao world on its head by starting from the ground up.

Dandelion Chocolate is a bean-to-bar chocolate maker rooted in the Mission District of San Francisco. One of the very few operations in the US that go through the full process of roasting, cracking, sorting, winnowing, grinding, conching, and tempering cacao beans in small batches, it’s a full three to four days before any bars are even formed or packaged- all by hand, I might add.

Here, the unique properties extracted through fermenting and roasting high quality beans are celebrated rather than muted. Even the sweetest blends minimize the use of sugar, adding just enough to accentuate the inherent flavors of the cacao, and dairy is never a consideration. Notably, neither is additional cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin, or any of the other usual chocolate suspects. Without these typical crutches, everything you taste comes solely from the bean at hand. Finally, it’s chocolate that can speak for itself, and the message is loud and clear: There’s nothing comparable on the market, and almost certainly nothing better.

The real treat is getting to see how it’s all made firsthand, through factory tours and generous tastings if you’re lucky enough to be in town. While the cafe is still light on vegan eats, the drinks are really where it’s at. Incredibly rich, dense, decadent hot chocolate put them on the map years ago, but for a lighter, one-of-a-kind refresher on a hot summer’s day, you really must try the cacao smoothie. If you’ve never had fresh cacao before, brace yourself; this tastes nothing like chocolate. Believe it or not, the tropical fruit is more evocative of pineapple, but mild and with no acidity, blending in notes of sweet Meyer lemon. When given the such a rare opportunity, I would implore you to taste the range of flavors the whole fruit is capable of.

Chocolate is so much more than cheap Halloween handouts. Dandelion Chocolate is working to change that misconception, one handmade bar at a time.

Kiku Sushi

Writing about hidden local gems presents an agonizing conflict of interests. On the one hand, such excellence should be recognized, properly praised and encouraged to persist. On the other, drawing attention to a restaurant no bigger than a tool shed that already garners intimidating lines, puts it in danger of becoming even more overcrowded than it already is. Kiku Sushi needs no press to bring business through the door; on a completely unassuming, undistinguished Tuesday, wait time can stretch well into the darkness of night, no matter when you arrive. Well known for their commitment to quality, what potential patrons may not realize is the utterly innovative vegan menu.

It never turns up on lists for the best plant-based dining options, and yet it’s far more deserving of the honor than many predictable staples. We’re talking about more than the usual suspects here, with cucumber maki giving way to sumptuous specialty rolls that are every bit as creative as their fishy brethren.

That said, there’s plenty to relish from this bill of fare, starting with a number of truly killer apps. Don’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy impossibly rich, savory spoonfuls of Mushroom Miso Soup, or meltingly tender Nasu Dengaku, without the fear of bonito lurking in the background.

Spicy Tuna takes shape from chopped tomatoes, of all things, generously seasoned with fiery shichimi togarashi. A hint of cumin-scented shiso leaf and the crisp bite of crunchy cucumbers creates a well-balanced, fresh composition that’s distinctly different from the typically mayo-laden approach, and dare I say, far better.

Made of mushrooms instead of mollusks, the Baked Scallop Roll is an umami explosion in a rice-wrapped package. Creamy avocado adds richness without smothering the nuanced, shockingly authentic oceanic flavor. Though your eyes and mouth may try to tell you differently, that’s not tobiko on top, but finely grated carrot that somehow becomes an unbelievably convincing imposter.

If neither seafood nor any vegetable-based facsimiles ever did appeal, then the Kiku Roll was made for you. Take futo maki to the next level, and one step beyond, and you’ll have some idea of the behemoth about to descend on your table. Fully deep-fried in a light tempura batter and drizzled generously with sweet soy and ginger sauce, one order alone could become a wholly satisfying meal.

In a similar vein, the Spicy Crunchy Roll should have wide appeal across all dietary preferences and tastes. Toothsome marinaded kampyo meets yuba and decadent piles of tempura flakes, impossibly grease-less and, as promised, resoundingly crunchy. The spice level is gentle yet bright, clear, and distinct, perfectly cutting through the indulgent topping.

Kiku Sushi clearly isn’t hurting for business, and while I fear jeopardizing my own chances at getting in the door, such edible artistry needs to be celebrated. For a restaurant that never sought vegan accolades, they certainly do treat their plant-based diners to a royal sushi experience.

Kiku Sushi
1316 Gilman St
Berkeley, CA 94706