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.
Sound & Savor
Do you ever eat with your hands? I’m not talking about little snacks like popcorn or crackers. I’m talking about full meals, hearty stews with rice and noodles, scooped up by outstretched fingers reaching across the dinner table. It flies in the face of traditional western etiquette, flagrantly breaking unspoken rules against this literal power grab while in the presence of others. Yet, far from the supposed faux pas I’d been raised to view it as since birth, this is simply the expectation at any of the meals presented by Free for Real Kitchen. No forks, no spoons, no knives, no chopsticks. Hell, no napkins, unless you get into a truly desperate mess.
Crafting a family-style Filipino Ilocano feast featuring vegan versions of traditionally meat-heavy fare, it’s a feat of modern cookery that such bold flavors could even exist in plant-based form. Dinardaraan, also known as “chocolate meat,” would be made with offal and pig’s blood anywhere else, but comes to life here with tofu, preserved turnips, shiitake mushrooms, and fermented black beans instead. Agar-based salted eggs posing as Itlog na Maalat could make anyone do a double take, based on both the uncanny appearance and sulfuric salinity. Jackfruit makes an appearance of course, not as a meat alternative but paired with banana blossoms in the Adobong Langka at Puso ng Saging, a naturally vegan preparation that dazzled with the unassuming combination of tamari, garlic, vinegar, bay leaf, and coconut milk.
More beguiling than the food, however, is the experience of sharing such a feast in such a visceral way with your neighbors. Strangers awkwardly shift around at first, pawing timidly at whatever mysterious mound lays closest, afraid to fully engage. With a few bites comes greater confidence, whetting the appetite for more. Conversations grow louder and deeper, hands fly farther and faster, and the whole room moves and sways in a different kind of dinner dance before long. Dropping formalities to boldly share space allows in a world of new flavor, along with an experience unlike any other.
Kamayan, eating with your hands, fills your heart perhaps even more so than your stomach. No matter how stuffed you end up after heartily partaking in over a dozen delicacies and dessert, warm memories of this communal event still last much longer.
One of the most buzz-worthy restaurant openings of recent months, much has already been written about FOB Kitchen in Oakland, California. Filipino food is quickly gaining mainstream traction, but remains relatively rare in an elevated dining atmosphere, particularly in an accessible, approachable format. Given the circumstances, such breathless anticipation can be forgiven. Clamoring for something new, the dining public is absolutely eating this stuff up- And not just for the novelty factor.
In a culture ruled by pork, vegan options are rare at best, but not so on the menu at the Temescal treasure. FOB Kitchen goes out of their way to provide meatless eats for their diverse, discerning Californian clientele.
Tofu-mushroom adobo, the entree that earns the most critical attention, is the result of recipe testing for over a year to get the flavors just right. Garlic-forward in the best way possible, aromatic onions and peppers give this lightly stewed combination its essential character, enhanced by a generous hand with the coconut oil for a luxurious eating experience.
Ensalada talong, an unassuming eggplant salad, turned out to be the sleeper hit of the evening, dazzling with a bright vinegar dressing sprinkled across crisp jicama, tomato, with the surprising briny bite of sea asparagus woven among tender braised eggplant and shredded mango. Crunchy broken rice crackers crown the melange with a satisfying toasted note, essentially allowing eaters to indulge in forkfuls of chips and chunky dip without looking like brutes. This dish alone is worth a return visit.
Kabocha squash also dazzles with stunning depth, stewed in coconut milk alongside long beans and onions. Such simplicity belies the incredible richness of each melt-in-your-mouth soft orange cube.
Pancit sontaghon, simple glass noodles with a handful of colorful vegetables, doesn’t have quite the same sparkle, but still satisfies with its savory soy sauce-infused translucent strands.
Suman, a variation on mango sticky rice, presents the starch as a completely smooth cylinder on the plate that bears only gentle resistance to the fork. Topped with caramelized coconut crumbs, the lightly bitter notes contrast beautifully with the tropical fruit arranged on the side. Though I might personally prefer more sauce, it could probably be served in a soup bowl and I’d still have the same complaint.
Beginning life as a fledgling pop-up back in 2015, the name is an acronym for “Fresh Off the Boat,” but I truly hope they’re dropping anchor to stay a good long while.