Closing Time

In the final days of the year, it’s natural to look back, taking stock of the previous twelve months, preparing to move forward anew. Rather than unleashing another navel-gazing list of top ten greatest hits, I want to take a moment to remember the dearly departed. 2019 saw the untimely demise of hundreds of restaurants across the nation, fickle business that it is, but it feels particularly poignant when it hits so close to home. The bay area has lost some bright stars this round, which deserve to be properly honored and mourned.

Early in February, while we were still recovering from winter’s torrential rains, Hella Vegan Eats shocked the east bay with a controversial departure from Classic Cars West. After fighting tooth and nail to graduate from their colorful food truck to a static brick and mortar space, it was a huge blow. No more pot sticker burritos, no more mega babe burgers! The same style of ballsy, down home comfort food has resurfaced in the form of Gay4U, revived by partner Sofi Espice at Garden House in downtown Oakland as a regular pop up.

Meanwhile, chef Adina Butler took up the reins in the freshly vacated space left behind by the duo, slinging hearty sandwiches, burgers, and fried delights to compliment the casual outdoor space. Sadly, that too was not long for this world, folding seven months later under unknown circumstances. What remains is a very vegan-unfriendly menu, and many unanswered questions.

Perhaps most devastating to the dining scene at large was the closure of Sanctuary Bistro, one of the very few high-end eateries that offered an entirely plant-based experience, in addition to a completely gluten-free menu. Owners Barry and Jennifer Jones Horton promise that in time, the sanctuary will rise again in Charlotte, NC, to delight diners on the opposite coast anew. Birth announcements have yet to be released.

Longstanding greasy spoon Saturn Cafe seemed indestructible, weathering the ups and downs of Berkeley politics and pricing for over a decade, proving itself beyond the typical short lifespan of the average eatery. It, too, fell to economic pressures, serving up its last plate of scrambled tofu and pancakes in July. The original Santa Cruz location, established in 1979, still soldiers on, but NorCal denizens are left in the dark for their midnight milkshake cravings.

Eatsa launched in San Francisco back in 2015 as an innovative, tech-centric concept centered around one humble grain: quinoa. Served in cubbies reminiscent of the automat experience of yore, without any human interaction, it was slated to be the next big thing. At its height, the company had six locations across multiple states, but soon ran into difficulties. No amount of pricing incentives and recipe reconfiguration could save it. One by one, all outposts quietly turned out the lights, and didn’t return. Supposedly, in addition to the empty retail spaces, they left behind a reported $24,000 in unpaid rent.

In a world already lacking sweetness, the departure of D&H Vegan Ice Cream comes as a particularly devastating blow. Without warning or explanation, the scoop shop was suddenly wiped off the map overnight. The soy based scoops melted away faster than I had time to get in a single lick, sweetening the Lake Merrit area for just a hot minute.

The prize for shortest run goes to Collective Kitchen & Bar, however, surviving on shaky footing for only three months of operation. A spinoff from three members of Juice Bar Collective, the offerings largely reflected their fresh pressed heritage, squeezing out juices, salads, and rice bowls with apparent success. Landlords don’t care about social media reviews, though, and an irreconcilable dispute forced a premature end for the venture.

Not a restaurant per say, but the source of noodle enlightenment to many, Baia Pasta was renowned for its superlative noodles. Selling directly to consumers from its storefront in Jack London Square and restaurants for their comforting carb creations, the cost of doing business became too much for founder Renato Sardo to bear. Unwilling to sell the company at the cost of quality, the legacy of this peerless pasta ends here, while the master returns to Italy for a simpler life.

Finally, some good news to mix in and lighten all the bad; Pizza Moda, purveyors of fine pies with an eye towards seasonal ingredients and vegan alternatives, has turned off the pilot light on their pizza oven, but not for long. Celebrated brother and sister duo Peter Fikaris and Christina Stobing, responsible for The Butcher’s Son, have taken on the project, seeking to revive the fine Italian dining experience in a fully vegan format. With the promise of even greater eats on the horizon, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2020.

Which losses do you feel most acutely, at home or abroad? Restaurants come and go, but their memories (and Yelp pages) live on forever, if the community remains.

Advertisements

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”

Mangan Tayon! Let’s Eat!

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.