Even in the fruit-and-vegetable-lovers' paradise that is the Bay Area, January and February are a relatively unexciting time at the local farmers' markets — unless you really love apples and citrus fruits. But as much as I look forward to the arrival of artichokes and fresh peas (to say nothing of peak-season tomatoes) on the menus of seasonality-minded Bay Area restaurants, there's one winter vegetable I never tire of seeing: the humble winter green.
Thankfully, several restaurants in Oakland serve stellar versions. Since I'm not a fan of the vinegar-heavy style — ubiquitous at soul food restaurants and barbecue joints — I was happy to find preparations that don't mask the greens' slight bitterness and vegetal earthiness, which are the qualities I happen to most enjoy.
Soul's Restaurant, 6403 Foothill Blvd.: Given that Soul's is better known for its bargain-priced brunch buffet and heaping plates of oxtails and fried chicken, you'd forgive the place if its side dishes were little more than an afterthought. So I was surprised to discover that the collard greens were perfectly cooked: stewed until tender and savory, with a hint of heat and — hallelujah — little, if any, vinegary punch.
B-Side BBQ, 3303 San Pablo Ave.: If you want classic soul-food-style braised greens with a side of barbecued brisket, B-Side is the place to go. During a recent visit, the "seasonal vegetable" option on the menu was a restrained, subtly garlicky preparation of collard greens. In fact, many of the vegetable side dishes at B-Side are excellent; I just wish that one of them could be included in the price of an entrée-size order of barbecue instead of the complimentary thick-cut "Texas toast" (although the toast is damn tasty, too).
Miss Ollie's, 901 Washington St.: My full review of Miss Ollie's is here, but here's a teaser: Chef Sarah Kirnon's collard greens — cut chiffonade and served, unadorned and barely seasoned, with a bit of an al dente bite — were one of the most delicate versions I've had in recent memory. It's a preparation that my traditional Chinese parents (vegetable purists through and through) would appreciate — one in which the greens themselves are allowed to shine.
Victory Burger, 1099 Alcatraz Ave.: Perhaps my most surprising greens find was at a burger joint. At Victory Burger, mustard greens and escarole are charred on the grill prior to a slow braise, resulting in tender greens that are smoky, peppery, and imbued with an umami-rich depth of flavor that I couldn't quite put my finger on — I could have sworn I tasted fish sauce, but owner Sal Bednarz assured me the dish is 100-percent vegan.
Off the Grid
Last Friday night was the second week of the street-food extravaganza Off the Grid's first foray into Oakland, at the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St.). Given how long food-truck aficionados have been waiting for an event of this magnitude to hit downtown Oakland on a regular basis, these first two weeks have come and gone with relatively little pomp and circumstance — but that doesn't mean they haven't been a success.
I had a chance to swing by this past Friday. Here are a few quick takeaways:
1) Given that it was also a First Friday, I expected a madhouse, but the lines were surprisingly reasonable at around 6 p.m. — maybe four or five people deep at a few trucks, and several others that didn't have any line at all.
2) My wife observed that everyone standing ahead of her in line (to order at Le Truc) seemed "really, really happy" — abnormally so, for people waiting in line.
3) Off the Grid proprietor Matt Cohen wasn't kidding when he said the Friday-night events would be kid-friendly. There was a dance instructor who led a group of mostly under-five-year-olds in a spirited Lindy Hop session. There was a crafts table where kids could make and decorate their very own hand puppet. There were dogs to pet and plenty of room to run around. There were actual bathrooms!
4) The Express' resident liquor guru Ellen Cushing was also in attendance, and though she wasn't overly impressed with the booze offerings ("There should be a law against charging $10 for wine in a plastic cup," she noted), she agreed with my overall assessment of the event: "Pretty awesome."
5) There were twelve food trucks in total. From An the Go, I tried the garlic noodles (pretty tasty) and the (not very) crispy Vietnamese spring rolls. From Le Truc, I had a turkey meatball sub with spicy tomato sauce and the "New School Fries," which reminded me of the new Burger King fries — but not in a bad way. And from Pacific Puffs, I tried a couple of the cream-puff offerings, which were quite good (but somewhat pricey at $3.25 a pop). While none of my picks were mind-blowing, it was all tasty enough — and since the trucks rotate every week, there will always be something new to try.