What the Fork

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Oakland's Grocery Cafe Hopes to Reopen After Health Department Shutdown

Plus, Jack's Oyster Bar and Fish House is closed.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Dec 13, 2016 at 6:30 PM

You wouldn't guess it based on outward appearances, but Grocery Cafe (2248 10th Ave.) is one of Oakland's most singular restaurants, slinging the city's best tea leaf salad and fried samusas out of its funky, unassuming storefront tucked inside an East Oakland residential neighborhood. In the nearly two years since it opened, the Burmese restaurant parlayed its budding local acclaim into some degree of national prominence — most notably, a shout-out in a Bon Appétit feature about Oakland.

But Grocery Cafe's future is up in the air after a failed Alameda County health inspection that shut it down last month.

Online records of the restaurant's November 10 inspection reveal a laundry list of violations that included inadequate dishwashing and handwashing stations, as well as a food-handler's permit issue that owner William Lue attributed to his nephew visiting from Burma during the time of the health inspection. (The nephew didn't understand the inspector when she told him he wasn't allowed to be in the kitchen since he didn't have a permit, Lue explained.)

These are fairly standard-order issues in the restaurant business, and Lue said he spent the past two weeks replacing equipment and making other necessary changes. What was more concerning to Lue, however, was a subsequent phone call from the health inspector telling him that before he could reopen, the restaurant would also need to be inspected by the city's building department to make sure that it adheres to the fire and electrical codes.

Lue speculated that the additional scrutiny may be a direct result of the recent Ghost Ship warehouse tragedy, which, understandably, has moved fire safety to the forefront of everyone's mind. (A few of the Ghost Ship victims were regular Grocery Cafe customers that he knew on a first-name basis, Lue said.)

With respect to the health and fire inspectors, Lue said, "They are doing their job, and I want to work with them."

That said, Lue explained that Grocery Cafe occupies an old building, and he fears that if the city requires expensive upgrades — say, the installation of $100,000 sprinkler system or something along those lines — he'll simply have to close the restaurant and look for a new location. As it stands, he may have to set aside some of the more ambitious new plans he had for the restaurant — e.g., the charcoal-burning tandoori oven and the outdoor grilling area, both of which inspectors might deem too much of a fire hazard in the absence of an expensive range hood.

Still, Lue remains hopeful that he'll be able to resolve all of these issues within the next couple of weeks, allowing him to reopen the restaurant before Christmas. Assuming that Grocery Cafe is allowed to stay at its current location, he wants to celebrate by holding a customer appreciation week, complete with discounts and the introduction of several new dishes.

Jack's Cuts Bait

Jack's Oyster Bar and Fish House (336 Water St., Oakland), the seafood-centric sister restaurant and next-door neighbor to Bocanova, quietly closed two weeks ago after two years of business in Jack London Square. A sign posted on the window reads, "It is with a tremendous amount of sadness and a tremendous amount of not wanting it to be true, that we realize our only course of action is to close Jack's permanently."

The restaurant's owners didn't respond to an email from the Express, but an employee who answered the phone at Bocanova confirmed that Jack's is closed and is unlikely to reopen. No word yet on the future of the waterfront space.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Catered to You in Uptown Oakland Serves a Fish Sandwich Worth Saving

As the neighborhood changes, Teena Johnson's takeout window looks to stay competitive.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Nov 29, 2016 at 6:00 PM

The fish sandwich at Catered to You (1711 Telegraph Ave.), a no-frills takeout window in Uptown Oakland, is deceptively modest in appearance. Its component parts are standard-order: a few pieces of cornmeal-dredged basa fish, hot sauce, lettuce, tomato, and onions, all on a sesame bun. It's only when you bite in that you realize how high the sandwich is piled with fish — and how ethereally airy-light that fried fish is, and how perfectly it melds with the hot sauce.

It's a memorable sandwich, best eaten while sitting on the curb, or at one of the small outdoor tables at nearby Latham Square. And, as so many parts of Oakland become more and more upscale, it is precisely the kind sandwich that's worth saving.

That's the idea behind the $11,000 fundraising campaign that Teena Johnson, the 62-year-old proprietor of Catered to You, has launched on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe. The money would help Johnson — or "Mama T," as her regulars call her — upgrade her tiny, 300-square-foot kitchen and extend her hours. In other words, it would help keep her business competitive in the face of a rapidly changing Uptown neighborhood.  

A former banquet facility manager, Johnson opened Catered to You in 2008, fulfilling her long-held dream of running her own place. She started out selling straight-up soul food — red beans and rice, smothered chicken, and things of that nature — but she quickly found that those types of dishes were too heavy for the lunch crowd, and they weren't the kind of thing that customers wanted to bring back to the office in a to-go box. So she shifted to burgers, seasoned fries, chicken Caesar salads, and that fish sandwich ($10.95, fries included), which is by far her bestseller.

Reached by phone, Johnson stressed that her business isn't in any imminent danger. Eight years after the Great Recession nearly killed the whole operation before it even got off the ground, the catering side of Catered for You is finally starting to pick up. Johnson said she sells enough burgers and fish sandwiches to be able to pay all of her bills. Also, unlike so many of Oakland's long-established mom-and-pop restaurants, she has a relatively stable and affordable lease situation.

Still, if you look at the gleaming new eateries that have taken root up and down Telegraph Avenue and Broadway, it's not hard to see that Johnson has her work cut out for her if she wants to compete. Unlike the new crop of restaurants, Catered to You doesn't have an attractive facade — or, for that matter, any seating area to speak of, apart from two small tables set up on the sidewalk.

The things Johnson would like to add are pretty basic. For instance, she wants some outdoor lighting so that customers can see that the shop is open on Friday and Saturday nights, when she stays open late (until 11 p.m. and midnight respectively). She'd like to hire another cook, giving Catered to You the production capacity to participate in food delivery services such as GrubHub and UberEats. And Johnson wants to add a deli station where she can sell pre-made cold-cut sandwiches to customers who are in too much of a rush to wait for fried-to-order fish.

Meanwhile, Johnson thinks there is enough demand from the Uptown/Downtown nightlife crowd for her to stay open as late as 2 a.m. on weekends. Again, that would be contingent on getting an initial infusion of cash, which would allow her to staff up.

For now, the restaurant's GoFundMe page has yet to pick up much traction. Johnson has only managed to raise $745 as of Tuesday morning. She plans to continue soliciting donations through the site at least through the winter holidays, at which point she'll pursue other funding options, if necessary.

"I'm determined that one way or the other, these changes are going to happen," Johnson said.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

New Report Paints Bleak Picture of Food Industry Labor Conditions

Will working conditions and worker safety get even worse under Trump?

by Cynthia Salaysay
Tue, Nov 15, 2016 at 7:00 PM

Oakland and San Francisco residents may take comfort in $15 minimum wages, first-name-basis familiarity with local farmers, and purchasing policies that enable public schools to use their spending power to buy ethically produced food. But a new report co-authored by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative indicates that there's still much work to be done, particularly in the realm of fair labor practices.

The report, entitled No Piece of the Pie: US Food Workers in 2016, was based on national data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau, as well as current discussions in academic and policy literature. It found that the food industry — the largest employment sector in the nation — also contains the greatest portion of its poor. These findings come on the heels of another recent study that found that Bay Area restaurants have the largest race-based pay gap in the country.

No Piece of the Pie notes that the food industry has grown steadily in this country even through the Great Recession. But despite this robust growth, the median wage rose only $0.20 in the past four years. Thirteen percent of all food workers, from farm laborers to farmers' marketeers to coffee baristas, are on food stamps — more than twice the rate of any other industry. Meanwhile, the food industry's CEOs make about six times as much as its frontline workers — and in some cases much more. For instance, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz made $336 million between 2009 and 2013.

"That is such a glaring injustice," said Joann Lo, Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. "The workers who are responsible for ensuring that we have food available aren't earning enough to provide for themselves and their own families."

This growing poverty exists within the larger context of a racist and misogynistic industry with roots in slave and immigrant labor, and the perception that serving food is "women's work."

"It isn't as valued as a tech job," Lo said. "That devaluing is part of why we enforce, 'Well, these workers don't deserve higher wages.'"

The report also details a litany of unsafe working conditions, union suppression, wage theft, and sexual harassment. Lo explained that part of the reason why these violations go unnoticed is that "a lot of the jobs in the food system are invisible. [Customers] don't see them, and therefore they don't think about them."

Jose Vega, one of many workers interviewed for the report, is a former worker and crew leader at Taylor Farms in Tracy, CA, who was fired for his efforts to unionize. In an interview with the Express, he described managers who pressured workers for sexual favors and intimidated them with the threat of job loss, and work areas flooded with water and chemicals that left workers with headaches, burning eyes, and upset stomachs. One worker was fired for speaking out about the company's practice of mixing conventional produce into its organic salad mixes when the company ran out of organic produce. Vega said that a number of Taylor employees have been fired or threatened with deportation for efforts to unionize or for speaking out against Taylor's violations

Once, Vega said, "there was a chemical spill — there were a lot of spills, but this one was a big one — and one of the workers had to go to the hospital. The company didn't want to call the ambulance. One of my co-workers called the emergency number. I don't know if it was the next day or the day after — the manager said, 'Don't talk about what happened or you might lose your job.'"

"Even though in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles we have good progressive policies, we have to remember we're part of a larger regional and state economy, and it's important for us to support workers in other areas," said Lo. After all, Taylor Farms is located just an hour away from the Bay Area.

What's most concerning is that conditions for food workers, who are already heavily affected by the American legacy of racism and misogyny, will further decline.

"Especially now with Trump coming in as president, we are very worried not just about wages and working conditions, but the safety of Black, Muslim, and LGBT workers," said Lo. "... It's probably going to be worse. There are reports from people in these communities that there's a sense that our incoming president, with his language, his [plan to] register Muslims, the wall — it's opened up the doors for people to verbally and physically assault our brothers and sisters in those communities. And we need to stand up and support them."

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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Cosecha Is (Hopefully) Coming to the Dimond

Plus, three East Bay options for Thanksgiving pie.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Nov 8, 2016 at 6:30 PM

For several years, residents of Oakland's Dimond District have been asking the city to turn the neighborhood's abandoned firehouse into a restaurant. Now, it appears that the old Dimond Firehouse will be home to a second location for one of the city's most prominent Mexican eateries.

Cosecha, the popular Cal-Mexican cafe and taqueria in Swan's Market, has reached an agreement to purchase the building from the city, co-owner Dominica Rice-Cisneros told What the Fork.

The City of Oakland chose Rice-Cisneros and her husband Carlos Solomon's proposal for the space from among the six bids it received, and City Council approved the sale last week. The restaurateurs are currently in escrow with the city. Of course, there are no guarantees: Oakland has been trying to sell the firehouse since 2011, and the space has at various points been attached to several prominent local restaurateurs. Most recently, the Mercury News reported in October of 2014 that the city had agreed to sell the building to the owner of Aunt Mary's Cafe, who had planned to turn it into a Tex-Mex restaurant. That deal eventually fell through.

"We're going to try our hardest," Rice-Cisneros said. "Everything is looking really good right now."

The chef said she was drawn to the Dimond in part because she lived there for several years during the mid-Aughts and felt inspired by the neighborhood's resurgence, which was spurred, in part, by a handful of locally owned, community-oriented businesses that opened around that time — La Farine Bakery and Farmer Joe's Marketplace most prominent among them. These days, Rice-Cisneros said she sees the area as a burgeoning "mini Temescal" — one with its fair share of notable dining establishments. But she said many residents have told her that they wished the Dimond had another full-service, special occasion-worthy restaurant — a place where they could bring Mom or Dad out for a birthday dinner without having to drive to a different neighborhood.

If all goes according to plan, Rice-Cisneros hopes the new Cosecha will be that place. The chef said she expects to serve a similar menu to the one at her Swan's Market stall, which is known for such dishes as its pork belly tacos and its weekend-brunch chilaquiles. Custom items specific to the Dimond location might include mesquite-grilled rotisserie chicken.

Pie Day Beckons

If you're the kind of home cook who prides yourself on making every damn thing on the holiday table — from dinner roll to gravy to turkey-shaped doily — 100-percent from scratch, the lead-up to Thanksgiving might be the most stressful week of the year. Allow me to offer one piece of unsolicited advice: You don't have to bake that pie yourself. Given the quality of bakeries in the East Bay, you might even be better off if you don't.

Certainly, I don't know of too many home bakers who have the same magic touch with flour and butter as PieTisserie (1605 2nd Ave., Oakland), whose proprietor, Jaynelle St. Jean, probably makes the best all-butter pie crust in town — the thinnest, most delicate, and most shatteringly crisp. PieTisserie's Thanksgiving lineup this year includes slight variations on holiday classics (Pumpkin in Chocolate Crust, Spiced Apple, and Blackbottom Walnut) as well as more unorthodox options (Beet, Ginger Lemon Custard, and Brown Sugar Maple).

Each 9-inch pie costs $26. The deadline to put in your pre-order — whether online (PieTisserie.com), by phone (510-859-PIES), or in person — is Friday, November 18.

Do you remember when Bakesale Betty (5096 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) was a full-blown bakery — when, in addition to its famous fried chicken sandwiches, the Temescal standby tempted sweet-tooth owners with an array of scones, quick breads, and pies? Thankfully, the shop will offer at least one Thanksgiving pie option this year: a deep-dish apple pie ($27.50) that features Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples, and co-owner Alison Barakat's crackly, well-burnished all-butter crust. The pie will be available for pickup on Wednesday, November 23 if you pre-order (Betty.BakesaleBetty@gmail.com or 510-985-1213) by November 18. It should serve as a reminder that Bakesale Betty was a damn good bakeshop before it ever became a sandwich shop.

Berkeley's Crixa Cakes (2748 Adeline St., Berkeley) specializes in Eastern European cakes and pastries, but regular customers plan their schedules around the American-style pies, which come out of the oven a 1 p.m. sharp and invariably sell out in short order. The bakery's Thanksgiving advance order menu includes a cranberry walnut pie and various seasonally appropriate cakes, but let's be real: In my family, there is no Thanksgiving dessert apart from Crixa's deep-dish pumpkin pie ($24), with its luxuriously creamy, just-sweet-enough pumpkin filling and its abundance of soft, tender crust.

Crixa's pumpkin pie has graced our holiday table for about six years running, and of course I would not pass on the message that — RED ALERT — the bakery expects to sell out of pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving any day now without having first secured my own order.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Two New Oakland Chinatown Cafes are Food-Focused Islands in a Sea of Bubble Tea

Plus, Aztecali gives way to Chica Oakland.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Nov 1, 2016 at 6:00 PM

Slowly but surely, Oakland Chinatown's empty storefronts have started to fill up — but almost exclusively with a new wave of bubble tea shops with confusingly similar names: i-Tea, Shiny Tea, T4, 50 Tea, and so on. While this might be a boon to the boba connoisseur, it doesn't do much for the neighborhood's diversity of offerings, to say nothing of the need to appeal to folks who don't want to eat their lunch through a straw.

It is fortunate, then, that Chinatown does have a handful of notable new food options, the best of which might be Baby Cafe (358 11th St.), the cutely-named Hong Kong-style cafe whose bargain-priced afternoon "tea time" I gave a shout-out to in the October 26 Express happy hour guide. As great as those tea-time specials are (with a boatload of surprisingly hearty dishes in the $2–$3 range), you'll have to stick to the regular menu if you want to try the restaurant's most popular items.

Chief among these is the cafe's signature "rice cube" — a bowl's worth of rice molded into the shape of a hollow box, scorched until all of the exposed surfaces have turned crispy and golden-brown, and then topped with chicken curry ($12.95) or beef stew ($13.95). The thing was somewhat awkward to eat, especially with the addition of a lettuce leaf that helped the structure maintain its sog-free integrity but felt superfluous unless you are a person who likes to mix salad into your beef stew. But the crispy rice alone was worth the price of admission — like the gloriously toasty crust that forms on the bottom of a stone-bowl bibimbap.

With apologies to the cardiologists of the world, I was also stoked to find one of my favorite Hong Kong snack foods on Baby Cafe's menu: a Cantonese "pineapple" bun served with a thick pat of butter stuffed inside. They heat the bun up until it's very warm, and the butter is served very cold — two thick pats of it brought to the table, with some ceremony, in a bowl of ice for you to add to the bun yourself. The overall effect is the rare experience of eating cold butter as though straight from the stick, so that each bite of the soft, sweet bread contains the viscous chew of the butter in addition to its salty richness. Trust me, though, when I tell you: It is heaven.

My other recent Chinatown discovery is that one of the aforementioned bubble tea shops, T4 (1068 Webster St.), is actually a full-fledged Taiwanese restaurant in disguise. "Full-fledged" is perhaps putting it a bit strongly, as this is still your standard order-at-the-counter boba spot in almost every respect, down to the large gaggles of teenagers who are usually sprawled out at most of the tables, flirting or playing League of Legends. (This can be a plus or minus, depending on where you fall on the "Proud-Millennial" to "Get-the-Damn-Kids-Off-My-Lawn" spectrum.)

But the food menu goes well beyond a boba shop's usual array of fried snacks — though the Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken is well above average. I was more surprised, however, to find a passable version of lu rou fan, or braised ground pork rice, that would have been perfect if it were a little bit fattier and less salty. Better still was the tomato-based beef shank noodle soup, which had just enough beefy depth of flavor to balance out the sweetness of the tomato.

This isn't destination food that you'd want to travel far out of your way to eat. It's akin to the kind of run-of-the-mill fast-food noodle joint that you can find on every street corner in Taipei. Here in Oakland, that's still enough of a rarity to be worth celebrating.

Taqueria Turnover

Let's start with the bad news: Aztecali (303A Oakland Ave., Oakland), probably the most promising new taqueria to open in Oakland this year, has closed for business. Co-owner Claudia Mercado told What the Fork that she and her partner, Juana Ojeda (the chef), made the decision because of a family emergency in Mexico. Thankfully, everyone is okay, but the need for frequent trips to Mexico, at least in the short term, made it infeasible for them to hold onto their sublease.

That said, Mercado said she hopes Aztecali will be able to reopen in a new location: "We definitely are not finished." Home to some of Oakland's tastiest chicken tortas and Guerrero style pozole verde, the Cal-Mexican restaurant quickly emerged as a neighborhood favorite on a mostly residential stretch of Oakland Avenue with few dining options — and certainly no other Mexican food of this caliber.

The one silver lining is that Mercado has found someone to take over the spot and keep it going as a neighborhood Mexican restaurant. Maria Esquivel is an East Oakland resident who last appeared in What the Fork in 2012, when she had a popup called Bueno Eats. Now, Esquivel runs a takeout window called Chica in Levi's Plaza in San Francisco that specializes in mix-and-match bowls — carnitas, chicken, or a seasonal veggie medley served over rice, quinoa, or salad greens.

When Chica Oakland opens in the former Aztecali spot, it will have that same basic menu format, plus a few other items such as tacos and ceviche. The restaurant is slated to open in late November or December.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

OUSD Aims to Put Its Money Where Its Values Are

By adopting the Good Food Purchasing Policy, the district places a priority on nutrition, sustainability, and labor issues.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Oct 25, 2016 at 6:30 PM

How do you provide lunch for an entire city of hungry schoolchildren on a budget of just $1.25 a meal — and do so while also making sure the food is highly nutritious and sustainably sourced, and that it puts money back into the local economy?

That's the kind of impossible puzzle that any large public school district faces. But the Oakland Unified School District's food services program may soon have a new tool with the potential to make the task slightly more manageable. This week, the district's school board will vote on whether to adopt the Good Food Purchasing Policy (GFPP), a set of purchasing standards that assigns participating school districts a "grade" based around five core values: nutrition, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, valued workforce (i.e., labor issues), and local economies.

OUSD would be the third school district to adopt the policy, joining the school districts of Los Angeles — where the Los Angeles Food Policy Council first created the program in 2012 — and San Francisco, which adopted the policy earlier this fall. The Center for Good Food Purchasing, a Berkeley-based nonprofit, administers the program. Its executive director Alexa Delwiche said that OUSD was a natural fit because the district already espouses many of the policy's values.

During the tenure of nutrition services director Jennifer LeBarre, OUSD has been nationally recognized for its role as a leader in the so-called "farm to school" movement going as far back as 2010, and recently began incorporating organic beef into its $1.25-per-meal lunch budget. The district has also broken ground on its long-awaited West Oakland central kitchen, which, when it opens sometime during the 2017-18 school year, will allow the food services program to buy even more produce from local farms, and prep and cook a higher proportion of that food onsite.

The GFPP aims to give those values around sustainability and nutrition some teeth. In a nutshell, the Center for Good Food Purchasing collects and analyzes reams of paperwork from each participating school district to determine where every purchased ingredient came from — tracing it back to the name of an individual farm when possible. The Center then evaluates all of the data against the five criteria in its rubric, and assigns the district a star rating. In fact, even prior to officially adopting the policy, OUSD already went through this part of the process — twice, actually, in a kind of voluntary test run. The district received two stars, out of a possible five, for the 2012-13 school year, and went up to a three-star rating for 2014-15. Moving forward, the Center will work with OUSD to set short-term and long-term goals, and it will help hold the district accountable for reaching those benchmarks. The goal, after all, is to achieve that perfect five-star rating.

The school board is expected to vote in favor of adopting the GFPP at its October 26 meeting, though it wouldn't be until after a later vote in March or April that the policy would officially get written into the district's priorities.

"Measurement matters," said Anna Lappé, a prominent Bay Area writer and sustainable food advocate who has been helping to promote the policy through her nonprofit, Real Food Media. "What you measure matters. If you're just measuring the quantity of food served or the price, you're not measuring what people care about."

Part of the reason that Lappé and other food activists — from First Lady Michelle Obama on down — have placed so much emphasis on school food is because of the massive scale of these operations. OUSD, for instance, serves roughly 21,000 lunches each school day, plus a slightly smaller number of breakfasts, snacks, and suppers. There isn't a restaurant in the city that operates on that kind of scale. It follows, then, that even relatively small changes to a district's sourcing can wind up having a huge impact.

When the Los Angeles school district adopted the Good Food Purchasing Policy, it was preparing to negotiate a $60 million chicken contract with Tyson Foods, a multi-billion dollar company that has been fined for worker-safety violations. The upshot: After these concerns were raised, Tyson withdrew itself from consideration, and the district instead committed a large chunk of that money to buying antibiotic-free chicken through a different distributor. The district also went from purchasing just 9 percent of its food locally to 50–60 percent — a shift that put $12 million into the local economy and helped create about 150 jobs.

As Delwiche put it, "A small change for them is pretty dramatic."

With both the San Francisco and Oakland school districts likely adopting the standards this year, and several other districts around the country interested in following suit, we are starting to see the makings of a larger movement — one that, in aggregate, has enough purchasing power to really shift the country's overall food system.

One of the notable aspects of the Good Food Purchasing Policy is that it prioritizes labor issues, which often get overlooked within the broader food justice movement. For that reason, the Teamsters have thrown their support behind the policy. Doug Bloch, the political director for Teamsters Joint Council 7, which covers much of California, noted that the policy played an instrumental role in securing a contract for union delivery drivers in Los Angeles.

Bloch said he first saw the value of a concrete food purchasing policy a few years ago, when Oakland was buying much of its produce from Taylor Farms, whose Salinas site was touted as a model for farm-worker wages and benefits. Unfortunately, the farm's other location in Tracy had been cited for dozens of worker-safety violations and launched what Bloch describes as the most brutal anti-union campaign he'd seen in 25 years of labor-organizing work. Long story short: The Teamsters lobbied the school board, and the district eventually severed its contract with Taylor Farms. But what if the union hadn't made the effort? Or what if LeBarre were to leave, or less labor-friendly school board members got elected?

This isn't just an abstract concern: In Los Angeles, for example, longtime nutrition services director David Binkle, who had advocated for the Good Food Purchasing Policy, resigned last year amid allegations of mismanagemed funds. In both Oakland and Los Angeles, the policy itself ensures that these core values — of sustainability, worker well-being, and so forth — remain locked in as district priorities, even as individual policymakers come and go. And it gives suppliers such as Taylor Farms a tangible reason to change their practices.

Otherwise, it's incumbent on activists to raise these issues again and again, each time the district negotiates a new contract. Bloch hopes the Good Food Purchasing Policy will help take the politics out of that process: "Oakland is saying, 'Our procurement policy is a reflection of our conscience as a district.'"

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Nellie's Soulfood Plots a Triumphant Return to West Oakland

Plus, Preeti Mistry brings 'Indian Neapolitan' pizza to Emeryville.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Oct 18, 2016 at 6:30 PM

The past year has seen a slew of iconic, decades-old Oakland restaurants close their doors — Genova Delicatessen, Dorsey's Locker, and Art's Crab Shack, to name just a few. And whether they've shuttered because of rents or because the owner was ready to retire, one thing is clear: Once an old-school place like that closes, it's almost always gone forever.

Nellie Ozen wants to buck that trend. Her West Oakland restaurant, Nellie's Soulfood, which she opened some fifty years ago, closed back in June. Even at the time, Ozen said that decision was mostly because her daughter Quinnette wanted to retire. Ozen, on the other hand, still felt like she had a lot of cooking left in her — even now that she's in her mid-eighties and has to rely on a walker.

The latest news: Ozen tells What the Fork that she is very close to finalizing the terms of a deal that would allow Nellie's Soulfood to reopen not far from its former location at the corner of 3rd and Adeline streets in West Oakland. Essentially, Ozen would take over food operations for a nearby bar that has an underutilized kitchen.

Because the space is quite a bit smaller, Ozen won't be able to serve the full Nellie's menu, but she said she plans to bring back all of the classics — her oxtails, chitlins, fried fish, and greens simmered with smoked turkey tail.

The terms of the agreement are still being worked out, but Ozen estimated that the deal is about "90 percent" certain to happen. In fact, she's optimistic that the new incarnation of Nellie's will be open for lunch and dinner — and ready to start dishing out pie and cornbread dressing for the holidays — by the second week of November.

After all, Ozen said, Thanksgiving always was one of her busiest times of year.

Neapolitan by Way of India

If you are a fan of Juhu Beach Club and have perhaps hoped that the stylish Indian restaurant would stay open all day, or that chef Preeti Mistry would try her hand at making pizza and breakfast pastries — well, here's good news: Last week, Mistry announced that she and her wife and business partner Ann Nadeau are opening a new all-day restaurant called Navi Kitchen in Emeryville's Triangle neighborhood, at the former Basic Cafe spot (5000 Adeline St.).

The basic concept will be American cafe-style foods reimagined with Indian flavors: rotisserie chicken with a burnt masala brine, pizza with toppings like chaat masala frying peppers, and tikka masala mac and cheese — plus an assortment of housemade biscuits, quick breads, and other baked goods.

The headliner will probably be the pizza, which Mistry describes as "Indian-Neapolitan." You may be familiar with the "Indian pizza" restaurant genre, which has been somewhat of a phenomenon for a while — it's a natural fusion dish to have developed if you consider the similarities between pizza dough and naan.

When reached by phone, Mistry explained that these Indian pizzas tend to feature that puffy, all-American, Papa John's style of pizza crust, which then gets weighed down with dozens of toppings. Mistry said her pizzas will be closer to the Italian Neapolitan style in terms of size and shape, and the toppings will be more "subtle" — more along the lines of what you'll find at places like Pizzaiolo or Arizmendi. The dough itself will be a hybrid. Mistry uses Italian "00" flour, but replaces the olive oil with yogurt and ghee.

Navi Kitchen will be a casual, counter-service restaurant with lots of outdoor seating — the idea is for it to be very kid- and family-friendly, Mistry said. One more notable feature: There will be a "spice bar," where customers can buy freshly ground spice blends such as garam masala and chai masala.

The restaurant's ETA is February or March of 2017.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Thai-Style Ice Cream Rolls into Chinatown

Freezing Point is the East Bay's newest Asian ice cream sensation. Plus, do Uji Time's fish-shaped cones live up to the hype?

by Luke Tsai
Wed, Oct 12, 2016 at 1:00 AM

Japan has mochi ice cream. Taiwan has ice cream "burritos" (crepes topped with cilantro and peanut-candy shavings). And in Thailand, street vendors hawk something called the ice cream "roll" — a thin layer of ice cream that gets scraped up in a way that forms tight coils roughly the size and shape of a Fruit Roll-Up.  

The ice cream rolls, aka "stir-fried" ice cream, also happen to be the latest Asian ice cream sensation to hit the East Bay, thanks to Freezing Point Creamery (349 7th St.), a new ice cream shop that opened last week in Oakland Chinatown.

The crowds have already descended. The wait at around 7 p.m. on a Saturday night was well over twenty minutes, in part due to the fact that an order takes at least two or three minutes to prepare — and sometimes quite a bit longer, it seemed, perhaps due to the fact that the store's employees are still getting trained.

Still, the entertainment value of watching the staff make the ice cream rolls is half of what you're paying for. Here's how it works: The person making the rolls pours the liquid ice cream base onto a very cold metal pan, which immediately starts to freeze the ice cream. Then, the primary topping you've picked — say, fresh strawberries or an Oreo cookie — gets placed on top and mashed in very finely, the steel scrapers deployed here in a vigorous double-handed chopping motion. The entire mixture gets smoothed out, spread thin, and, finally, scraped into rolls. The whole process is like a cross between making a griddle-chopped cheesesteak (or Japanese teppanyaki) and Cold Stone Creamery. Frankly, it looks exhausting.

The verdict? The rolls are worth trying at least once for the novelty, but the ice cream itself was just okay. It's a textural thing more than anything else. One of the main reasons that traditional ice cream is churned while it's freezing is to add air to the mix, which helps make the end product creamy, but also somewhat fluffy and light. Because rolled ice cream removes that part of the process from the equation, you wind up with ice cream that's dense and oddly sticky.

That said, there is good reason to make a special trip to Freezing Point: to try their regular, non-rolled ice cream — specifically the house-made Asian flavors, which constituted two out of the eight or so total on offer during my visit. For now, the shop is making an avocado flavor and, most notably, a durian flavor that was easily one of the most memorable scoops of ice cream I've eaten this year.

Are you familiar with durian? The spiky, famously pungent tropical fruit has such a strong odor — which haters liken to rotting flesh or hot trash — that people are forbidden from carrying it on public transportation in many Asian cities. But proponents wax poetic about the fruit's custardy texture and its buttery, cheese-like flavor. Made with fresh durian, Freezing Point's ice cream captures those qualities better than any other durian dessert I've tried.

If you head over to Freezing Point during its grand-opening period between now and October 15, you'll get a dollar off each roll or scoop. The regular prices are $7 and $3, respectively.

Waiting for Uji Time

In other Asian ice cream news, I'm somewhat late to the game when it comes to the Instagram phenomenon and dessert trend du jour that is the fish-shaped taiyaki ice cream cone. The treat is available at Uji Time Dessert (2575 Telegraph Ave.), a newish Japanese dessert shop in Berkeley that shares a space with the shaved snow shop Vampire Penguin. But if you've been thinking about giving it a try, here's what you need to know:

1. First off, the line is fairly bananas — a half-hour wait on a recent Saturday afternoon, despite the fact that I arrived just minutes after opening. You can tell which side of the room is occupied by Uji Time (the left) by the long, slow-moving queue that stretches along one wall.

2. A taiyaki is a kind of fish-shaped cake popular in Japan (tai means "sea bream"). The cakes are baked to order in a cast-iron mold, and are often filled with red bean paste. The taiyaki ice cream cones are basically a super-sized version of these cakes, with an opening at the mouth end that gets filled with soft-serve ice cream — quite exceptional soft-serve ice cream, in the case of Uji Time, especially if you opt for the black sesame flavor. The warm, just-baked "cone" has some of the exterior crispness of a waffle cone, but also the softness of pancake. And once you finish all of the ice cream and bite into the body of the fish — surprise! — you'll discover some of that red bean paste filling inside. In that way, it is like two desserts in one.

3. I actually preferred the regular, non-ice-cream-filled mini taiyaki, which come filled with either red bean paste or Nutella. The proportion of crisp exterior to soft, fluffy interior was just better. Eat them right away while they're still warm, before the outside loses its crispness.

Whether it's worth the wait is up to you to decide.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Least Remarkable Thing about the Mochi Muffins at Sam's Patisserie Is the Fact That They're Gluten-Free

Berkeley's accidental mochi man.

by Luke Tsai
Wed, Oct 5, 2016 at 1:00 AM

I hadn't expected the Hawaiian mochi muffin at Sam's Patisserie, a newish wholesale bakery in Berkeley, to give me a bad case of homesickness.

But there was no mistaking it: The mochi's crisp, sesame seed-flecked exterior and the buttery richness and chewy-sticky quality of its glutinous-rice-flour-cake interior were uncannily reminiscent of the nian gao (glutinous rice cakes) that my Chinese-Taiwanese mother would bake each year in big Pyrex baking sheets for the Lunar New Year's feast and other family celebrations. It was like taking a bite of my childhood.

The mochi muffins are the handiwork of pastry chef Sam Butarbutar, who runs his wholesale bakery and pastry business from the kitchen inside Catahoula Coffee Co.'s Berkeley cafe (2080 Fourth St.). According to Butarbutar, the muffin's nostalgic quality is no coincidence. When he bites into one, he gets flashbacks to his own childhood in Indonesia, where mochi is a popular snack, and whose native flavors he infuses into each of the muffins: palm sugar, coconut milk, and pandan — the grassy herb that gives the waffles sold at Vietnamese banh mi shops their distinctive green hue.  

Butarbutar says he never intended for his baked mochi to become the centerpiece of his business. The self-taught pastry chef explained that his broader interest lies in making traditional French pastries — croissants, tarts, and so forth — with Asian flavors.

But during the earliest days of his business, when Butarbutar was still just baking in his home kitchen, he kept getting requests for gluten-free baked goods. He knew other pastry chefs would simply substitute tapioca or rice flour in place of wheat flour, but he felt that most of those recipes didn't take advantage of the particular characteristics of rice — its ability to create a texture that is both crispy and chewy at the same time.

"I thought, why not make something that's more rooted in some kind of tradition?" Butarbutar said.

That's when he starting experimenting with mochi, starting with the more typical steamed varieties. The recipe he eventually settled on was inspired by butter mochi, a kind of baked mochi that he remembered eating during a trip to Hawaii. They are "muffins," insofar as their shape is concerned — but really it's mochi batter that he bakes in muffin tins to yield convenient, individual-serving portions. The mochi muffin quickly became far and away Butarbutar's most popular item.  

The Sam's Patisserie mochi muffins have more toffee-butteriness than my mother's nian gao (which also had a red bean paste filling that Butarbutar omits) and a crunchier outer surface — a quality he decided to accentuate after he accidentally overbaked one of his early experimental batches: "It was a very happy accident."

In many ways, Butarbutar's entire professional cooking career has been propelled by a similar series of fortuitous accidents, starting with his inability to find a job after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in toxicology. That led him to take his first part-time gig as a line cook at a restaurant in San Luis Obispo and, soon after that, he landed a job as a cook at Lazy Bear, back when David Barzelay's ambitious San Francisco supper club was still in its underground pop-up phase.

But baking was always his first love, and so two years ago he launched Sam's — first as a cottage food business, and now as what is primarily a wholesale operation.

In terms of next steps for growing his business, Butarbutar said he wants to focus on doing more catering and special events — Oakland's recent Eat Real Festival was his highest-profile gig to date. But he also hasn't given up on the dream of having a whole line of Asian-inspired French pastries that go well beyond his signature mochi. Eventually, he'd like to have a brick-and-mortar bakery of his own somewhere in Berkeley.

For now, you can find the mochi muffins at a handful of East Bay restaurants and cafes — Open Cafe in Oakland; Bartavelle, Asha Teahouse, 900 Grayson, and Alchemy Collective Cafe in Berkeley; and both Catahoula Coffee locations (in Berkeley and Richmond). At the Fourth St. coffee shop, you'll also find a wider selection of Butarbutar's baked goods, which often include scones and almond cakes.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

This Year's Eat Real Festival Features an Anti-Sausage Party

Female butchers take center stage.

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Sep 20, 2016 at 6:30 PM

When Eat Real Festival hits Jack London Square this weekend, its annual whole-hog butchery demonstration — one of the street food festival's signature events — will have a bit of a new look. The butchers will, of course, be as badass as they always are, with knives and hand-saws just as sharp. But this year, for the first time, all four participants will be women.

If you have paid any attention to Oakland's burgeoning food scene over the past several years, you're probably familiar with Eat Real, which is now in its eighth year and will run September 23–25. The festival's main attraction has always been its massive lineup of food and beverage vendors — this year's lineup features about seventy street food purveyors, all hawking dishes for $8 or less, plus an additional twenty beverage vendors.

But the festival has always also boasted a full itinerary of food-related events — ranging from chef demos to kid-friendly DIY workshops — and among these, the butchery showcase has always been one of the most popular. So why mix things up?

Ally DeArman, director of the nonprofit Food Craft Institute that organizes Eat Real, said that it just felt about time. Even though Eat Real as a whole has always had a very even gender split in terms of the chefs and other food entrepreneurs highlighted, that hasn't been the case for the butchery demo: Among all the butchery teams that have taken part in the demo in the last seven years, DeArman could only recall one female participant.

That's partly because of the nature of the event, which had previously always been framed as a competition — who can break down this side of beef the fastest and most precisely, and with the greatest flair for showmanship. According to DeArman, that format didn't appeal to some of the more prominent women in the profession.

This year, the competitive element has been eliminated in favor of a more educational approach. Two teams of butchers will demonstrate how to break down a whole hog — provided by Chico-based Rancho Llano Seco — with each team highlighting different cuts and cutting techniques. The organizers have playfully dubbed the event the "Sausage Rebellion" — because it's designed to be the exact opposite of a sausage fest, both in terms of gender and its longstanding focus on highlighting interesting uses for offal cuts that go beyond grinding everything up and stuffing it inside a sausage casing.

The four participating butchers will be Jacquie Smith (of Avedano's Meats), Ren Rossini (of Fatted Calf Charcuterie), Cindy Garcia (of V. Miller Meats in Sacramento), and Oakland's own Susannah Schnick, one of the butchers at Clove and Hoof, who had her very own moment of viral fame last month, when the butcher shop posted a sped-up video of Schnick breaking down a hog on Facebook. Monica Rocchino, co-owner of Berkeley's Local Butcher Shop, will provide live commentary.

The rise of the female butcher is a storyline that has gotten a fair amount of press over the last decade, but according to DeArman, many of those stories tended to have a cheesy, sensationalistic "butcher babe" angle: "Look at me — I'm a pinup, and I also cut meat."

While that kind of narrative generated a certain amount of buzz, it didn't create a particularly welcoming environment for women who were thinking about going into the profession, DeArman said. And she noted that the course that the Food Craft Institute offers on the butchery business has long had difficulty attracting female students — despite the general sense that there are a lot of talented women working in the industry.

This weekend's all-female butchery demo, which will take place from 4–5 p.m. on Saturday, September 24, may be the latest sign that that tide is turning. Now, DeArman said, there's a sense that women don't feel like they need to try to be the "poster-woman" for the butchery industry, but can simply feel comfortable being an integral part of it.

"Pretty much every major craft butcher shop has a female at the center of their production," DeArman said.

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