It isn't the most conventional formula for success: Create a restaurant whose menu is rife with kimchi, sausage links, and craft beer, and plop it down in the middle of a working-class Latino neighborhood in Oakland. The Half Orange, which took over the old Taco Grill space in the Fruitvale Public Market about three months ago, somehow makes it work.
Chef Jay Porter and his wife Katie Mayfield are San Diego transplants who recently settled in Fruitvale, which they love for its wealth of regional Mexican cooking. The couple planned to open a restaurant serving contemporary California cuisine, and that project — Salsipuedes — is still on track to launch in North Oakland in the near-ish future. But in San Diego, Porter was best known for The Linkery, his casual farm-to-table restaurant specializing in sausages and craft beer. Fruitvale didn't have a place like that, and he was convinced that locals would go for it.
"Burgers, craft beer, and sausages — that cuts across all cultures," he said.
The Half Orange is nominally a sausages-and-beer joint, but, surprisingly, the menu consists mostly of dishes with Korean and Mexican flavors. Of course, Porter drew on the years that he spent exploring the wealth of street food across the border in Baja California. But when he opened The Half Orange, he wanted to serve something other than sauerkraut with his sausages, and it turned out that Brian LaBonte, the consulting chef who helped draw up the opening menu, had a kimchi recipe.
"Once you have that stuff in house, it kind of just starts getting used," Porter explained.
So he came up with a version of salchipapas, a Latin American street food that normally consists of French fries topped with sliced sausages, coleslaw, and a blend of ketchup and mayonnaise. He replaced the coleslaw with chopped kimchi and added a "secret" THO sauce made by blending charred ginger, sesame seeds, and miso into a house-made mayonnaise — a fast-food joint's special sauce with a dose of Asian-inflected umami. The kimchi juices dribble into the sauce, adding an addictive, tangy note. Best of all are the sausages: cubes of house-made chorizo and fried sausage chunks infused with the flavors of Korean bulgogi (grilled marinated beef).
Porter's most inspired creation is the KFB — Korean Fried Buches, or chicken necks — which he said are his tribute to a popular Tijuana taqueria that sells "Kentucky Fried" chicken necks. Porter's KFB offer everything that's great about Korean-fried chicken — the outrageous crunch from the double-frying process and the gochujang glaze's perfect balance of heat, sweetness, and funk. The use of necks adds the down-and-dirty pleasure of gnawing each piece down to its last bit of meat and cartilage. These go down deliciously with the restaurant's recommended pairings: cold beer and a cooling side of tarragon-flecked macaroni salad.
For something more wholesome, try the harvest pancake, Porter's take on a pan-fried Korean pancake — loaded with vegetables and cut into bite-size squares. The dish wouldn't be out of place at a traditional Korean restaurant, though the abundance of seasonal vegetables — broccoli rabe, kale, zucchini, and shiitake mushrooms — mark the dish as distinctly Californian.
The restaurant's San Diego pedigree shines brightest in the shrimp "Fenix." Named after a beloved fish-taco stand in Ensenada, this is basically a Baja-style taco — the shrimp beer-battered, fried in lard, topped with a tangy cabbage slaw and a crema-based white sauce, and served on high-quality corn tortillas. At $11.95 for two tacos, it's one of the priciest items, in part because you're paying a premium for the sweet flesh and luxurious meatiness of the wild-caught Baja shrimp. In a city that's more or less bereft of even passable fried-shrimp tacos, these are worth a trip on their own.
The more entrée-like dishes tended to fall a little bit flat. While most sausage-sandwich joints offer an array of sausages, The Half Orange's streamlined menu offers only a single house link — the same bulgogi-flavored sausage that was so tasty in chopped-and-fried form, as a topping for the salchipapas. But here, the sandwich came topped, by default, with so much chopped, pungent, and sopping-wet kimchi that it completely masked whatever virtues the sausage might have had.
The shrimp roll featured those excellent Baja shrimp — this time grilled, tossed with aioli and pickled cucumber relish, and served warm atop a butter-soaked, toasted bun. But the bun was so big that the shrimp got lost in all that bread.
Meanwhile, The Half Orange Burger boasted an ultra-thin, grass-fed beef patty (two of them if you upgrade to the "Full Orange"), more of that secret THO sauce, and a well-toasted Starter Bakery bun. It was a tasty burger — like a fancier version of In-N-Out's signature product — except that the patty itself was slightly dry despite being perfectly pink-centered.
Still, even when the food at The Half Orange was merely pretty good, there was quite a bit to love. That grass-fed burger? You'd be hard-pressed to find one with higher-quality components for $6.95.
The exceedingly reasonable prices are no coincidence, Porter said. In a neighborhood such as Fruitvale, there's the danger that a restaurant like The Half Orange would come across as overly precious. And it's true that in some ways — amid the churro stands, fruit carts, and taco trucks — the place sticks out like an artisanally oriented sore thumb with its subdued, industrial-chic aesthetic, focus on natural wines, and rotating selection of locally brewed draft beer.
But Porter explained that he intentionally kept his prices in the same ballpark as family-run Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood. The generously poured beers on tap are all in the $5 range, which Porter said is what locals are accustomed to paying for bottled beer. In that way, in these gentrified times, the restaurant accomplishes the rare feat of managing to still feel like a neighborhood spot — not just a place for well-to-do interlopers to descend upon East Oakland for a once-in-a-blue-moon visit.
Wherever you live, The Half Orange is worth trying at least once. Come in on a Monday, when the draft beer costs only $2.98, and settle in for a plate of chicken necks and some loaded fries. You might just become a regular.