It’s official. As of today, I can announce I’m taking over food coverage here at the East Bay Express.
Who am I? Let me introduce myself — er, re-introduce, technically. I was staff food writer at the Express back in 2006, when it was still part of Phoenix-based Village Voice Media, and survived its acquisition by a group of investors including former editor Stephen Buel. Survived for a few months anyway, until — like a blast chiller — the realities of newspaper publishing quickly cooled any euphoria for going indie. My position was axed, and by the end of 2007 I was out on my ass.
Any food writer can trace the date of his or her big break, the same way you never forget the dish that first stoked your curiosity about how a professional kitchen works (mine: a 1984 salad of astonishingly delicate lettuces at Greens in San Francisco, picked at the restaurant’s farm in West Marin). I can trace my break back to 2004, when after more than fifteen years spent standing on kitchen floor mats as a restaurant chef, I got the gig as restaurant critic for the Contra Costa Times, after writing a clumsy review of a place in a Concord strip mall that specialized in goat-meat birria. I was ecstatic.
For two years I combed malls and commercial strips east of the Caldecott, eating more indifferent Caprese salads and tiramisus than a woman or man should have to eat in two careers, but also scarfing lengua and sessos at taquerias in the old farmworker areas around Brentwood and Oakley. And I got to spend time west of the tunnel, in Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, Alameda — places where chefs with good training and even better ingredients were turning out polished food, amid concentrations of urban neighborhoods and old-ring suburbs. They were sources of amazing Korean places, good Vietnamese, Cantonese, Pakistani, Ethiopian, Afghani if my editor greenlighted an excursion to Fremont, and in Fruitvale, the mostly Jaliscan dishes I fell in love with.
It was on Fruitvale’s streets where I first experienced restaurants and loncheras that didn’t seem purely random, popping up in the odd storefront with food that was either good or bad depending on the cooks’ skills, but dishes that were an expression of the neighborhood they served, a genuine symbiosis between cook and diner. It still makes me irrationally happy to wander Fruitvale, eating early-morning tamales or what I’m convinced is one of the best pozoles in the whole wide bay.
Which is why I’m thrilled to be taking over food coverage at the East Bay Express. Starting today you’ll see my byline here at my new food blog, What the Fork, which will also run in the paper starting May 25. (This week: how some are hoping the launch of Off the Grid on North Shattuck will bring a new demographic to a Gourmet Ghetto that feels stuck in an earlier decade.) And starting in a couple of weeks I’ll be writing the weekly restaurant review.
Last week I wrapped up my two-year stint as editor of SFoodie, food blog for SF Weekly in San Francisco. It was an exhilarating project, working with Jonathan Kauffman (my Express predecessor), getting to know the city’s street food scene at the birth of the new-school truck movement, documenting the rise of SF’s DIY food crafters at places like the Underground Market.
You’ll probably run into my byline in publications other than the Express, both online and in print, still reporting on food in San Francisco. Thing is, there’s just as much happening in the East Bay — maybe more, since Oakland is increasingly the place where under-capitalized pickle revolutionaries and food-truck entrepreneurs can afford to get started, families tracing their roots to Laos or Guatemala can make rent, and where chefs with name recognition at the New York Times’ food department are firing up their immersion circulators and signing leases for casual spinoffs.
Oh, and also: The East Bay is the place my husband and I have called home for the past decade, and more. It’s great to be back to someplace I never really left.
Got tips or other suggestions? Send them to me at John[dot]Birdsall[at]EastBayExpress[dot]com.