When Oakland's Eat Real Festival made its debut in 2009, gourmet street food was still somewhat of a novelty in the Bay Area, and the national media was still years away from deigning to recognize Oakland as a world-class food destination. Now in its seventh year, Eat Real simply feels like an inevitability. The street food festival will take over Jack London Square again this weekend, with a lineup of eighty-plus vendors — about a quarter of them making their first Eat Real appearance, according to Ally DeArman, director of the nonprofit Food Craft Institute that organizes the event.
The festival kicks off on Friday, September 18 and will run from 1 to 9 p.m. on Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, and 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free, and the price for all food items will be capped at $8.
Here are a few of this year's highlights:
1. Drought-Friendly Fare
Given that there appears to be no end in sight to California's extended drought, it makes sense for a food festival to give the topic some attention. This year's edition of Eat Real will have several "DIY DRY" demos, including tips on water-wise gardening (courtesy of Jack London Square newcomer Sunset Magazine) and cooking demos that will feature drought-tolerant legumes. In addition, the Belcampo Meat Co. booth will sell burgers made with beef from organic dairy cows all week long — a burgeoning trend in the beef industry, because it's more environmentally friendly, since the same amount of water can go toward producing both beef and milk instead of just beef alone.
2. Sharks and Guppies
Before the festival itself starts, fans of the reality show Shark Tank may want to check out the Food Craft Institute's FOOD.FUND.FEST kickoff event on Thursday, 6:30–9:30 p.m., during which five relatively new food entrepreneurs will pitch a panel of "Slow Money" local food system investor types. DeArman said the event would be like Shark Tank without the "sink or swim" element. That said, only one competitor will win a $1,500 cash prize. Tickets are $10, plus an optional donation that will go toward sweetening the reward pot.
3. Praise the Lard
For the past few years, Chico-based pork purveyor Rancho Llano Seco has run "Offal Wonderful" as a parallel event on the Saturday and Sunday of Eat Real. This year's theme is "Skin and Fat," which provides a dual benefit to festival attendees: First, ambitious home cooks can check out chef demos for dishes such as lard biscuits and pork skin chorizo. More importantly, the promotion is designed to build demand for less popular cuts — in this case, the skin and fat — on the part of both chefs and customers. If that happens, pork-fat enthusiasts will find that Bay Area menus might start to get a little more lard-y.
A Townie Alternative
As much as the Eat Real Festival is intertwined with the continued growth of Oakland's vibrant food scene, at least two longtime Eat Real participants have decided that they'd like to organize their own mini food festival this year — one that's more focused on representing Oakland.
Organized by Angela Tsay, owner of the apparel company Oaklandish, and restaurateur Chris Pastena, Town Eats will be a three-day, Oakland-centric celebration of food held at Pastena's waterfront restaurant, Lungomare (1 Broadway, Oakland). On Saturday, September 19, five Oakland restaurants — Lungomare, Chop Bar, Haven, AlaMar, and Chowhaus — will participate in a pig roast-off, with $4 pig plates (or a $20 all-you-can-eat option) available from 1 p.m. until the last portion of pork has been eaten. On Sunday, five local restaurants — Abura-ya, Lucky Three Seven, Blackwater Station, Revival Bar + Kitchen, and Chop Bar — will set up inside Lungomare to sell $4 bites. To top it all off, Drake's Brewing Company and Hangar One Vodka will offer $4 drink specials.
Of course, with Town Eats positioning itself as being a festival that's more about Oakland — and scheduling its events the same weekend as Eat Real, just a few steps further up Jack London Square — the implication seems to be that Eat Real isn't Oakland-centric. On that subject, Tsay demurred, stressing instead the fact that Town Eats will be more low-key, appealing to locals looking for a place to do their "usual weekend kick-it" and Eat Real attendees who want to take a break from the long lines.
In any case, Eat Real director Ally DeArman said there's no conflict as far as she's concerned. On the one hand, Eat Real receives far more vendor applications each year than it is able to accommodate, which has led some to have what she believes is a false perception that the festival doesn't support Oakland vendors or that it doesn't care about the "little guy" — despite the fact that half of this year's vendors are based in Oakland, and almost all of them are small businesses. She acknowledged, however, that the festival poses a real challenge to the restaurants in Jack London Square and said she encourages them to run special promotions instead of just rolling with their regular menu.
For Tsay, the important thing is that Town Eats will highlight everyday Oakland businesses so that all of the out-of-towners who come for Eat Real have a reason to return. "Oakland is just a great place to hang out even when there's not any special event happening," she said.