New Project for Former Vitus Chef: Alameda's Café Q

Plus Borinquen Soul food truck brings a taste of Puerto Rico to the East Bay.



When we last heard from Jesse Branstetter, the chef was toiling away at Vitus, the recently shuttered (and now nomadic) Jack London district club. Express critic Jesse Hirsch gave a glowing review of Branstetter's sandwich-heavy menu, but was less impressed with the service and atmosphere at a venue that never felt like it was intended to be a dining establishment.

The disconnect caused Hirsch to speculate that the Chop Bar founding partner's tenure at Vitus might not be long for this world. In March, that prophecy came true: With little fanfare, Branstetter left Vitus and dropped off the map. Only recently did I find out what he's been up to: a consulting gig at Alameda's Café Q (2302 Encinal Ave.).

Branstetter explained that the cafe's owners, siblings Minh and Thuhuong Nguyen, hired him to help turn around a struggling business. When he first came on, the restaurant had a panoply of problems straight out of an episode of Restaurant Stakeout: The previous chef had been buying low-quality ingredients; members of the staff were stealing drinks and loafing around. And students from nearby Alameda High School would hog up table space during lunch hour, often without ordering anything.

So Branstetter hired a brand new staff, rearranged the dining area to discourage freeloaders, and slowly revamped the menu. About a month ago, the Nguyens offered Branstetter a partnership and the title of executive chef. He accepted.

Most of the food on the menu falls into the category of classic Americana, with a few Latin-American accents. There are breakfast burritos and French toast and lots of sandwiches — the "yam and cheese" is one of Branstetter's signature dishes. A couple weeks ago, he launched dinner service with such comfort grub as turkey meatloaf and baby back ribs.

Branstetter has developed something of a cult following, in part because the chef has been so elusive: He was at Vitus for about half a year; his last project before that, 1015 Clay, lasted all of two months. There was a bit of drama surrounding both ventures.

Meanwhile, he had only had positive things to say about the Nguyens. But when I asked Branstetter if he would be settling down at this new venture for the long haul, he hedged, saying he'd still like to open a restaurant in Oakland someday.

Nevertheless, he said that for at least the next six months he'll be devoting all of his energy to Café Q. So long as he's there, it's a good bet that loyal customers from Branstetter's previous gigs will find a way to swing over to Alameda.

Food for the Homesick Boricua

Oakland's Mexican food scene deserves all the praise it gets, but the Bay Area has a paucity of options for many of the other Latin American cuisines.

Chris Caraballo and Eric Rivera, two Puerto Rican New Yorkers who moved to Oakland four years ago, decided to take things in their own hands. The duo started a catering company called Borinquen Soul, serving up traditional dishes like empanadillas (beef turnovers) and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). Three months ago, their operation went mobile, as the pair launched what they say is the first Puerto Rican food truck in Northern California.

Caraballo explained that their goal isn't just to serve Puerto Rican food; it's to expose folks in the Bay Area to Puerto Rican culture as a whole. Thanks to a mixtape created by Rivera's cousin, a New York City-based DJ, the truck reps Puerto Rican music as well: a mix of salsa, reggaeton, and hip-hop that potential customers can hear from several blocks away.

Caraballo, 34, worked for years in the hotel business; Rivera, 42, has managed bars and lounges. But the dishes they serve on the Borinquen Soul truck are straight-up abuela food, the recipes passed down from Caraballo's mother and grandmother.

On a recent visit, I had a chance to try Borinquen Soul's pollo encebollado — traditionally a stewed chicken dish, but the version I had was grilled with onions and garlic. The spice-rubbed chicken breast was a shade drier than I would have liked, but was packed with flavor. This was served over a bed of yellow sofrito rice flecked with pigeon peas — interesting, chewy little legumes for those who haven't had them. All in all, it was a satisfying meal, especially well-suited for folks who like bold seasoning (and aren't salt-phobic).

Other recurring menu items are Puerto Rican pasteles (a masa-based item somewhat similar to a tamale), alcapurrias (beef fritters), and garlicky twice-fried tostones.

Look for Borinquen Soul in front of the Liege Spirits Lounge on Tuesdays evenings; at The Den on Wednesdays; and at Penelope on Thursdays. The truck also works the late-night club crowd at AIR Lounge on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On weekends, the truck's schedule is less rigid, so check Facebook or Twitter for details.