Food & Drink » What the Fork

Rico's Reborn

Plus a new West Oakland farmers' market.

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Here's one for all you night owls: Just as we were mourning the death of Rico's Diner (400 15th St.), What the Fork got word that the recently shuttered burger-and-milkshake shack will be reborn this week as Rico's Hi Life, a pizza-and-beer joint. Better yet, Damon Gallagher, one of the restaurant's new owners, said his hope is that the reborn Rico's will fill one of downtown Oakland's biggest voids: the lack of late-night food options.

Rico's Hi Life will have its grand opening at 11 a.m. on Friday, August 2 — First Friday — and will serve pizza, gourmet sandwiches, and casual diner fare until 2 a.m. And while the restaurant is still tweaking its official business hours, the plan is to stay open until 2 a.m. at least every Thursday through Saturday — though Gallagher hopes they'll be able to maintain the late-night hours all week long. From 2 to 2:30 a.m., after the kitchen closes, the restaurant will dish out whatever slices are left through a takeout window.

As the frontman for the punk/soul band Damon & the Heathens and the proprietor of Vitus (the now-closed rock-venue-gastropub hybrid), Gallagher is, of course, no stranger to downtown Oakland's late-night scene. For club- and concert-goers who have long bemoaned the lack of food options, he said the arrival of something like Hi Life has been a long time coming.

According to Gallagher, the restaurant will be a quick and casual neighborhood pizza joint, not a fancy sit-down dining establishment. Chef Claudia Cabrera — who previously cooked at Pi Bar, in San Francisco's Mission district — is creating a menu that will appeal to diners with both highbrow and lowbrow tastes. On the one hand, there will be a "Game Pizza," topped with wild boar bacon and venison meatballs. But Gallagher said he also wants Hi Life to be the kind of place where you can grab a simple, reasonably inexpensive slice of thin-crust cheese pizza — at 2 a.m., if that's how you roll.

That said, Gallagher stressed that they wouldn't be cutting any corners with the food — the tomato sauce will be homemade; the pizza dough will be made with organic flour. Cabrera is also creating a selection of gourmet sandwiches, and the vast majority of the ingredients will be prepared in-house.

Gallagher noted that he was one of the first customers at the old Rico's, circa 2006 — back when it was a Thai restaurant called Thai Corner, run by the same family that eventually turned it into a diner. In part because of his fondness for the place, Gallagher has kept the "Rico's" moniker, and he said he doesn't plan to make any drastic changes to the retro-diner vibe.

"It's basically Rico's revamped," he said. "We just souped it up."

In addition to the food, the restaurant will feature a longer wine list than is typical for a pizza joint, and a rotating selection of local beers on draft — six to eight different brews to start. Eventually, they'll create an outdoor drinking area out on the sidewalk (similar to the setup at Tribune Tavern). A collection of pinball machines and old-school arcade games (think Pac-Man and Frogger) round out the relaxed, retro feel of the place.

Meanwhile, Gallagher said he wanted to put to rest the persistent rumors that Vitus will eventually reopen in a new brick-and-mortar location. Apparently, that ship has sailed. Although Gallagher hopes to open a new music venue — not Vitus, per se — before the year is out, he said he's focusing all of his energy on the Hi Life project: "This is going to be my baby for now."

Freedom Farmers Market

Much has been written about West Oakland's status as a so-called "food desert," and the good, community-minded folks who are working to bring healthy, fresh food options to a neighborhood where they aren't plentiful presently. The latest such project is the Freedom Farmers Market, a weekly Saturday farmers' market slated to debut in West Oakland, in the parking lot of the Brothers Kitchen soul food restaurant at 3000 San Pablo Ave., on August 31.

The market is the brainchild of Kenneth Shandy (owner of Brothers Kitchen), Michele Lee (of the Crossroads Collective Cafe), and Gail Myers, who co-founded Farms to Grow, an organization that provides resources and distribution channels for African-American farmers — farms based in the Fresno, Sacramento, and Capay valleys that use sustainable agricultural practices.

These farmers will comprise the majority of the seven to ten vendors who will sell at the market to start, Myers explained. Other goals include stimulating the local economy and educating the local community about nutrition and cooking.

"We want to make this area a beacon of hope for the community," Myers said, adding, "This is about self determination and self empowerment. It's not a charity market."

A smaller-scale Wednesday afternoon farmstand has been open in the Brothers Kitchen parking lot since last month. In the meantime, the Freedom Farmers Market organizers have launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $7,000 to help get the Saturday market off the ground. The money will pay for — among other things — banners for each farmer, tents, tables, and a small on-site storage facility, Myers said.

This Wednesday, July 31, the market's organizers are hosting a fundraising party to kick off the crowdfunding campaign. The farm stand will be open, as usual, from 2 to 6 p.m., but starting at around 3 o'clock there will be tacos served by Hot Bike (a San Francisco-based mobile taco kitchen), a solar oven cooking demo, a raffle, and live music. Proceeds will benefit the Freedom Farmers Market.

For more information about the project — or to make a contribution — visit the Indiegogo campaign page at Indiegogo.com/projects/freedom-farmers-market.

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