Vegan Soul Food Comes to Oakland

Plus, a new, friendlier, food pod model.


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There's something about finding interesting eats at an unlikely location that really gets a food writer's blood pumping. Authentic ghormeh sabzi at an Oakland hills delicatessen? Hell to the yes. The doughnut shop that sold Cambodian meat skewers? We hardly knew ye.

So when I spotted a sign for "Organic Soul Live," a pop-up restaurant in Oakland Chinatown — inside a Tutti Frutti frozen-yogurt shop of all places — with vegan soul food cooked by a guy claiming to be Isaac Hayes' former personal chef, I knew I needed to check it out.

But what kind of expectations can you pin on a soul food joint, vegan or not, sharing digs with a nondescript fro-yo shop, providing counter seats for maybe two people, and offering the briefest of menus taped to the window next to a printout of the chef's (likely self-penned) Wikipedia entry?

I don't know about all that. What I do know is that the food at Organic Soul Live was good enough to have me rushing back to my laptop to tell you to go check it out.

Make no mistake: This pop-up operation is all about the outsize personality of the chef, an East Coast transplant named Elijah Joy whom you'll often find sitting out front, hustling for business, calling out "ni hao ma" to the Chinese grandmas strolling past. The first time I walked by, Joy reassured me, "We'll be here, lunch and dinner, every day until Jesus comes."

Jesus didn't come over the weekend, so the following Monday I got to try an order of Joy's "four-cheese" mac and cheese — a vegan version of his mother's recipe. I kept my expectations in check when the chef scooped me a small plastic tub-full of brownish, slightly curdled-looking pasta, served at room temperature. But lo and behold, Joy's garlic oil-infused mac was unctuous and super-savory; it even had a bit of crisp-edged goodness — the best part of any mac and cheese worth its salt.

Vegan readers, feel free to call me out on this cliché, but if Joy had told me the dish was made from real cheese — not a mix of soy- and rice-based "cheeses," plus a cream sauce he makes from nutritional yeast — I wouldn't have known. He had me fooled.

Even more impressive was the shiitake bacon that was sprinkled on top, made by roasting shiitake mushrooms in olive oil and Bragg's Liquid Aminos. A quick Google search tells me Joy isn't the first vegan chef to use some variation of this technique, but to me this "bacon" was well-nigh miraculous: smoky without tasting burnt, with a crispiness and toothsomeness that made for a spot-on approximation of fried thick-cut bacon.

Joy told me the collaboration with the frozen yogurt shop was a happy coincidence: He'd simply answered a Craiglist ad put out by the Tutti Frutti owner, who was looking for a chef to creatively share the space. Organic Soul Live has been up and running for about a month now, and is open from noon to 9 p.m. every day — until Jesus comes, at least.

Friendlier Pod Model?

The latest food pod to launch in Oakland takes off on Thursday: A three-truck pod organized by Kate McEachern, proprietor of Cupkates, will open at the intersection of 12th Street and Broadway from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Together with the recently launched Clay Pod, it hails a new model for East Bay food trucks — one that's not controlled by professional event organizers and that, at least in theory, may prove more profitable for participants.

Food pods put together by professional organizers like Off the Grid's Matt Cohen offer a slew of benefits. The organizer deals with all the municipal red tape and supplies marketing and other crowd generators, like live music.

In exchange, participating trucks fork over a chunk of their profits — typically $50 to $80 per event, plus 5 to 10 percent of total sales, according to Gail Lillian, owner of LIBA Falafel Truck.

So when Oakland approved a pilot program allowing legally sanctioned food pods in the city for the first time, Lillian called a meeting with the owners of several long-established East Bay trucks. Together, they came up with a plan that would, in a sense, eliminate the middleman: They would apply for several pods and populate them with each other's trucks — and do so using a discounted fee structure, charging only enough to cover each pod applicant's expenses.

"We decided that one of the great things about not being in the organizer business is we don't have to profit off of each other," Lillian explained. But both Lillian and McEachern stressed that they don't mean to set themselves up in opposition to Off the Grid — they like that business model, too, and will continue participating in organizer-sponsored events.

All told, five different pods will be sponsored by members of this loose association of trucks. On May 24, Traci Prendergast — co-owner of Vesta Flatbread — will launch a pod that will hold court in front of Splash Pad Park on Grand Avenue on Thursday nights. Additional pods will be sponsored by Ebbett's Good to Go, beginning with lunch service at Snow Park on Wednesday, May 23, and Doc's on the Bay, for which a launch date has yet to be set.