(From left: Our hostess and tour guide, Sarah Henry; baker Brian Wood of Starter Bakery with his Kouign Amanns; Hannah Hoffman of Doughnut Dolly; the colorful tiffin at Juhu Beach Club; hanging citrus at Scream, a wonderful sorbet and ice cream shop whose fate is currently uncertain)
I can tell you about the food scene in Portland. I can tell you about the food scene in Mexico City. And I can tell you about the food scene in Israel. You want to know about the food in suburban New York circa 1985? I can tell you about that, too. (I hope you like diners and delis.)
But it was with some measure of embarrassment and shame that I recently realized how little I knew about the Bay Area food scene beyond the comfortable confines of Silicon Valley.
Further north -- either up towards San Francisco or veering east toward Oakland and Berkeley -- tossed me completely and utterly out of my league.
So I jumped at an invitation from my friend and fellow food writer Sarah Henry to join her for a media preview of a new series of walking-and-tasting tours run by Edible Excursions, a culinary tour company that matches food enthusiasts and travelers with knowledgeable guides for three-hour jaunts through particular neighborhoods. (Note: Tours cost $75/per person and include plenty of food to qualify as a full meal, with dessert, and then some. We folks on the media preview tour did not have to pay.)
Happily, now I can add the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland to the list of places where I'd be comfortable making dining recommendations. If you wander out of Temescal, though, you're on your own. Seriously, I know nothing. (Please weigh in below with other Oakland favorites.)
Here's where I went.
Temescal Farmers' Market. We started our tour here, and since I'd arrived early (thanks to the excellent navigational skills of my co-pilot, Danielle), I stocked up on organic almonds, baby gem lettuces, purple kale, and tiny turnips before we met up with the rest of the group. The market's a community hub, and with good reason. Location: 5300 Claremont Ave, Oak. Hours: Sunday, 9a-1p, year-round. More info here.
Cholita Linda. Co-owner Vanessa Chavez of Cholita Linda (one of the vendors at the Temescal Market) offers super-fresh, crisp, and colorful Baja fish tacos, carne asada, and a bevy of sandwiches, which you can wash down with a cool strawberry lemonade or agua fresca. This stall's so popular, Cholita Linda will be opening permanent digs -- called Cholita Linda Bistro -- on Telegraph Avenue in the coming months. More information here.
Starter Bakery. Even if you can't spell the famed Breton pastry Kouign Amann (I'm not sure I can), you should still eat one. Rich and flaky with more butter than you should probably consume in a month, this sugary indulgence -- available at the Starter Bakery stall also at the Temescal Farmers' Market -- is worth every caloric bite. The secret? Baker Brian Wood explains that using salted butter ("they should taste salty," he says), and brushing the baking pan with still more butter and dusting it with sugar gives the classic French pastry its characteristic flavor and irresistible, almost-caramellike chew. For those of you located near me, Wood says the pastries are also sold at Barefoot Coffee in Los Gatos. Website coming soon, but for now you can follow Starter Bakery on Facebook.
Doughnut Dolly. If you prefer your sweets with easier-to-pronounce names, head to Hannah Hoffman's Doughnut Dolly, a slip of a shop specializing in cream- or jam-filled doughnuts. Located on quaint Alley 49, site of a former horse stable, Doughnut Dolly offers tour participants tender doughnut holes filled to order. Props to her for raising more than $12K through Kickstarter for her business. Location: 482B 49th Street, Oakland. Website and video.
Juhu Beach Club. I admit it: I watch Top Chef, and have since the beginning, so the fact that the brand new Juhu Beach Club's owner Preeti Mistry competed on the show a few seasons back gave me a small thrill. More thrilling, though, were the pouffy mashed potato sliders with chutney and pickled onions, and the Darjeeling Ltd, an unusual blend of cilantro- and cumin-infused lemonade and iced tea. Mistry's colorful Indian street food is bound to be a big hit not just with urbane singles, but with families as well. She serves kids' meals in brightly-hued tiffins, the individual compartments filled with butter chicken, basmati rice, and fresh salad. Location: 5179 Telegraph Avenue. Website for further information.
The Cro Cafe. Watching Luigi Oldani pour cream into a glass of cold-brewed, drip coffee brought to mind Ed, a college junior who dated my freshman-year roommate. (In the dining center, Ed would meditate on the swirls of cream as they dispersed, zenlike, into his cup, his coffee changing from deep brown to milky blond. In retrospect, he may have been smoking something.) The Cro Cafe's flavorful java -- from Sightglass Coffee Roasters in San Francisco -- put me in a happy, caffeinated haze, and I'm not even a coffee drinker. I also like that Oldani named the shop after his daughter, Camille Rosemary. Location: Temescal Alley. Website for further information.
Sacred Wheel Cheese. This family-owned cheese shop had me at hello when it served a miniature grilled cheese sandwich (gruyere, Jack, and fontina, though the combinations change) with a tomato soup chaser. (The soup's surprise element? A Pabst Blue Ribbon reduction.) This two-year-old fromagerie and specialty foods store also offers sandwiches, and if I'd been at all hungry at that point, I may have been tempted by something larger. 4935 Shattuck Ave. Website for further information.
Sura Korean. Anyone who has trouble making decisions will find much to love in the Korean tradition of banchan, a colorful assortment of cold and often pickled dishes offered in many Korean restaurants. At Sura's, we sampled tiny bites of eggplant, fish cake, potato, black bean, yam, kimchi, daikon, bean sprouts, and at least 5 other piquant preparations before our main course of tofu stew arrived. Here, banchan comes gratis with every dinner entree. Location: 4869 Telegraph Ave. Website for further information.
Abesha Ethiopian Cuisine. This three-year old restaurant is a newcomer to Edible Excursions' Temescal tour line-up, and while it joined in after my preview, I'm thrilled to share news of it here with you anyway. Why? Because Oakland is home to a large population of Eritreans and Ethiopians, and anyone who knows anything about me knows that I hold this region, its people, and its foodways extremely close to my heart. Sarah Henry (our guide) reports that owner Amesiyas Amha Wube offers tour-goers tastes of injera along with 5 to 7 different kinds of wots, or stews, "featuring lentils, chickpeas, tomatoes, cabbage, and collard greens." Abesha is an "important stop... because it represents a key and unique culture in the area and many of our guests may not be familiar with the cuisine," she adds. Prepare to eat with your hands, friends. Location: 4929 Shattuck Ave. Website for further information.
Can you go to all these places on your own? Sure, go ahead. They're all local businesses that deserve your patronage. But also please consider Edible Excursions. Going the tour route allows you to taste your way through the area and puts you in the hands of knowledgeable field guides. It's the prix fixe versus the a la carte option, the tasting menu versus the app and entrée. You'll spend a wad upfront, but for 3 hours in the pleasant California sunshine, it's actually a great value and a whole lot of tasty food. Plus, you get to commune directly with the owners/food artisans filling your bellies. That, as they say, is priceless.
(Temescal Tastes tours start this Sunday, March 10, and run every Sunday thereafter. More information on this particular tour, and other Edible Excursions Bay Area tours, available here.)