Looking at Oakland’s 78 square miles on a map, its shape roughly resembles a Rorschach inkblot test tilted right at a 45-degree angle. The comparison is germane: Onlookers have a way of projecting what they want to see onto the East Bay’s largest city. Recently, Oakland is characterized as an affordable alternative to San Francisco (though the cost gap continues to narrow rapidly), as a haven for creative types, as a Brooklyn aspirant. That last label in particular is tiresome to my local friends: Just let this temperate portside town and its distinct sweep of neighborhoods — leafy, industrial, flat, hilly, affluent, struggling — own its uniqueness.
Generalities also oversimplify the complications of gentrification that have altered the city’s nature since the new millennium’s arrival. The Bay Area’s astronomical cost of living has accelerated displacement of working-class residents all over Oakland. Bump City is one of the country’s most ethnically diverse metropolises: 27 percent white, 25 percent black, 27 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent Asian, according to U.S. Census statistics, though that represents a stark demographic shift: Oakland’s African-American population has decreased 30 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, exclusionary zoning blocks new construction in neighborhoods that are affluent and mostly white.
Given Oakland’s ongoing metamorphosis, it’s no surprise the restaurant landscape also transforms rapidly — sometimes jarringly. If I’d published this roundup even early last year, the mix of recommendations would look substantially different.
It would have included the Oakland location of Hawker Fare, the stellar restaurant featuring Lao and northern Thai dishes from Commis chef-owner James Syhabout. Hawker Fare closed in February 2017, after the building, which previously housed the Thai restaurant Syhabout’s mother ran for years, was sold to a group of investors. Preeti Mistry’s Juhu Beach Club, which served California-fresh riffs on Indian classics, would have also made the cut; it closed in January. (Mistry’s daytime cafe, Navi Kitchen, which comprises toasts, snacks, and Indian-inspired pizzas, operates just over the Oakland city limits in Emeryville.) Last spring, Korean favorite Fusebox in West Oakland shuttered after citing lease negotiation issues with its landlord. And Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi closed the first Oakland location of their mission-driven fast-food chain, Locol, though the pair run a Locol bakery spinoff in West Oakland. (For the record, the founding location of Locol in Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood is my favorite of the lot.)
Restaurants obviously open and close everywhere in America all the time. But when stalwarts in dense and community-minded Oakland call it a day, their disappearance somehow feels more disruptive to the city’s collective consciousness. Thankfully, Oakland’s restaurant landscape still winningly reflects its unique, beautifully varied communities.
Consider one recent lunch crawl: I started at three-month-old Nyum Bai, where chef-owner Nite Yun chronicles her Cambodian heritage through dishes like banana blossom salad jolted with mint and lime and machoo kroeung (water spinach, eggplant, and spare ribs marinated in an intense herb paste, all adrift in tamarind beef broth); Yun’s parents fled the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule in the 1970s and eventually settled in California’s Central Valley.
Yun’s restaurant sits yards from Reem’s California, Reem Assil’s bakery with its controversial mural and its wonderful takes on Middle Eastern flatbreads like Lebanese man’oushe. Yun and Assil both received mentorship from La Cocina, a Bay Area nonprofit kitchen incubator that focuses on helping female immigrants launch businesses, and a similar mission can be found in their own approaches. Assil told Eater SF last year that Oakland is “the closest to home that I’ve ever felt as a child of immigrants. As someone who’s struggled to feel like I belonged at home, I want to recreate that for myself and for people.”
After meals at Nyum Bai and Reem’s I drifted a mile west to International Boulevard, Fruitvale’s main thoroughfare; a center of the Mexican-American community for decades, it’s where I hopped from taqueria to taqueria, scarfing down some of the finest tacos in the United States (including one, Taqueria El Paisa@.com, whose chopped-to-order presentation of tongue and tripe and cabeza — cow’s head meat — rivaled the best I’ve had in Tijuana).
The afternoon’s gluttony finished in front of the sprawling steam stable at nearby Lena’s Soul Food Cafe; I waded through its line for a feast of fried chicken, collard greens, and other Southern paragons. With more room, I might have started with a breakfast of Eritrean fava bean dip and soldiered on for Vietnamese mi quang and chocolate-walnut pie.
In other words, Oakland stands entirely on its own as a hothouse of American dining culture. Think of the following list, then, as a celebration of the greatness at hand right this moment. It culls together — in no special order — exemplary dishes that typify the breadth and glory of dining in Oakland. A couple of included standouts became favorites when I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle a decade (and a lifetime) ago. Most, reflecting the restaurant boom, are relative newcomers: This is a portrait whose paint is still wet.
Amok at Nyum Bai
This fundamental dish of Cambodian cooking highlights fish, coconut milk, egg, and spices; the whole shebang is wrapped in banana leaves, steamed, and transformed into what is essentially a curried pudding. At her treasure of a restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, chef-owner Nite Yun finishes her amok with coconut cream and lemon zest, both playing up the dish’s lulling creaminess and drawing out the citrusy notes in the seasonings, which include lemongrass and kaffir lime. 3340 East 12th St., Oakland, (510) 500-3338
Lahm-bi-ajeen at Reem’s California
Among the Levantine-style flatbreads that anchor Reem Assil’s bakery menu, lahm-bi-ajeen is a Middle Eastern breakfast staple, delivering the same soul-level satisfaction as an American sausage biscuit. The dough is crisp, rather than billowy as with pita; it flakes like pastry but holds its own enough to support a layer of softly seasoned ground beef brightened with lemon and yogurt. If this is indeed your morning meal, order it with a side of iced cardamom coffee. (Assil also launched her bigger, more ambitious Middle Eastern restaurant Dyafa last month.) 3301 East 12th St., Oakland, (510) 852-9390
Oyster po’ boy sandwich at Brown Sugar Kitchen
Tanya Holland’s breakfast and lunch institution sits amid the low-slung warehouses that pepper West Oakland’s topography; look for the building painted the color of rich gumbo roux (and for the hoards of people waiting for tables). Holland draws on her Southern African-American legacy for blockbusters like chicken and waffles and shrimp and grits. Her mother grew up in Louisiana; Holland does the state proud with a generous po’ boy of oysters encased in cornmeal batter, at once blazed and cooled by creamy, cayenne-laced slaw. 2534 Mandela Pkwy, Oakland, (510) 839-7685
Curried goat at Kingston 11
Smoky jerk chicken may be the obvious signature at this convivial Jamaican restaurant in Uptown Oakland, but the curried goat warrants planning: The kitchen only prepares it Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays for dinner service. Each piece of meat clings tenuously to bone; it tumbles easily into an herb-flecked coconut curry sauce that enriches not only the goat but also the rice (or, even better, rice and peas) and caramelized plantains served alongside. 2270 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 465-2558
Buttermilk fried chicken at Hopscotch
Chef Kyle Itani’s menu at Hopscotch threads Japanese flavors through the California freshness: kakiage with kabocha squash and enoki mushrooms, pork chop with dandelion greens and yuzu gremolata. But his most famous dish, deservedly, is his golden bird with its peaks and valleys of crisp, rippling crust. The secret: a marinade that includes buttermilk, ginger, soy sauce, and Japanese mustard powder, imparting tang and spicy depth. 1915 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland, (510) 788-6217
A dim sum feast at Peony Seafood
San Francisco siphons off plenty of acclaim for its dim sum culture, but Peony in Oakland’s Chinatown stands shoulder to shoulder with SF’s finest. Peony offers customers menus with detailed pictures rather than carts rolling through the dining rooms (when it’s slammed, you can even order ahead electronically from a panel in the foyer). The straight-from-the-kitchen approach mightily benefits the steamed dumplings, which never arrive vaporized to the point of gluiness. Go heavy on the dumplings, but don’t ignore the rice noodle rolls or the roasted meats, either. 388 Ninth St., Oakland, (510) 286-8866
A platter of tacos at Taqueria El Paisa@.com
Fantastic name; even better tacos. Among the many taquerias along International Boulevard in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, this decade-old establishment serves some of the best tacos I’ve had not only in the Bay Area, but in California. The line moves fast; choose cuts of meat like carnitas, chorizo, tripa, lengua, cabeza, and pork al pastor and the cooks chop the meat to order. Make sure they also garnish your platter with strips of nopales and stewed, sweet cipollini onions. 4610 International Blvd., Oakland, CA, (510) 610-6398
Jerk shrimp at Miss Ollie’s
Chef Sarah Kirnon’s jumbo shrimp, part of the prismatic Caribbean repertoire at her standalone location in Swan’s Market — a spectacular food hall in the Old Oakland district — are a full-sensory experience. Squeeze over the juice of a grilled half-lime, peel the critters with your fingers (where the scents of garlic and allspice will linger), and swipe them through sour cream. Grab a fork to polish off the bed of cabbage-almond salad. 901 Washington St., Oakland, (510) 285-6188
Fish head soup at B-Dama
Swan’s Market celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2017, but only in the last six years, after a remodel, has it become a must-visit cornerstone of Oakland dining. Four years ago, Chikara Ono and Kosuke Muranaka scaled down their freestanding izakaya, reconfiguring their business to a stand anchoring the market. Their meticulous, soothing Japanese cooking lost nothing in the move. Specials rotate frequently, but I’m always looking out for the sustaining fish head soup — snapper, the last time I had it — with its mosaic of fleshy textures in homemade dashi broth. 907 Washington St., Oakland, (510) 251-1113
Mole Monday at Cosecha
Cosecha is also in Swan’s Market, and here, Dominica Rice-Cisneros’s everyday menu relies on Mexican culinary comforts: tacos, quesadillas, tortas, and plates like carne adovada with rice and beans. It’s in the daily specials, though, where she displays her creative bandwidth: She kicks off the week with a mole special — often a smooth peanut variation, warmed with red chile, smothering hunks of braised pork shoulder. 907 Washington St., Oakland, (510) 452-5900
Sunday oxtails at Lena’s Soul Food Cafe
As a displaced Southerner, my heart swells at the sight of customers slowly making their way through the line at Lena’s to choose their meal from a steam table display: It’s the classic setup of soul food restaurants and “meat and threes” throughout the American South. Calvin Andrews, who runs the restaurant with his family, named the business in tribute to his Texas-born mother, Lena Mae Andrews. The line can be especially long on Sunday, but that’s the only day when Lena’s serves its rich, cooked-to-submission oxtails; devour them with sides of cabbage, yams, and rice and gravy. 6403 Foothill Blvd., Oakland, (510) 957-5663
Whatever the moment produces at Camino
The nine-foot hearth in the restaurant’s open kitchen, and the fact that chef Russell Moore (who owns the restaurant with his wife, Allison Hopelain) cooked for two decades at Chez Panisse, tells you everything you need to know about dining at Camino. It’s the restaurant with the sincerest expression of terroir in Oakland. Moore’s grilled Dungeness crab is famous, but off the menu on my last visit: I was nonetheless thrilled with the present-moment goodness of grilled artichoke hearts and little gem lettuces, roasted whole rockfish lulling in broth, and pork braised in milk with polenta. 3917 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-5035
Bamboo stew at Vientian Cafe
A moss-colored house on an otherwise residential East Oakland street is home to chef-owner Anna Phannavong’s ground-floor restaurant. (Her mother, Chanhla Phannavong, founded Vientian Cafe.) The menu is primarily Thai, but the truest joys — to which I owe a hat-tip to Bay Area food writer Luke Tsai — can be found on a page that reads “Lao Specialties.” Zero in on the bamboo stew for an instant immersion into Lao flavors: juiced water spinach, fried onions, and a good wallop of padaek (Laos’s ubiquitous fermented fish sauce) rev the bowlful of reedy bamboo shoots. 3801 Allendale Ave., Oakland, (510) 535-2218
Shoyu ramen at Ramen Shop
Even classicists can appreciate the graceful California-fied ramen from Rayneil De Guzman, Jerry Jaksich, and Sam White — all former cooks at Chez Panisse. Shoyu ramen (made with a soy-sauce base) brings umami complexity to the restaurant’s vegetable-forward noodle soups, like a variation spiked with Meyer lemon filled with asparagus, crinkly Savoy spinach, maitake and oyster mushrooms, and mizuna. 5812 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 640-5034,
Tea leaf kale salad at Teni East Kitchen
Chef-owner Tiyo Shibabaw managed two locations of Bay Area Burmese sensation Burma Superstar before opening her own restaurant, which blurs together Southeast Asian flavors with California influences. Her take on a classic Burmese salad includes traditionally fermented tea-leaf paste and a mix of nuts and seeds that a server combines tableside with a squeeze of lime. The West Coast twist is a bed of baby kale. The kale is tender and its taste sharp without adulterating the tea leaves; the amalgamation still impressively honors the integrity of the original dish. 4015 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 597-1860
Beef rib at Smokin’ Woods BBQ Cafe
Barbecue culture came to Oakland by way of the Great Migration of African-Americans throughout the mid-20th century. Several of the city’s barbecue stalwarts closed in the last decade, but Oakland has also seen a recent smoked-meat resurgence. Smokin’ Woods, run by James Woodard and his family, distinguishes itself with its Texas-style beef rib, a mass of sinewy, campfire-scented beef best consumed alongside collards and mac and cheese. 478 25th St., Oakland, (510) 423-8634
The tasting menu at Commis
James Syhabout’s intimate Oakland flagship is the only Oakland restaurant to hold two stars from the Michelin guide. The price of his tasting menu has inched up accordingly in the last few years — it’s currently $159 for eight courses — but in the Bay Area, that remains a bargain for such a finely calibrated evening. Expect pure expressions of technique like Syhabout’s slow-poached egg yolk, which might peek out of smooth soubise like the sun emerging from the morning fog. Last year Syhabout opened CDP (it stands for Chef de Partie, a.k.a. a line cook); it sits next door as a before- or after-dinner cocktail diversion or a destination on its own for beef tartare with lavash and tarragon puree or chicken liver mousseline in choux pastry. 3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-3902
Cocktail and community at Starline Social Club
The three-story, circa-1893 Victorian that houses Starline regularly hosts DJ nights, comedy acts, jazz sets by local musicians, and private events in an upstairs ballroom that can squeeze in 350 people. But the heart of the space is its downstairs bar, typically populated by a racially and socially diverse cross-section of Oakland. Ask for a burger or corn dog (or avocado toast) to assuage hunger, but really all you need is a cocktail — maybe a Vieux Carre, or the rum- and amaro-based Career Suicide — to unwind and ground yourself in Oakland’s rich, remarkable sense of place. 2236 Martin Luther King Way, Oakland, (510) 593-2109