I spent one recent Saturday to try shops that I hadn’t previously visited. So this means, two of my favorite taco spots were excluded: taco institution Taqueria Sinaloa and criminally-under-the-radar Tacos El Paisa@.com. And because of how uncomfortably full I became during this outing, I made a business decision to cut out nationally-acclaimed Nyum Bai and Nieves Cinco de Mayo, whose “Mangonada” is one of the most Instagram-friendliest things in the Town (Google it). I had to pace myself from the start of my trek, so I ordered one signature dish from each restaurant.
Obelisco: Albondiga Soup
My first stop was Obelisco for their albondiga soup. I was told that this was the only restaurant in the area serving the traditional Mexican meatball soup. Patrons claim it is reminiscent of their Abuelas’ homemade version.
The soup was served bubbling hot, the bowl accompanied by warm tortillas and yellow rice, cilantro, and onions, which my waitress advised me to add to the soup. The tomato-based broth contained four golf-ball sized albondigas, thickly chopped pieces of carrots, potatoes, zucchini, and corn on the cob. The ablondigas, hand rolled spheres of ground beef, garlic, and other spices, absorbed the broth and were moist and flavorful. Served in a bowl that is about eight inches in radius and four inches deep, Obelisco serves a substantial helping.
It warmed me from the inside, and the meal could’ve easily kept me satiated for a good portion of the day; however, I was on a mission…
Red Bay Coffee: Charcoal Vanilla Latte
Black coffee. That’s how I typically take mine.
At Red Bay, “black coffee” is a double entendre, as the steadily expanding regional coffee franchise is African American-owned and driven to bring more diversity and inclusion into the coffee industry. As stated on their web site, founder Keba Konte and Red Bay seeks to “create unity by hiring and serving people of all backgrounds, striving to be diverse and inclusive of those who have traditionally been left out of the specialty coffee industry, especially people of color, the formerly incarcerated, women and people with disabilities.”
The beauty of Oakland is that this establishment is seemingly supported by EVERYONE – not just African Americans. This was my third time here, and the clientele demographic mix has always been impressively varied. On top of feeling great supporting a business that is so mission-driven and socially-conscious, they legitimately serve excellent coffee.
On this particular day, I ordered the fan favorite Charcoal Vanilla Latte. It is curiously grey in color, which I was told is caused by a charcoal syrup derived from roasted coconut shells and added to a regular latte. The smooth and rich drink tastes as unique as it looks, as the syrup gives it a slight sweetness and a hint of coconut. If my local area had a Red Bay Coffee shop, I’m confident this would be my go-to order. After I drank my hot Charcoal Vanilla Latte, I was told they have an iced version.
Say what? Next time I’m in Oakland.
Reem’s: Kishek & Cheese Flatbread
Next on my list was Reem’s, and I was fairly amped up about it, having read so many positive reviews about the bakery and founder Reem Assil. The renowned chef was a 2018 James Beard Semi-Finalist for Best Chef West and San Francisco Magazine’s 2018 Chef of the Year.
Reem’s specializes in man’oushe, an airy flatbread that is a staple in the Middle East and a quintessential part of Assil’s roots, growing up in a Syrian-Palestinian family. The bakery maximizes the flatbread’s flexibility by serving it in various ways: with toppings (like a pizza), as a wrap, or as an accompaniment to one of their mezze dishes.
At the time I walked into the shop, it felt a bit frenetic, with the dining area packed, energetic, and convivial.m Workers darted around to serve or pick up plates. The almost-out-the-door line to order food moved at an efficiently swift pace. The place is also super colorful, anchored by the large beautiful mural of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh. On top of all the audio and visual stimuli, I smelled the wonderful aroma of freshly baked mana’eesh.
While there were so many enticing items on the menu, especially on a day they offered their “Arab-style” brunch, I stuck to my plan of one dish. I chose the Kishek & Cheese flatbread, which was topped with fermented yogurt, bulgur, red pepper paste, and Akkawi cheese. Washing it down with a frothy, rich Cardamom Latte gave me a perfect sweet/salty contrast. The mana’oushe was light and crunchy, and it reminded me of a Naples-style pizza crust. I made a conscious effort not to fold each slice as I typically do with Naples-style and NY-style pizza. Since I am new to the mana’oushe rules of etiquette, I didn’t want to misstep.
La Guerrera’s Kitchen: Calabasitas Tamale
My last stop in Fruitvale was at La Guerrera’s Kitchen, and I knew exactly what I was getting there: tamales. La Guerrera’s Kitchen is owned by mother/daughter duo Ofelia Barajas and Reyna Maldonado. After immigrating from Guerrero, Mexico to the United States in the late 90s, the duo and their food – specifically tamales and posole – gained a local following by selling to families in the Bay Area.
The established fanbase and continual buzz about the food helped offset the risk of opening up a new business in La Guerrera’s Kitchen. My trusted sources in Oakland have been raving about their tamales being the best in the area, and now it was time for me to taste for myself.
I walked in right when they opened, so I had the whole al fresco dining area to myself. I met Ofelia, who was as pleasant as can be, and she strongly suggested that I try their calabasitas tamale, which contains zucchini and salsa roja. I also picked the pork and salsa roja for comparison. While both were supremely delicious, Ofelia’s suggested calabasitas tamale was in another stratosphere of taste. The blend of zucchini and masa creates a creamy consistency as you cut into it and the levels of sweetness from the zucchini and masa blend perfectly into one another.
On my next trip to the Bay, I’m making it a point to get this particular tamale again and bring friends to experience the outside dining area at its liveliest.