Oakland’s food scene has been blowing up the past few years, with an increase in new, delicious restaurants. Diane Rodriguez asked Hey Area, “Where are the good places to eat in East Oakland?”
If you ask about the best places to eat in Oakland, you’ll probably hear about restaurants in Lake Merritt, Jack London Square, or downtown. But East Oakland? Not so much.
In fact, of San Francisco Chronicle’s 100 best Bay Area restaurants of 2018, only one was in the Eastside. So when listener Diane Rodriguez asked, “Where are the good places to eat in East Oakland?” we decided to ask around.
I started my culinary investigation at the Fruitvale Public Market, near the Fruitvale BART Station. The Market is bustling with restaurants, street vendors, and people; the area reflects its local Latinx residents with artwork that caters to the community, and there’s a buzz of development as Oakland continues to expand. Today, some folks are headed to and from the BART station as others are on their lunch break. What better time or place to investigate the best places to eat in East Oakland?
As I ask around, answers vary depending on who I talk to. “What counts as East Oakland?” replies one passerby. “Lucky Three Seven,” responds another. “They got some bomb wings over there. Be smackin’.”
Other favorites include “any taco truck in East Oakland,” Mi Grullense Restaurant & Tequila Bar, and little liquor stores around the Deep East for breakfast chicken and waffles.
Folks around Fruitvale Public Market gave me some interesting leads, but I’m from East Oakland. And if you ask me, I’d tell you about Two Mammas’ Vegan Kitchen, a breakfast and lunch just two blocks from the market.
Two Mammas is welcoming, bright, and rustic, with hard wooden tables and crayon drawings taped to the walls, right next to the children’s play area. Myfavorite dish is the Belgian waffle, but today I’m having the vegan sausage benedict with kale and a side of potato salad. And, of course, a cup of coffee.
When I first came to Two Mammas, I met the original owners, Jules and Jess Piovarcsik-Diliberto, a lesbian couple that opened the restaurant in 2014. The food has stayed consistently good, so I was surprised to learn that the restaurant’s ownership changed a few years ago. Billy Page has worked with Jess and Jules for years, so when the couple decided to sell their business, Billy became the first Papa of Two Mammas.
On a Saturday morning, I visit Billy in the kitchen as he prepares big batches of condiments for hungry customers waiting in the dining room.
“I’m shaking up a can of coconut milk,” explains Billy. “That’s the base of my vegan hollandaise sauce.”
Two Mammas only uses fresh, local ingredients that are mostly organic, and of course, vegan. Billy himself has been vegan for 14 years, initially switching to a plant-based diet for health reasons.
I was vegan myself for 12 years. I remember when it was hard to find a vegan dish, let alone a whole restaurant. So when I ask him who his customers are, he says the customer base is “diverse,” both geographically and racially.
“A lot of people of color are coming in just to try it,” says Billy. “I’ve seen that grow during the past two years.”
A 2016 report found that just 3% of African Americans in the United States are vegan or vegetarian. However, this morning at Two Mammas, I meet plenty of Black customers and other diners of color who are dabbling in a plant-based diet. One of them is 27-year-old Avia, a caretaker, and student who gets her Two Mammas fix at least once a week.
“I’ll take Bart, drive, walk, fly. I’ll do what I need to,” says Avia. “And of course it's Black-owned, and I'm rooting for everybody Black.”
I’m rooting for everybody Black, too — and local. While Two Mammas is newer to the area, some restaurants have a longer history, like La Casita, a delicious hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant that’s been here since 2004. Located on Foothill Blvd next to Cesar Chavez park, this place breathes Oakland.
“I'm looking at a mural of ‘Let's go, Oakland! Viva Pueblo!’ The A's are on the wall,” describes Christina Mitchell, a local foodie who has been documenting her culinary adventures on her blog, East Bay Dish, since 2009.
“At that time, San Francisco was the focus,” says Christina of the Bay Area’s food scene. “Oakland was completely an afterthought, so I wanted to write about our food for us, and by us.”
Christina has written about restaurants all around the East Bay, but La Casita remains one of her favorites. She tells me she first discovered the restaurant back when it was called Taqueria Campos and managed under previous ownership.
“It felt like I was eating at somebody's house,” she says. “The first time I had homemade pozole, I was losing my composure into this bowl. Everyone around me was laughing because I'm exclaiming and murmuring, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
Christina has been coming back as a regular ever since, usually on Sunday mornings before the church crowd forms a line down the sidewalk. Today Christina is ordering her usual steaming order of pozole, which she calls a “big bowl of comfort.” She explains that the menu tastes the same even under fresh ownership, the former owner’s nephew, Nolberto Martinez Jr. According to Christina, La Casita kept its homemade family recipes — including hominy that’s still made from scratch. But Nolberto also breathed new life into the atmosphere for a fresh, modern feel that exudes Oakland pride.
“I’m trying to keep that tradition alive here in Oakland, and I am very proud to do it here in my neighborhood,” Nolberto told Christina in an interview for East Bay Dish.
“It's kind of like the new generation coming into the old traditional recipes,” Christina says of the restaurant’s emphasis on maintaining its homemade, family feel.
I find that transitioning to the new while preserving the past is becoming a theme — not just for food, but the overall population here in East Oakland.
“The businesses are changing very quickly,” says Christina, who lives in East Oakland’s Laurel District. “On that little stretch of MacArthur, there used to be a taqueria, a barbershop. But now there’s an apothecary store and Sequoia Diner.”
Sequoia Diner, the last stop on my tour of the best places to eat in East Oakland, is a quaint breakfast spot with a clean, retro feel. It opened in 2015, replacing Full House Cafe, an old East Oakland treasure.
“It just genuinely had a soul. You could still see little remnants of what was there in the 1930s,” explains Sequoia Vennari, who owns Sequoia Diner with her husband, Andrew. But Sequoia says that replacing a local favorite meant Sequoia Diner didn’t initially have the warmest reception in East Oakland.
“We went through a little bit of hazing because the previous restaurant was so well-loved.”
That’s why, Sequoia says, the business had to go above and beyond to show the community what they were all about.
“We’ve got biscuits, coffee, tea,” Sequoia lists off. “Come and get to know us because we love you. And if you don’t, that’s okay too. We get it.”
Eventually, Sequoia’s rotating menu, homemade jams, and home-cured bacon won the community over. On an early weekend morning, I’m immediately greeted by one of Sequoia Diner’s head waitresses.
“Happy Sunday,” she cheers before launching into the day’s specials, which includes fried chicken and waffles. The menu even includes a revamped hash in tribute to a Full House Cafe bestseller. But today I’m having the halibut benedict on a fresh biscuit baked this morning. “Our biscuit tastes like your grandma’s biscuit,” the waitress tells me.
Sequoia Diner is packed full of regulars like Theo Calvin III, who orders the restaurant special each weekend.
“I’m a local, born and raised right here in East Oakland,” says Theo. “To have something like Sequoia right here in the Laurel District has been a long time coming.”
This morning, Theo enjoys his meal at the counter while catching up with the staff. He tells me that despite being relatively new to the neighborhood, Sequoia Diner still has that local feel.
“It doesn’t feel gentrified like other places do,” says Theo. “I can still come here and be in my own element. So that above and beyond is the most important thing to me.”
Food is very personal. It evokes memories, represents history, and it brings people together. East Oakland’s restaurants are one of the threads that weave the tight-knit community that is East Oakland. Not only do they serve up great food, but a lot of Oakland soul.