Rib-sticking soul food: The original Oakland cuisine?

Oyster po’boy, smoked mashed yams and black eyed pea salad at Brown Sugar Kitchen

New restaurants are popping up like wildflowers in now hip Oakland neighborhoods like Temescal, Rockridge, and Uptown, and the foodie frenzy has descended on the city like a swarm of ravenous bees. But what many of these eaters forget is that Oakland has never lacked for good food, perhaps only Internet glamour. Tacos and barbeque are good bets for a taste of pre-hipster Oakland, but one of the best ways to eat in Oakland is a huge platter of soul food.

Arguably one of the few true American cooking styles, soul food is a multifaceted blend of cuisines borne in the Southeastern US. Most of the dishes one associates with soul food today could be traced directly to the resourcefulness of poverty-stricken slave cooking: pork scraps and fatback were used to flavor greens discarded from plantations and corn from the native soil. Ingredients like okra, sesame seeds, yams, and peanuts were introduced to the Southern American diet from direct imports from Africa, and techniques like alkalizing corn to make hominy grits were borrowed from the Native Americans scattered across the South. Frying in rendered lard was a cheap and easy method for cooking a filling meal, and it provided a convenient technique for preparing celebratory dishes like fried chicken when there was an abundance of food. These techniques weren’t codified into a distinct cuisine, however, until the middle of the 20th century. Then the name “soul food” was coined and this style of cooking spread in popularity across the country to cities like Chicago, New York, and, of course, Oakland. Southern food probably landed in Oakland around World War II — during that time, large numbers of Southerners (both white and African American) moved to the Bay Area in search of jobs in Oakland’s factories and port docks, bringing their style of cooking with them. 

Today, soul food restaurants can be found in every pocket of Oakland. There are enough fried chicken legs and bowls of collard greens to eat a different version every day for at least a month. Some restaurants offer every item in the soul food canon, while others some specialize in particular items, such as fried fish and pies. A survey of the entire landscape would be impossible without an army of eaters; instead, here are four tastes of the soul food city:

North Oakland: Lois the Pie Queen

Fried chicken, grits and eggs at Lois the Pie Queen

Tucked on a corner lot near the North Oakland-Berkeley border sits a diner known for its pies, rib-sticking breakfasts, and cheery neighborhood vibe. Lois the Pie Queen has been open for over 60 years (40 in its current location), making it one of the oldest in the biz (Dorsey’s Locker, down the street, has them beat by about 10 years). They’re only open for breakfast and lunch (apart from Sundays when there’s also early dinner), so it’s best to get there early and eat enough to stay sated for the rest of the day.

Luckily, that’s an easy task. Start with a never-ending cup of coffee before digging into a huge plate of fried chicken or pork chops (for the Reggie Jackson special), grits, eggs, and biscuits. A side order of sausage patties is also a good bet. And if you start to get full from the chicken or pork, save those for later and savor the grits. Lois’s grits are just about perfect: rich, creamy, and they taste like the best buttery grilled corncob straight from the grill. Afterwards, grab a slice of pie (pecan, lemon icebox, or sweet potato are top choices) to eat when you get hungry again around 4pm.

Lois the Pie Queen, 851 60th St., Oakland, 510-658-5616, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

East Oakland: Holiday Fish Market

Smothered chicken, succotash and greens at Holiday Fish Market

Holiday Fish Market has serving fried fish and soul food staples out of its storefront on International Boulevard for 40 years; and from the looks of the menu and interior of the restaurant, not much has changed. Holiday Fish Market is the epitome of soul food at its rib-sticking core. Smothered fried chicken, collards slicked with pork grease, long-simmered green beans, and black eyed peas stay piping hot in steam tables while awaiting the next to-go order. Everything is served in take-out Styrofoam trays easy to take home, but there are plenty of tables inside if you choose to eat there.

Of course, no order would be complete without some form of fried catfish — the restaurant sells bone-in pieces as well as fillets, fried fresh to order. Each piece of fish is perfectly fried, with a crackling crisp cornmeal coating and just-cooked, flaky tender flesh. Add a side of collards and black-eyed peas to round out the meal and you’ll be full for days.

Holiday Fish Market, 8217 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-638-5704, Sunday-Saturday, noon until sold out. 

West Oakland: Brown Sugar Kitchen

Sticky bun with pecans at Brown Sugar Kitchen. Photo: courtesy Brown Sugar Kitchen

One of the newer restaurants on the scene (opened in 2008), Brown Sugar Kitchen is certainly trendier than its predecessors — the booths are shiny, the food is sustainable, and the wait to eat is almost always long. Chef/owner Tanya Holland is a familiar face to anyone who watches too much food TV as she’s done spots on the Food Network’s “Melting Pot,” The Today Show, and VH1. Holland also brings a cosmopolitan aura to her food, incorporating Creole and Caribbean cuisine as well as listing food purveyors alongside menus items. Those searching for an “authentic” Oakland experience may shy away from such a popular place, but then they’d be missing out on the smoked mashed yams.

Sure, Brown Sugar Kitchen makes a mean waffle, succulent pulled pork, and a bang-up oyster po’boy sandwich, but their smoked mashed yams are truly the standout. The bowl of gloriously orange mash that comes to the table is redolent of a campfire, but with none of the acrid taste that comes from an overabundance of char. At the same time, the yams are perfectly creamy and naturally succulent; the maple butter melting slowly on top simply enhances the whole operation.

Brown Sugar Kitchen, 2534 Mandela Parkway, Oakland, 510-839-7685, Tuesday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to  3 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Jack London Square: Home of Chicken and Waffles

Greens, grits, and black eyed peas at Home of Chicken and Waffles

Home of Chicken and Waffles sits in the epicenter of the Jerry Brown-revamped Jack London Square district. The restaurant been there since 2004 (making it another relative newcomer), and has been a favorite for late-night, post-bar noshing for just about as long. Once you have set foot in the large, booth-filled dining room and opened a menu, it’s easy to see why. The menu is jam-packed with elaborate cocktails and as many chicken and waffle combinations imaginable, each with flowery descriptions and family-centric names. It makes for a fun read no matter the time of day.

Given Home of Chicken and Waffles’ popularity with the late-night set, it wouldn’t be surprising to find lackluster food come daylight. In actuality, though, the chicken is expertly fried — moist on the inside, crisp on the outside. And while the waffles are uninspiring on their own, their sweet flavor and light crisp texture make for a perfect foil to the chicken. Add a drizzle of syrup, a pat of butter, and a few drops of hot sauce to a piece of chicken and waffle, and you’ve got a perfect sweet-savory combo. For those uninterested in chicken and waffles, sides like boldy flavored stewed greens, buttery grits, and creamy mac and cheese make for a more than satisfying dinner.

Home of Chicken and Waffles, 444 Embarcadero West, Oakland, 510-836-4446, Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m. to midnight; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 a.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to midnight.

Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. In addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH, Kate writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American.

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  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    I’m hungry now …

  • JB

    Another great spot is Scend’s on San Pablo (I think they are really in Emeryville, but right on the border), One of their specials lasts me for three meals. Truly delicious!