Nosh Neighborhood Guide: Oakland’s Merritt, Clinton, San Antonio districts

The patio at Portal, near Lake Merritt in Oakland. Photo: Portal/Facebook

There’s more to East Bay dining than Temescal, Rockridge and the Gourmet Ghetto. NOSH’s neighborhood guides explore the best of the rest. This week, we head to East Oakland’s neighborhoods stretching from Lake Merritt to Fruitvale. 

What do you get when you combine spicy beef noodle soup, boiled crawfish, towering Bloody Marys, fried rice ball salad and some of the finest carnitas in the Bay? East Oakland, that’s what. The neighborhoods starting east of Lake Merritt and moving towards Fruitvale include some of the very best (and some still under-the-radar) restaurants and cafés this city has to over, and they range from fancy coffee shops to no-frills regional Vietnamese restaurants.

Today, we’ll explore the best of the best, eating more than our fair share of noodle soups and digging into a platter (or two) of “garbage bread.” As always, we’ve included a map of all of our picks at the bottom of the page.

Haddon Hill Café and Leaning Tower of Haddon Hill

Haddon Hill Café in Oakland. Photo: stegallmusic

There’s not too much besides houses near Haddon Hill Café, but this semi-isolation is a good thing — the small coffee shop feels like a calm oasis. I, for one, feel infinitely more zen after stepping into the tiled and sunny shop. The espresso is always dialed in and the housemade bread and pastries, well, you can’t beat ’em, at least on this side of the lake. Haddon Hill is also laptop-friendly, so you’ll likely see plenty of work-from-homers at any time of day. The owners also took over the neighboring pizzeria Leaning Tower in 2014 and have been upping the caliber of the pizzas ever since. On the menu these days is an assortment of American classics, like Hawaiian pizza and Niman Ranch meatball sandwiches, plus local beer and wine.
Haddon Hill Café, 504 Wesley Ave. (near Brooklyn), Oakland 
Leaning Tower of Haddon Hill: 498 Wesley Ave. (at Newton), Oakland 


Baggy’s By the Lake

Further down towards 18th Street is one of East Oakland’s best dives, Baggy’s By the Lake. Boasting stiff drinks and a cadre of regulars, it is the kind of bar that is being replaced by fancier cocktail joints in other parts of town. As one Yelper writes: “No one is trying to be fancy here or charge ‘high rent’ for a simple drink. None of the drinks are ruined with ‘only local’ and none of the prices are ruined with ‘we mash our own ingredients’ type of BS. It is just a real bar, with real people and real drinks.” Indeed.
Baggy’s By the Lake, 288 East 18th St. (at 3rd), Oakland

Woody’s Café

If you need a coffee — and a place to do your laundry — before hitting up Baggy’s, stop in to Woody’s, which has been serving the neighborhood for over five decades. Today, Woody’s serves Mr. Espresso coffee, solid panini, a couple of salads and smoothies in a quaint space designed inexplicably with outside-is-on-the-inside decor. Next door, of course, is the laundromat, with plenty of space for your month’s worth of dirty socks.
Woody’s Café, 1841 Park Blvd. (at 19th), Oakland 

Portal

A Bloody Mary from Portal. Photo: Portal/Facebook

If you’ve ever tried to get weekend brunch at Portal, you’re likely familiar with the crushingly narrow outdoor patio “waiting area” that, depending on where you’re standing and how you’ve twisted your body, looks out over the lake. It’s maybe one of the most uncomfortable places to wait out the long line of brunchers ahead of you, but at least you have (or you should have) one of the restaurant’s very strong Bloody Marys in your hand — or else you and your buddies are sharing an endless carafe of mimosas. Either way, you’re now well-suited to stand around until you can snag one of the ace patio tables and dig into a plate of “garbage bread” (yes, you want to eat this), biscuits and gravy, or steak with eggs and chimichurri. You’ll need all that food to soak up your drinks, trust me.
Portal, 1611 2nd Ave. (at Foothill), Oakland 

The Rockin’ Crawfish

It’s really hard not to love a restaurant that serves boiled spicy shellfish by the pound and uses as its YouTube commercial background music a lyric-less knockoff of the Black Eyed Peas “I Gotta Feeling.” It’s even harder not to love a restaurant that encourages you to sit and attack head-on shrimp and crawfish with your hands for hours while you drink ice cold pitchers of beer. The Rockin’ Crawfish is basically just an excuse to get your hands dirty at a food party — and that’s a good thing. The Rockin’ Crawfish, has been around for years, and is now just starting to grow out of its Oakland home; the Vietnamese-Cajun-American seafood restaurant is now expanding across the country and across the ocean. Count me among those happy about the expansion.
The Rockin’ Crawfish, 211 Foothill Blvd. (between 2nd and 3rd), Oakland 

Champa Garden

Champa Garden. Photo: Ben Soto

East Oakland’s Champa Garden is an excellent choice for anyone in the mood for Laotian cuisine, and is home to a salad with perhaps one of the biggest cult followings in Oakland — Nam Khao, or fried rice salad. In it, a fried ball of rice and coconut gets smashed and mixed with chewy, savory preserved pork, crunchy peanuts, green onions and a generous squeeze of lime juice. Alongside come herbs and lettuce leaves for wrap-making, but the salad is just as good eaten with a fork. Order it as part of the sampler platter, and you’ll also get Lao sausages and spring rolls. Afterwards, order any one of the restaurant’s Lao specialities and you won’t be disappointed.
Champa Garden, 2102 8th Ave. (at East 21st), Oakland 


Pho King

Noodle soups are king in this part of Oakland, especially at this long-running Vietnamese restaurant at 7th and International. Pho King specializes in bun bo hue, pho‘s spicy, lemongrass-laden cousin. At Pho King, the bun bo hue is served in the traditional manner, with beef, pork blood, and pork cake floating amongst the vermicelli noodles in a beef-rich and chile oil-slicked broth. If you’re not down with the spice (or blood), the restaurant’s beef combo pho is also solid, and its miniature fried egg rolls draw plenty of fans. Pro-tip: The restaurant is small and parking is a challenge, so come with patience in mind.
Pho King, 638 International Blvd. (at 7th), Oakland

Pho Ga Huong Que

For an entirely different type of pho experience, venture down the block to Pho Ga Huong Que for some of the restaurant’s signature chicken soup. You can order all kinds of pho ga (chicken noodle soup) here, with everything from shredded breast meat to chicken intestines, but the best option is to order the plain ho fun noodle soup with steamed chicken on the side (available in quarter, half or full sizes). An extra side order of ginger sauce is a must, which gets eaten on top and stirred into each and every bite. You’ll never think of chicken soup in the same way again.
Pho Ga Huong Que, 1228 7th St. (between East 12th and International), Oakland

Thanh Ky

If, perhaps, you want to go all in with noodle soups of many persuasions, head to Thanh Ky, a Chinese restaurant serving soups in the Teochew style. Residents of this region of China have historically traveled throughout Southeast Asia, influencing the cuisines of other countries like Vietnam. At Thanh Ky, you’d be wise to order any dish off of the “Noodle, Ho Fun” section, especially the house special ho fun (or hu tieu) with all the fixings.
Thanh Ky, 659 East 12th St. (at 7th), Oakland

Da Nang Quan

Bun hen (baby clams with shrimp sauce over vermicelli) at Da Nang Quan. Photo: Benjamin Seto

More noodles? We say yes please. At Da Nang Quan, the way to order your noodles is smothered in baby clams, aka a dish called bun hen. The perfectly cooked, briny clams get an even greater dose of funk from a shrimp paste sauce, plus fried shallots, herbs and peanuts, making for a deliciously heady combination. Take a few sips of soup in between bites for balance. You also won’t go wrong ordering the bun beosteamed rice cakes topped with a mixture of ground pork and shrimp, or the extra-lemongrassy bun bo hue, or the mi quang, a less-soupy but very turmeric-y noodle dish topped with an assortment of meats, peanuts and herbs.
Da Nang Quan, 615 East 12th St. (at 6th), Oakland 

Philomena

Philomena is the younger sister restaurant to Portal, boasting (slightly) shorter wait times and a fairly elaborate pizza menu with toppings that range from Calabrian chiles to Buffalo sauce. Yes, Buffalo sauce. Philomena may have an excellent craft beer list, but it has the heart of a sports bar. In addition to pizza, you can get down with what are essentially waffle fry nachos, as well as cheesy breadsticks, chicken wings, or a meat and cheese loaded salad. This isn’t a knock on Philomena in any way — I’ll gladly eat my waffle fries smothered in mozzarella, pepponcinis and Italian sausage, thank you very much.
Philomena, 1801 14th Ave. (at East 18th), Oakland 


Mien Tay Restaurant

Mien Tay is a different kind of Vietnamese restaurant. Like Da Nang Quan, focuses on regional specialities, this time from the Mekong Delta in the southern part of the country, a place where sweet and sour and seafood all mix and mingle. Its two best dishes are (surprise!) noodle soups: bun nuoc leo, an ultra-funky lemongrass and fish stew with vermicelli and roast pork, and bun rieu cua, a crab and tomato broth filled with vermicelli, fried tofu and more crab. There are a few other soups and a porridge on the menu, but don’t go looking for a standard bowl of pho. You won’t find it, and Mien Tay is all the better for it.
Mien Tay Restaurant, 1218 15th Ave. (at Solano), Oakland 

Pho Ao Sen

Pho Bo Kho (beef and noodle stew) from Pho Ao Sen in Oakland. Photo: Elsie Hui/Flickr

Of course, no guide to this stretch of East Oakland would be complete without one of the oldest pho proprietors around — Pho Ao Sen. The restaurant opened a couple of decades ago in a modest, scrappy location on International before moving into a larger space in 2011 and then opening a second location in Albany in 2015. Cleary it has its fans. Pho Ao Sen offers a fairly typical pho assortment but, unlike many others, it truly packs in the meat. Beef lovers would be wise to order the Special Combo — it has everything you want in a beef soup and you can order the thin sliced rare beef on the side so it doesn’t overcook. The bun bo hue is also a solid choice, as is the Hai Nam chicken and rice.
Pho Ao Sen, 1139 East 12th (at 11th), Oakland 

Jalisco Restaurant

There aren’t many Mexican restaurants in this neighborhood round-up (for that, you’ll want to head further east), but what we do have makes some excellent stuff. Excellent carnitas, to be specific. Jalisco Restaurant sells hundreds of pounds of the stuff every weekend, according to the East Bay Express, so they’re not exactly a secret. Unlike what you’ll find at most any other restaurant in town, Jalisco uses whole pork legs for its carnitas, adding deeper, porkier flavor than what you’ll get from pork shoulder. The legs get braised in lard and are then, if you like, tossed with other bits of the animal, like skin, rib meat, and tendon. For best results, forget tacos and burritos and order the carnitas as a platter — you’ll get much more pure porky goodness that way.
Jalisco Restaurant, 1721 International Blvd. (between 17th and 18th), Oakland

Banh Mi Ba Le

Combination special at Banh Mi Ba Le. Photo: Kate Williams

For the best lunch value, it’s hard to argue with a banh mi sandwich. Loaded down with pȃté, various cured Vietnamese meats, pickles, chiles and plenty of mayonnaise (always include the mayonnaise), a well-crafted banh mi will satisfy for less than $5. At Nosh, we’re partial to the banh mi at Ba Le in East Oakland — the restaurant was renovated to include indoor seating (bonus!) and even more packaged sweets and candies to tempt us as we wait in line for our #2 ham combo sandwich. The bread is always crisp and the fillings fresh and expertly proportioned for a perfect balance of richness, salt and spice. Pro-tip: There’s a second Banh Mi Ba Le location in El Cerrito, but it is never quite as good.
Banh Mi Ba Le, 1909 International Blvd. (at 19th), Oakland

Tacos Sinaloa

The Sinaloa family of taco trucks, painted bright orange and tagged with graffiti-esque signage, are highly visible wherever they’re parked, and almost always surrounded by groups of eager diners, many of whom have traveled in from outside of East Oakland to eat.Here, you can’t go wrong with the smashed pancake of shredded carnitas; the smoky, spicy chorizo; and the chile-laced, tangy al pastor. Or wander across the lot to Mariscos Sinaloa, the original’s seafood-slinging partner. There, the perfectly cooked and mildly seasoned shrimp are the star. Whatever you do, be sure to order salsa on the side — Sinaloa tends to have a heavy hand with the stuff and there’s no need to have it distract from all of those delicious fillings.
Tacos Sinaloa, 2138 International Blvd. (at 22nd), Oakland 

Runners up: 3 Rings Pizza, Brotzeit Lokal, ButtercuP, Café Da Huong, Cam HuongCasa Vallarta Restaurant, Chai Thai Noodles, Comedor Guatemalteco, Eric’s PizzaBurgers, Grand Golden Bay Bistro, Judy’s Burger, L & S Super Burrito and Seafood, Lakeside Lounge, Lee’s Sandwiches, Mom’s Bun Mi, New King Restaurant, Nikko’s Café, On Luck Food To Go/The Khmer CornerParkway LoungePhilly’s Cheesesteak and More, Pho Anh Dao, Pho Hoa Lao Restaurant, Pho Mekong, Pho Thang Long, Pho Vy, Port Deli, Quinn’s Lighthouse, Rainbow Café, Rooz Café, Sticky Rice Café, Tacos Asi Es Colima, Tacos Mi Rancho, Tijuana Restaurant, Victor’s, Wei Wang House, Wing Wah Pho Ga, Yo 510