If you want some of the East Bay’s most authentic and tasty Mexican food, the Fruitvale neighborhood is the place to go. But for a burger, or sausages and a craft beer? Not so much. With so many other options, Fruitvale isn’t exactly on people’s minds as a destination for those things. Jay Porter hopes to change that.
Porter, who, with his wife Katie Mayfield, are San Diego transplants, has recently opened The Half Orange, a casual farm-to-table, craft-beer restaurant in the Fruitvale Village transit plaza. (The name refers to an expression for “My better half” in Spanish.)
Porter is a native San Diegan, who attended Cal. Long in the restaurant business – they owned The Linkery in San Diego – the couple moved here to be part of the exploding Oakland dining scene. When they arrived, they weren’t sure which neighborhood to settle in, until they spent time in Fruitvale.
“We were here for a while and realized this is where we wanted to be,” said Porter. “We’ve both spent so much time on both sides of the border. We love Fruitvale because we love Mexican culture.”
They first found a commercial space in the Longfellow neighborhood of Oakland, and began the permitting process to open a restaurant there. That will eventually be a spot called Salsipuedes. The Half Orange opportunity happened in the meantime, and they decided to jump on it. Salsipuedes is still in process, but Porter says all of his mental energy has been taken by opening The Half Orange (while his wife is his partner in this, she has a day job). He says it will happen at some point, but hesitated to say when, cracking, “If you want, I can make something up.”
As for The Half Orange, he said “We thought it would be a great thing to add to the neighborhood as it’s something the neighborhood doesn’t have.”
While all meats are pastured (Marin Sun Farms for beef, Niman Ranch for pork and Mary’s for chicken) and produce comes from organic local farms, they are doing their best to keep prices down to suit the neighborhood. And the fact that it’s located right across street from the Fruitvale BART station, and has a patio, makes it a good stopping point on the way home from work.
In addition to the food, there are eight taps of local craft beers, including some from Ale Industries located in Fruitvale. There are also some bottles of beer going up to $30 for sale.
“If someone wants to come in and geek out on expensive and rare bottles, they can,” said Porter, adding that at their San Diego restaurants, “We were among the first to put a beer list on the table with the wine list.”
The beer is carefully chosen to pair with the food, and vice-versa, Porter said. “If people want to intellectualize their beer, fine, but mostly we want people to just enjoy great food and great beer with friends.”
There are also four food-friendly natural wines on tap, which are less local than the beers.
Porter invited NOSH to sample some of the menu. Given that fried foods are a natural pair for beer, we were willing to put our arteries at risk for NOSH’s loyal readership (and lest you worry about us, we took home lots of leftovers). It should be noted that salads, a portobello mushroom burger, and a curried vegetable wrap were also options, but that’s not what we tried.
We started with the shrimp ceviche, which is not on the menu, but comes as an amuse bouche when the restaurant is not too busy. Along with the cabbage, tomatoes, and avocado there was a little crema and lime juice balancing it out. The chips served alongside were extra crispy. It was a refreshing, light bite – aside from the chips – to start the meal.
Next we tried beer-battered cheese curds ($4.95). Perfectly fried, they came drizzled with two house made sauces, their secret THO sauce (which isn’t so secret, since Porter told me it’s made from charred sesame seeds, miso and house-made mayo) and guajillo jam, giving the curds a sweet and savory finish. While fried cheese, in my book, is pretty difficult to mess up, both sauces were excellent, which elevated a beer bite into something much better.
The KFB stands for Korean-fried Buches ($5.95), which are chicken necks. Buches is the Spanish word for esophagus, Porter explained, and, while chicken-necks on tortillas are a common Tijuana street food, here the necks are in a Korean-style chile glaze. Porter recommends the necks with a side of macaroni salad ($1.95).
The necks were a lovely vehicle for the pungent sauce, fattier than wings, and fun to gnaw on. The macaroni salad, which would have been quite forgettable on its own, had notes of tarragon, and was a creamy, cool foil for the tangy necks. My husband – who’s a bit of a beer geek – noted that the Big Chicken Double IPA by Petaluma’s Hen House Brewing, took the dish to another level, calling it an “exquisite pair.”
Porter also brought us the corn dog tots to try ($7.95). While corn dogs are neither my husband nor my favorite dish, we both loved the house-made curried fig catsup served on the side, with marinated mustard seeds on top. If Porter decides to bottle any of his condiments, this, as well as the THO sauce, should be at the top of the list — though chef Zac Campbell brings in his own red chiles from his garden and makes his own sriracha as well.
Since we were debating trying a shrimp dish, Porter recommended the Shrimp “Fenix,” ($11.95) which are really beer-battered shrimp tacos. (He refrained from using the word taco as to not confuse customers about the previous tenant, a taqueria.) He called them “Ensenada style,” noting that this dish came from not being able to find shrimp tacos prepared as they were used to down south, so they had to make them themselves.
While Porter is committed to sourcing all meats locally, shrimp come from further away, as he is incredibly particular about the shrimp he buys. It’s wild-harvested from two-man non-motorized boats in the Gulf of California in Baja, and it shows; one can tell by appearance, and then by taste, that these are very high quality.
I think we were experiencing a bit of fry fatigue at this point, especially when the tacos arrived, again with a beer batter. Luckily, the dish looked much heavier than it was, and the batter was lighter than it looked.
While the “fenix” is in the appetizer section, the size of the shrimp would definitely qualify this as an entrée, and we loved the spicy salsa fresca that dressed the taco.
For entrées, Porter wanted us to try the burger, declaring: “I want to throw our hat in the ring for being a place for a great burger.” We had the full size which is a half pound of meat ($10.95) – there is also the half size, which is quarter pound ($6.95).
The burger with grass-fed meat from Marin Sun Farms and a Starter Bakery bun comes with house-made pickles and pickled jalapenos and the same THO sauce that was drizzled on the cheese curds. Some Yelpers have had the burger with the house-made kimchi as a topper. My husband thought it was one of the best East Bay burgers he’s had, especially with the recommended KSA kölsch style ale from San Francisco’s Fort Point Beer Co. The THO sauce gave it the perfect balance of sweet, salty and umami.
Given that Porter’s previous San Diego restaurant specialized in house-made sausages, we felt we needed to try the sausage sandwich ($7.95) as well. The sausage was flavored with Korean bulgogi spices, and topped with the THO sauce and house-made kimchi on a Starter Bakery bun. While the sausage and sauerkraut combo is well-known and available in most sausage joints, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a sausage topped with kimchi before, and along with the burger, this dish was our favorite.
Again, there are so many places in the East Bay to get a great sausage and beer, but we say that with the arrival of The Half Orange, Fruitvale is now among them, especially at such a low price. We’re not the only ones who have discovered the place — 7×7 Magazine recently included The Half Orange‘s salchipapas in its list of the Top 50 things to taste in Oakland before you die.
An ice cream made from Uncle Jesse ale finished the meal ($2.95). Made by his neighbor in the plaza, Luis Abundis, owner of the hand-cranked Mexican ice cream shop Nieves Cinco de Mayo, the flavor was dreamt up one night after Abundis tasted Uncle Jesse at an event featuring it at The Half Orange.
“You can really taste the hops,” said Porter. Yes, you can. While I could appreciate an ice cream made with beer – and it certainly wasn’t too sweet – the taste became especially strong on the finish. Next time, I may try one of the Half Orange’s more traditional desserts, which are still being worked out.
Porter occasionally hosts events for local brewers, the next one is coming up Nov. 5.
From 6 to 9 p.m., The Half Orange will have a keg of Ale Industries Fall Down Brown, a smoked pumpkin beer that Porter describes as “an Imperial brown ale that has boatloads of smoked pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg added to the boil kettle. It drinks more like a German Rauch beer than a pumpkin-pie flavored beer. We’re cooking up some smoky pairings in mind for this night as well.”
While the beer will be sold in bottles to select stores, this will be the only chance to try it on draft.
The Half Orange is located at 3340 East 12th Street, Suite 11 at Fruitvale Station in Oakland. The kitchen is open Monday through Saturday noon to 9 p.m. You can also order online from the restaurant’s website with a 10-minute pick-up time.
Salsipuedes owners launch new Oakland project (05.13.14)
For the best East Bay taco trucks head to Fruitvale (10.07.13)
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