On Wednesday evening, the doors at 308 41st St. in North Oakland’s Jewel Box neighborhood — so-called because it encompasses a series of streets named after gems — were once open again for business. The owners of the new spot called Café Encina took to Instagram to announce it as their “pre-soft opening” for family and friends, as well as neighbors, many of whom have been curious about what was taking over where Bar 41 (and Café Underwood before it) last operated. For now, Encina will be open Wednesday through Saturday in the evenings, offering a small menu of Basque-style pintxos and drinks. But by grand opening, slated for mid to late September, the café will expand with daytime hours, serving coffee and pastries in the morning and lunch in the afternoon.
The Spanish influence at Encina is undeniable, although co-owner Terry Sok-Wolfson is not billing the café as Spanish, but Spanish-inspired. Sok-Wolfson, who was born and raised in Oakland, was inspired by a vacation in Spain.
“I loved how folks graze on food throughout the day,” Sok-Wolfson said. When the space on 41st Street became available, Sok-Wolfson and business partners — wife Julia Sok-Wolfson and friend Seanathan Chow — decided they wanted to open a neighborhood spot that encouraged a similar style of dining, with small bites that would be prepared in advance and offered in a case at the bar.
Chow is Encina’s chef. He has also traveled to the Iberian Peninsula, but he said he’s found inspiration closer to home, including at José Andrés’ Beverly Hills Spanish cuisine hotspot, The Bazaar. For Encina, Chow will offer a menu of pintxos (what the menu simply describes as “snacks on bread”) that will change with the season, conservas (tinned fish) and small plates, including a vegan and gluten-free gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce). Chow, who was vegan for five years, said he will always have several vegetarian and at least one vegan option on the menu, as he remembers the days when he’d go out to eat and have few options to choose from.
For its soft opening, Café Encina is offering four pintxos — Fra’ Mani chorizo with manchego and membrillo; smoked sprats with heirloom tomato and rubbed garlic; a vegan tuna salad; and red roasted peppers with goat cheese and honey — all served on toasted Acme baguette. Ordered by the pair, two will cost you $7. When Encina expands to lunch service, Chow said he’ll offer bocadillos (Spanish sandwiches) and salads. (The café’s coffee service is still being developed, with roaster and pastry vendor still to be determined.)
Spanish food pairs naturally well with alcohol, so the trio hit up Sarah Atkins, a local bartender with previous experience at Dogwood, The Lodge and Ramen Shop. Atkins had also spent time in Spain, where she got familiar with the drink culture there, including wines from small, family-owned organic vineyards and vermuterias in Barcelona, where she learned to appreciate vermouth as the star — not supporting — alcohol. For Encina, Atkins has created two house vermouth spritzers, one made with a white vermouth, the other a red, which she said are like “an adult Sprite and an adult Coke,” respectively. She hopes they’ll be a primer for drinkers to get more familiar with vermouth. While more herbal and less sweet than cola, the drinks are effervescent, light and refreshing. At happy hour, the vermouth spritzers will be available for $3 each. Atkins also stocked the bar with sherry, ciders, beer and wines. Two Spanish wines Atkins is particularly excited to have are Avinyó Petillant and Bidaia Txakolina; both are sparkling and pair well with salty snacks, she said.
The team behind Encina are a busy lot. The Sok-Wolfsons are managing partners of Japanese fried chicken restaurant, Aburaya and owners of Garden House, a sandwich and salad spot in Downtown Oakland (Terry’s mom worked at Garden House for years before Terry bought the restaurant). In September, the Sok-Wolfsons will reopen Garden House, which has been closed to remodel the space with two kitchens, the second of which will be used for a to-go operation for Aburaya.
Chow, who grew up in Daly City and attended San Francisco Cooking School, is also the co-founder of Oakland Bloom, a food incubator and self-development program working with refugee immigrant chefs. He and Terry Sok-Wolfson are currently in the midst of opening yet another business together in Old Oakland, but they’re keeping that project under wraps, for now.
Atkins, who moved to Oakland from Portland in 2013, also has her own side business. She’s the owner and designer of a bag company called Martine. Atkins said Encina will host pop-ups, meet-ups and other events for makers and designers. She’s also excited about having small-batch distillers at the café for tasting events.
“It’s like we’ll be throwing a party every night,” Atkins said.
Café Encina’s soft open hours are 5-10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday (But next week, the café will only be open Sept. 4-5). A grand opening is slated for mid to late September, when the café will be open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. daily. Happy hours takes place 5-6 p.m.