For the longest time, the weekend brunch crowds gathering on the block of Broadway and 40th amassed outside North Oakland institution Mama’s Royal Cafe. Today, the lines can be found across the street at the corner of a new condo building where people wait eagerly to get into the new Brenda’s.
Last month, chef-owner Brenda Buenviaje’s popular San Francisco restaurant Brenda’s French Soul Food opened its first East Bay location as a fast-casual eatery. The centerpiece of the large space is the airy kitchen — where people in line can watch the kitchen team making beignets — leaving space for just 33 seats in the dining room. But there’s more room outside in a heated patio that seats 45.
A big difference between the new Oakland Brenda’s and Buenviaje’s San Francisco locations (she also owns Brenda’s Meat and Three and Libby Jane) is the counter-service set up. The lines aren’t due to people waiting for a table but people waiting to order at the counter. At peak times, this may be tricky for diners looking for tables after ordering, but Brenda’s has reserved some tables for groups of three or more, and the kitchen pushes out piping hot dishes pretty efficiently, so for now, tables turnover rather quickly.
Although the restaurant is only a month old, the kitchen staff operates at top speed under the direction of chef John Jackson, who has worked at Brenda’s in San Francisco the last two years.
The menu features several of Brenda’s classics, like its Hangtown Fry, French toast, catfish and shrimp and grits, but there’s a larger selection of fried chicken — in combo plates or by the piece — and po’ boys sandwiches. And there are also more options for vegetarians, such as the “vegan que” (smoked tofu BBQ) and blackened tofu hash.
The breakfast menu is served from opening till 3 p.m. and lunch menu begins at 11 a.m. and continues into the dinner hours.
The one thing available all day are Brenda’s popular beignets. Orders of three beignets are available in plain, stuffed with apple, chocolate or a savory crawfish version. When Nosh visited recently, we opted for the beignet flight that serves up all four for $12.
The chocolate beignets, gushing with generous amounts of molten Ghirardelli, are fresh and satisfying for anyone with a sweet tooth. But the crawfish beignet stands out for its unique crispy shell, which has a slight crunch compared to the sweet beignets, and a savory filling of crawfish, scallions and cheddar. There’s also a slight heat of cayenne spice.
Breakfast offers several egg options, from eggs Benedict to omelettes. An andouille sausage and cheddar omelette ($13.75) was a nice portion with an evenly cooked egg exterior, but the filling was a bit on the watery side because of the mushrooms, which made the andouille come off bland.
The eggs Benedict can be topped with pulled pork, fried catfish or fried chicken, and is served with cream biscuits with Creole hollandaise sauce and a choice of cheesy grits or hash. The house-made biscuits are buttery and flakey.
Nosh also tried the shrimp and grits ($16.25), a classic Southern dish that Brenda’s makes its own with a spicy tomato-bacon gravy. The version we had was full of flavor, although the gravy leaned more toward the sweet side, and the cheddar cheese grits was thinner in texture, which will make you want to eat it with a spoon.
The New Orleans-style fried chicken is extra crispy with a lot of coating, and the spices feel a bit more subtle than distinct. Still, you can always dip the chicken in a special house hot pepper jelly that’s reminiscent of a spicy ketchup for another dimension of taste.
Some of the big plates we tried included the chicken and andouille jambalaya ($13.75) with a healthy twist in the side green salad. The jambalaya comes out shaped like a big inverted bowl of rice, which you dive into and discover hearty chunks of chicken and smoky andouille. The rice has balanced texture that’s soft enough to be comforting but firm enough to carry the flavor of the stock.
For beverages, there’s a watermelon sweet tea, providing a new twist to the Southern sweet tea, and milkshakes, including a changing daily flavor. There are also brunch-friendly cocktails like mimosas and Bloody Marys, and a few coffee-inspired drinks. Nosh tried an espresso drink once during lunch (ordering a latte) but the coffee seemed thin with little body, so maybe it’s best to stick with the iced tea and cocktails.
Brenda’s is definitely still figuring out its line management in these early days, but that hasn’t dampened the excitement from East Bay diners coming in to check out the soul food offerings. The kitchen is firing on all engines, producing quality plates efficiently so that even though you might have to wait in line, you don’t have to wait too long to satisfy your hunger after you order.
Brenda’s Oakland is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily (except Tuesday) for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.