Move over, San Francisco. From incredible Ethiopian cuisine to a sensory-seducing public herb garden, to the best natural wine boutique (complete with bar and patio) in the Bay Area, Oakland is a foodie destination in its own right.
If San Francisco is known for Mexican food, Oakland should be known for Ethiopian. Walk along Grand Avenue in the Adams Point District next to Enssaro for platters of sweet spiced yellow split peas, garlicky stewed greens, vinegar–kissed torn, crunchy lettuce salad, fall–off–the–bone chicken doro watt and slow-cooked lamb tibbs with berbere, onions and peppers, all served on platters of injera to share. The giant circle of spongy flatbread is only mildly sour from the traditional fermentation of its main ingredient: teff. While many Ethiopian restaurants in North America use wheat flour or a mix of white flour and barley or teff, a number of Oakland Ethiopian restaurants – including Enssaro – charge a little extra for the slightly nuttier version made with the naturally gluten free Ethiopian and Eritrean whole grain. As with sourdough, the sign of a strong teff mother culture is flatbread marked by air pockets rather than dense, heavy dough.
Using your hands, tear pieces of the extra coils that come alongside the main platter, and scoop mouthfuls of spiced meat and vegetables. Wash each bite down with Ethiopian beer and don’t skip the oily pieces of bread under the stews, where fat, flavour and spices have soaked into the bread. At Enssaro, many of the spices like fenugreek, cardamom and chilli powder are imported directly from the town of the same name in Ethiopia, seasoning your skin for the rest of the day.
Enssaro Ethiopian Restaurant
357 Grand Avenue, OaklandWebsite
For olfactory overload, your next stop should be the Sensory Garden at Lake Merritt. The garden is one of 11 gardening areas in the location including an edible garden, a Japanese garden, a Mediterranean garden and a pollinator garden. Slip past the community garden plots of zucchini, climbing beans and grape vines with its invitations to evening gardening lessons to the Sensory Garden’s elevated beds of lavender, sage and oregano. Benches along the paths are prime real estate for nearby office workers inhaling peacefulness on their lunch breaks.
Next, head to the Piedmont neighbourhood for a study in contrasts. Here you’ll find old, ornate theatres showing modern Hollywood films, kitty-corner with new and hip shops and restaurants. Slip into Neighbor boutique, a modern design store featuring everything from local bean–to–bar chocolates to DIY percussion sound recorders. Grab a jar of San Francisco-made Big Spoon’s Chai spice artisanal peanut butter before heading to Fenton’s Creamery, the more than a century old mom-and-pop malt shop and diner nearby. From the soda fountain, order the creamery’s most famous sundae, a black and tan: a layer of vanilla topped with caramel sauce, chocolate fudge sauce, chopped almonds, toasted almond ice cream, homemade whipped cream and – of course – a cherry on top.
A short walk away – and a must-see destination for oenophiles – is Ordinaire, a natural wine bar and boutique that’s far from ordinary. Sommeliers and winemakers throughout the Sonoma and Napa Valleys praise the shop’s extensive on-tap, by-the-glass and half carafe options, as well as its curated selection of high quality wines and alcohols. On the shelves you’ll find cult favourites and other rare jewels, including the dense, extracted wines of Californian 100% natural winemaker Tony Coturri. Grab a bottle of Forlorn Hope’s Que Saudade Verdelho, which goes for $24 at Ordinaire – two dollars less than on the winemaker’s website where you also have to purchase by the case. A $10 corkage fee lets you open the bottle on the natural wine bar’s streetside patio, where you can also tuck into artisanal charcuterie, cheese and almonds.
You can eat and drink well in Oakland without going downtown, but you’d miss out on Chinatown and the impressive saké boutique Umami Mart. Wind past vendors selling dried shrimp, mushrooms, lotus seeds and red dates to a store dedicated to all things Japanese and fermented. The small shop stocks an impressive selection of soy sauces, gochujang and umeboshi pickled plums, as well as saké and cocktail glassware and accessories. The main draw is the wall of high quality Genshu, rare Yamahai and Kimoto sakes brewed with natural lactic acid, and the unpasteurised nama saké in the fridge. Choose by sweetness level as indicated on stickers, by brewery and by staff suggestions. The shop also sells books about saké, beer and cocktails, including Saké Confidential, which will teach you that sake is meant to be enjoyed with company, but don’t let that stop you from buying any of the well–made and fresh–tasting individual cans of sake for yourself. You could share them, I suppose.
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