The East Bay (Still) Has Soul
Soul food restaurants are back in a big way in and around Oakland.
Minnie Bell's Soul Movement’s rosemary fried chicken.
As I wait inside Au Lounge for one of Chef Smelly’s Instagram-famous garlic-noodle platters loaded with Dungeness crab, lobster, blackened prawns, and Angus steak, I can see the new Oakland going up before my eyes. Literally.
The bar’s Uptown location, wedged at the corner of Webster Street and Broadway, affords an unobstructed view up the city’s auto-row corridor, which is rapidly filling with residential complexes rising like supersize Jenga towers—if the toy blocks came with swimming pools and millennial-friendly luxury amenities.
Inside, however, the vibe is surprisingly old-school. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and other 1990s-era hip-hop favorites blast from a DJ station. Yes, there are 20-somethings snapping social media–bound food shots on their smartphones. But, at least on this balmy summer afternoon, the crowd is a diverse mix of white- and blue-collar workers, singles, friends, families, and couples in all colors of the racial rainbow.
The scene offers a ray of hope to those concerned that the tech money–fueled gentrification that has hollowed out African American neighborhoods and restaurants in San Francisco is now happening on this side of the Bay. The effort to achieve a better balance of new and native East Bay residents is perhaps seen most visibly in the food industry. Indeed, even as they dwindle in S.F., black-owned soul food spots have experienced a striking revival in Oakland and surrounding cities. That’s no accident, says Fernay McPherson, who grew up and still lives in San Francisco’s historically black Fillmore district but looked east to Emeryville to launch her Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement (recently named one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants, in no small part due to its remarkable rosemary fried chicken).
“I think San Francisco has a dying community of African Americans now; a lot of people have been pushed out because they’re not able to afford it,” she says. “There’s still a big presence in the East Bay, and I think it’s important for us to support and keep these kinds of businesses sustainable. … It’s good to see that pushback and the community rallying together to hold on to their home. And that’s what it is: holding on to your home.”
In the last year alone, high-profile openings have included the new Uptown outpost of celebrity chef Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen and Raiders football legend Marshawn Lynch’s Rob Ben’s, in addition to Minnie Bell’s and the triumphant return of east Oakland native Edward Wooley, aka Chef Smelly, and his 88,000-plus Instagram followers. (“Now that everyone’s moving in, I don’t want to move out,” he jokes.) Two others are set to arrive by the end of the year: Michele Wilson McQueen aims to launch Gussie’s Southern Table and Bar, a souped-up version of her shuttered San Francisco chicken-and-waffle joint, and acclaimed pitmaster Matt Horn is opening the first brick-and-mortar location of his pop-up Horn Barbecue in Holland’s former west Oakland space. Recent Chopped winner Rashad Armstead, meanwhile, is scouting a new East Bay outpost for his popular-but-short-lived Grammie’s Down-Home Chicken and Seafood, which he debuted earlier this year in Oakland’s Longfellow district.
Holland may have a better perspective than most on the East Bay soul food scene. In February, she relocated her flagship restaurant to an elegant new setting on Broadway, where customers can enjoy barbecue shrimp with organic cheddar grits, black-eyed pea salad, and a craft cocktail while listening to soul and R&B classics on a state-of-the-art Meyer sound system. She made the move after a decade of dishing her California-influenced soul food in a modest, out-of-the-way west Oakland locale. She’s also launched a casual spin-off in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and plans a similar concept at Oakland International Airport next summer.
“In the past couple of years, it seems like more people are realizing that diversity is important, and everyone should have an opportunity,” Holland says of the recent soul food boom.
And East Bay diners—lured by the promise of fried chicken and blackened catfish, mac and cheese and garlic noodles, braised greens and sweet potato pie—have responded. Which makes sense in such a food-obsessed region: There’s a reason this comforting fare—steeped in a rich history of love, family, struggle, and spirit—is called what it’s called.
“Soul food has always been about showing love to your family and your loved ones through food; that’s been passed down from generation to generation,” says Armstead, the great-grandson of Sarah Rawls, a celebrity chef in the ’70s and ’80s who got her start in west Oakland. “Out of every cuisine in the world, I think soul food is the one that can connect everyone. Because once you sit down and taste some real good soul food, it’ll just change your whole day. It will put you to sleep, or it will make you happy. Either way it goes, it’s a good day.”
The Celebrity Chef: Tanya Holland
Brown Sugar Kitchen
Location: Uptown Oakland
Style: California influenced soul food
Main: Barbecue shrimp and grits
Side: Buttermilk biscuits with seasonal jam
Drink: Bees Knees cocktail (gin, lemon, and honey) or the daily lemonade
Tanya Holland on...
Her shrimp and grits:
“Originally, this dish was a savory breakfast option for the shrimping communities in the Carolinas and Louisiana. I’ve tasted so many different versions over the years; some are more tomato-based, but I preferred the brown-sauce recipe. It’s a reduction sauce of Worcestershire, beer, garlic, and green onions. I begin with the typical Creole trinity of peppers, celery, and onions, add garlic, my spice blend, and shrimp. You have to add butter and cream to get a nicely balanced sauce. Sometimes people compliment me on the roux, but it’s not a roux-based sauce. I also finish with fresh baby spinach to give a hint of healthfulness.”
Brown Sugar Kitchen making it in west Oakland:
“I wouldn’t say we were successful right away. It was really in 2010, after we were featured on Check, Please! Bay Area, that people found out about us. People came because the product was good and consistent. I had the pedigree to draw people out to west Oakland to try it, and I delivered.”
Moving to Uptown:
“We were just busting at the seams at the old location. It was a spot where we couldn’t grow. So, I’m not sad at all; I was really, really ready to leave. I’ve wanted to be in Uptown in the past; I wanted to be in a more viable neighborhood that was closer to BART and had more foot traffic. The new space reflects my tastes.
“People have a preconceived idea of what soul food is—that it’s heavy and it should be inexpensive. I think that’s why people are enjoying my new place on Broadway: You can get this comforting food in a tasteful and comfortable environment.”
Food and family:
“I grew up eating everything; I was exposed to a lot of different cuisines. Soul food was integrated into special-occasion meals, and for sure there’s something about the comfort factor and the flavors. Everyone in my family did some cooking, but it was probably my mother who did the most. She … cooked everything: gumbo, fried chicken, corn bread, pickled pigs’ feet, chitlins, okra. She made the gamut, from stuff that you see on menus now to things you don’t ever see. She cooked everything that she learned from her mother.”
The Market Leader: Fernay McPherson
Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement
Location: Public Market Emeryville
Style: Home-style soul food
Main: Rosemary fried chicken with cornbread
Side: Braised greens
Drink: Red Kool-Aid
Fernay McPherson on...
Her rosemary fried chicken:
“The fried chicken was a dish that we did at the food truck, so I gravitated toward that [in Emeryville]. It was important for me to have an intimate, streamlined menu that was powerful and packed with flavor. With the chicken, I wanted something like fast food but better quality and done my way—in a way that reflects my community and the food I grew up eating. So now, instead of going to Popeyes and grabbing a two-piece [chicken meal], you can go to Minnie’s to grab a two-piece.”
Landing at Public Market Emeryville:
“It’s funny, I never thought about Emeryville; you’d never hear that name come out of my mouth. The goal was always to open up in San Francisco in my neighborhood, the Fillmore, but the opportunities have not presented themselves—at least not anything affordable. So when this opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it with both hands.”
Being named to the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2019 Top 100 Restaurants list:
“I remember one of my good friends texted me, ‘Congratulations,’ and I replied, ‘For?’ I had no idea! We’ve been really busy consistently every day since that happened, so it’s been amazing. Now we’ve moved into a bigger space [inside the Public Market], which has allowed us to do more and add a couple of new menu items.”
Her path to cooking:
“The passion was definitely there early on, as a little girl cooking in the kitchen with the women of the family. But I didn’t go to culinary school until after a series of layoffs at AT&T, where I was working. … I quit my other job [as a San Francisco bus driver] in 2014 to focus on this full-time.”
Food and family:
“For me, soul food has always been connected to family gatherings: eating at our grandma’s, or my mom’s, or whoever’s house. I wanted Minnie’s to be like that for people. … Growing up, my grandma would always cook Sunday dinner—if not, then we were all going somewhere after church to get fried chicken. I’ve started to see that here in Emeryville. We’re getting that Sunday church crowd coming in for fried chicken and pound cake, which has been amazing; it’s like seeing a piece of my childhood.”
The Instagram Star: Edward Wooley
Smelly’s Creole and Soul Food Catering
Location: Au Lounge, Uptown Oakland
Style: Creole-soul fusion
Main: Garlic noodles with Dungeness crab and blackened shrimp
Side: Mac and cheese
Drink: Pomegranate lemonade
Edward Wooley on...
His garlic noodles and crab:
“The idea to serve that just came from a void of not being able to get garlic noodles and crab in Oakland anymore; you had to go all the way to San Francisco. In Oakland when I was growing up, we used to have restaurants that served it—places like Art’s Crab Shak—but they all closed down. So, I thought, Why not sell crab in Oakland and give people a good product right here?”
Breaking out for the first time as a pop-up:
“I think it was in 2015: [R&B radio station] KBLX put something on their Facebook page asking, ‘Does anyone know about this Smelly’s Creole food?’ They put up a picture of my crab dinner, and thousands of people commented on it. The next week, I did a pop-up and there were, like, 300 people in line. It was just me and my cousin working at the time, and we only had enough food for 60 or so people and definitely not enough crab. After we sold out, there were 100, 200 people still in line, and they were screaming to send out the chef. It was like one of those medieval scenes of people at a moat storming a castle. … I had to explain to everyone that I wasn’t expecting this big of an outcome.
“From then on, people started to camp out before we’re even open. … I get people from all over now. Someone came from Chicago for their birthday. Sydney, Toronto, Japan—everywhere.”
Food and family:
“When I think about soul food, I think mac and cheese; my mother always made it. … [When] I was around 12 or 13, hanging out at my house after sports practice, my mom—she was a single parent who raised me after my father was killed—was coming home late from work. I was sick of McDonald’s, so I decided to try to make my own fried chicken, mac and cheese, veggies. Ever since then, I’ve been cooking. I saw that look of satisfaction people got from eating my food—they’d take a bite and do a little happy dance—and I thought, Maybe this is something I could do for a living.
“When I was 35, I went to Le Cordon Bleu [culinary school in San Francisco] just to learn the technical aspect of cooking. I was the only black man and the oldest student in the course.”
East Bay support:
“I love the support from black people … but at the end of the day, I’m just trying to create good dishes and keep making good food, whether it’s for kids, old people, animals—whoever’s waiting in line.”
Watch for these future soul food hot spots.
Gussie's Southern Table and Bar
Chef: Michele Wilson McQueen
Location: Uptown Oakland
Style: Elevated soul food
Estimated opening: Late 2019
Background: Oakland-bred McQueen opened the first Northern California location of Los Angeles’s famous Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles with her ex-husband in the 1990s and later launched Gussie’s Chicken and Waffles, a solo project in San Francisco that closed in 2014.
What to expect: A more refined take on the S.F. Gussie’s in an East Coast supper club–style environment. “We’re trying to elevate our menu without getting rid of the true tradition of African American soul food,” McQueen says. “I want to keep the staples while introducing other items to help fuel my creativity.”
Grammie’s Down-Home Chicken and Seafood
Chef: Rashad Armstead
Style: Quick, down-home takeout
Estimated opening: TBD
Background: In homage to his great-grandmother Sarah Rawls, a famous chef who began her career in Oakland, Armstead launched Grammie’s in the Longfellow district earlier this year. A landlord dispute forced its closure in September, but Armstead—who won the Food Network’s Chopped in 2018—is working to secure a new space. He currently runs it as a pop-up while operating Crave BBQ in Richmond.
What to expect: Favorites include cornmeal-battered fried catfish and chicken, collard greens, and Creole fried rice. “I was going to the South and seeing all these little places … that were simple with their menu but just gave really good food,” he says. “I didn’t see that in Oakland. … Something fast, casual, simple: You come in, get your food, and go.”
Chef: Matt Horn
Location: West Oakland
Style: Central Texas–inspired barbecue with a Southern influence
Estimated opening: Late fall 2019
Background: Raised in central California, Horn has made a national name for himself in the barbecue world after three years spent dragging his 500-gallon custom offset smoker to countless pop-ups in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Texas.
What to expect: Horn has said the centerpiece of the menu will remain the slow-cooked brisket, seasoned with a homemade rub and smoked for up to 16 hours. The new permanent location—Horn’s first brick-and-mortar eatery—will allow him to expand his selection of Southern sides and desserts.