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What we’ve been doing: Dining about Downtown Oakland

July 9, 2010

This weekend, many Oaklanders are trying to organize eat-outs in support of Downtown and Uptown Oakland restaurants to help support our local businesses in the wake of last night’s violence following the Mehserle verdict. So in the spirit of that effort, I’ll share some of my favorite downtown eating experiences from the past five months. (These restaurant reports are so overdue that I’m not even going to write them up on their own; when we make repeat visits to these spots, they’ll get their own posts, since things may well have changed in the past six months.) But in the meantime, here’s a little taste of the spots we tried this spring.

Please go out and eat this weekend!

TRUEBURGER (Uptown)
D. still hasn’t been here, so this is just my take; my parents and I stopped in during a visit in March, not long after Trueburger opened. We had milkshakes, burgers, and fries, in classic form. Overall, our take was that Trueburger is good, though not the best burger-n-fries we’ve ever had (but then, that’s a pretty high bar!) Burgers were tasty, but they’re only cooked one way and the day we visited, this was well-done (though I think it’s typically more like medium, so I’ll try again at some point). Fries and milkshake were both tasty; next time I’ll try some milkshake mix-ins. My parents thought it was a bit pricey; I thought it was just right given the restaurant’s commitment to using sustainable meat, dairy, and produce. I’d probably still rather get a burger at Wood Tavern, where I can have it alongside a Manhattan and pretend I’m having a fancy meal. But Trueburger isn’t trying to be Wood Tavern; it’s more like a high-end version of In-N-Out. As someone who doesn’t eat fast food meat because of issues with its questionable sources, I love that there’s now a spot in my neighborhood where I can finally satisfy the burger-and-shake craving. Yay! They are apparently in the process of getting a beer-and-wine license, too, so we’ll check it out again after that’s in place.

Grade: B+
Price: $-$$

HIBISCUS (Uptown)
Okay, so it’s been so long since we had dinner here (just after they opened!) that I almost shouldn’t include this report at all. But it was tasty, and I hear it’s gotten even better since then, so I’ll put this in for now, and write a real report once we’ve tried them again. We tried Hibiscus the week after a friend who knows her Caribbean food had given it an overwhelming thumbs up (one of the only places in the Bay Area that passed muster for her!) So we gave it a pre-Fox run one Saturday. Tasty spots included the split pea fritters, the seafood and grits [it’s crab now, but I seem to remember it being shrimp when we visited, though that may be my memory playing tricks on me], and the fried chicken, although I remember thinking that in the future we should try not to load up on quite so many fried dishes. The fried plantains, which I ordered on a whim, were good but a little much with all the other food. Ah, well. And while the salad was good as simple green salads go, it seemed inordinately expensive for lightly dressed greens. (I don’t think the version we had is on the menu anymore, though.) The only really odd spot was the phone call we got with five minutes to go before our reservation. It’s the restaurant, wondering if we’re coming. I assure the woman that we’re outside locking up and will be there in a moment. Weird, but I’d made the reservation online, and maybe people flake out on online reservations a lot. So I head inside, where the woman behind the bar is telling someone that she just talked to me and I claimed we were parking, but she’s sure I was just saying that and we’ll be late. Err…?? I pipe up that yes, in fact I’m here. She just looks at me for a minute and then seats us; service was lovely from there on out. But so strange. Still has me wondering!

Grade: A-
Price: $$-$$$

LAKE CHALET (Uptown/Lake Merritt)
Oh, Lake Chalet, how I long to love you! I was so excited when this spot opened: housed in the historic city boathouse and renovated as part of the Measure DD project along the lake, it’s gorgeous, with a drop-dead beautiful view. The drinks are excellent. But for some reason, it’s plagued with inconsistency on the food front. We first tried Lake Chalet a month after it opened, and had a bizarre mix of fabulous and pretty blah dishes, so we hadn’t made it back. But this spring, D.’s mother and sister hosted my bridal shower there, and Lake Chalet did an outstanding job. The food was wonderful—I’m still dreaming about the fish and chips!—and the meal convinced me that they had finally figured things out. In fact, we were collectively so impressed that several of us independently made plans to go for dinners and brunches in the weeks that followed. And sadly, we all had the same experience: decidedly mediocre meals. Overcooked eggs, cold soggy french fries, ingredients that just didn’t meld. It just wasn’t there. It’s odd, because generally special events are taxing enough that an otherwise good restaurant might falter; it’s not usually the other way around! I’m now thoroughly convinced that Lake Chalet can do exceptional food; they just need to figure out where the hangup is, whether it’s in the kitchen or in the menu planning. Notably, the restaurant is huge, with 450 seats; that’s potentially a challenge. (The funny part is that almost everyone said “well, I guess I’d still come back here anyway, since the view is so good and the drinks were great.” C’mon, we can have a higher bar than that!) But fair enough. I’ll jump on the bandwagon: I still recommend this spot for drinks with a view, and hey, try the food and you might luck out. (Honestly, I hesitate to even make a list of the things we liked there, since the preparation can vary from visit to visit. So just explore the menu and see what happens.) Fingers crossed that in the months to come, they work out the kinks, because I think this spot has the makings of greatness. Update, 07/13/10: Lake Chalet’s chef has left, and the Chalet empire, which also includes Park Chalet and Beach Chalet in San Francisco, has hired a new executive chef to oversee all three restaurants beginning this summer. So watch for some changes…

Grade: B [A based only on drinks, views, happy hours, and special events]
Price: $$-$$$

COCINA POBLANA (Jack London Square)
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that, although I’ve eaten at Cocina Poblana in Emeryville a couple of times, I had never set foot in the Oakland restaurant until last year, when bizarrely I went to two group events in quick succession there. Both were excellent, and when D.’s family wanted to plan a welcome dinner for our wedding earlier this year, we got in touch with owner Lito Saldana. He suggested we all come by for a tasting, so we did. Now, we went to several tastings over the course of wedding planning, and usually “tasting” means “sample a few of our strongest dishes.” At Cocina Poblana, it means “sample everything on our menu and see what you like!” Quite literally. We had food for four at the tasting, and then they packed up the leftovers and sent it home with us to make another two lunches and four dinners. Insane! And amazing! The restaurant specializes in food from the Puebla region of Mexico, home to mole sauces and other tastiness. Lito described each of the moles the restaurant offers, including its history, as we tried each in turn. (We each had different favorites, too, so you should really try them all.) The chile relleno was one of the best I’ve had. The pork melted right off the bone. The homemade tortillas? Fabulous. We did host our dinner here in the end, and we’re still hearing about how amazing the food was. I offer this little review with the very big caveat that I have still never eaten a normal meal here, but we plan to do this soon, since Lito and his team can clearly cook! And the margaritas are to die for (I love the cucumber and tamarind, but really, you should taste them all to find your own favorite!)

Grade: A
Price: $$-$$$

MISS PEARL’S JAM HOUSE (Jack London Square)
This is another spot we tried for the first time as we were debating where to host a dinner for friends and family staying at the Waterfront Hotel. I’ve been intending to check out Miss Pearl’s for a while, so it was great to finally make it there. We had a late weekday lunch here, so the restaurant was relatively quiet, with only a few people left. We tried the catfish po’boy, the cubano, the crab cakes (no longer on the menu), and the steak sandwich. All were good; the po’boy was especially tasty, as were the sweet potato fries, which they brought in abundance. The service was pretty strong except when they forgot about us near the very end of our meal (but in fairness, it was well beyond the lunch hour at that point, and they were clearly transitioning to the dinner staff). The dinner menu is a bit different, so we’ll have to go back at some point and see what the vibe is like then, but I’d definitely go back for lunch.

Grade: B+
Price: $$-$$$

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One comment

  1. Thanks for sharing your restaurant experiences. I’ve been meaning to try True Burger for quite some time, so I hope to make it there soon. Cocina Poblana sounds intriguing, so it goes on the list as well (though I’ll probably stick to the regular margarita vs other flavored margaritas, the sno, er purist that I am). We have been to Hibiscus, also pre-Fox, and liked the food as well. That’s where we had our celebrity sighting (JD Samson from Le Tigre), too. And I sincerely hope that the new executive chef of the Chalet empire will improve the food AND service of Lake Chalet. The first and only time we were there, not only did I get ketchup spilled on me, but our salad seriously tasted as if somebody spilled the salt shaker on it. Sigh.



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