On a chilly and overcast Saturday evening, in a parking lot surrounded by chain link down the street from Broadway Auto Row, Hilary Schwartz beamed in satisfaction. She was standing beside a little folding table covered in breadcrumbs, and she’d sold off the last of her jars of coconut custard spread.
“They told us we would sell out, but I didn’t believe them,” she said, laughing. It was her first try at selling the Singaporean treat, a recipe she cooked up with her partner Marcia Ong after visiting Ong’s family in Singapore. By the end of the evening, she was left with just enough custard for free samples, served on thinly-sliced white toast.
Schwartz wasn’t the only one manning an empty table in this parking lot in Oakland’s rapidly-changing Uptown neighborhood. Despite mediocre weather, hundreds of hungry people turned up the East Bay’s first Underground Market, a food event somewhat akin to a farmer’s market except it’s only for members, and – more significantly – it doesn’t require vendors to have permits or to use commercial kitchens.
They ate everything in sight: steaming paella with mussels and shrimp, pulled pork, heirloom tomato salad, quail, braised skirt steak, pork buns, vegan black bean tamales, gourmet mac and cheese, and at least four different styles of cupcakes.
After signing up as a member and paying $2 to enter the lot, one could also taste an abundance of jams – including spicy jalapeño, peach vanilla bourbon, and absinthe Bing cherry – hot pizza and calzones cooked on site, unbaked goods like raw, vegan chili chocolate torte and “living food” raw cupcakes. Actual baked goods were also available: fresh bread, Florentines and other cookies, items that looked like cookies but were called bars, and things that looked like bars but were called cookies.
Iso Rabins, an aspiring chef and wild food proponent, founded the Underground Market in 2009 to promote the food creations of those who found it too difficult or too expensive to get their fare into a farmers’ market. It’s been serving foodies in San Francisco ever since, and on Saturday, it came to Oakland for the first time.
Farmers’ market rules vary depending on the city, but vendors can be required to prepare foods in commercial kitchens and to secure insurance, in case someone gets sick from the food. For the Underground Market, vendors pay 10 percent of their sales to participate and have to pass food auditions.
The market’s officially a “club,” and eaters have to sign up before entering the market, so the city’s food restrictions don’t apply. Anyone can join online, for free, by agreeing that they will, as the Underground Market’s website puts it, “have the option to consume products that may have been produced in a space not inspected by the health department (we need to say that to stay out of jail).”
Some of the vendors on Saturday have sold their wares at places that require licenses, like Fresh Bite Baking’s founders Cindy Tsai Schultz and Terry Betts, whose baked items sell at the Lafayette farmer’s market. Based in Berkeley, the bakers have a $1 million insurance policy and a health permit. But they’re small and still interested in selling Underground.
On Saturday, Betts and Tsai Schultz were serving cookies, pork buns, and a savory vegetarian “pastie,” a baked turnover from Cornish tradition. The women have started a weekly bakery box. “Instead of a CSA it’s a CSB, with two sweet and two savory items,” Betts said.
Last week’s box had baked polenta with fresh corn and mozzarella, pesto focaccia, chocolate banana bread and strawberry “not-pop” tarts. They’re planning to sell their goods out of Ashby Marketplace, a small new grocery near College Avenue.
Other vendors had more dramatic food, like “Pizza Hacker” Jeff Krupman, who was rapidly pulling pizzas from a homemade, portable wood-fired oven.
Really more of a modified Weber grill than a proper wood-fired oven, Krupman’s oven burns wood like a traditional pizza oven, but it’s far lighter, made of concrete that Krupman cast himself, and optimized to bake pizzas in just a few minutes. (See a video here).
Unlike the standard ovens, this one heats up quickly and can be disassembled, cooled off, and plopped into a pickup truck to be taken to catered events, markets, or the park. “I was looking into building an oven in the backyard, something portable,” Krupman said. He started reading about oven design and tinkering with ideas in about January 2009 and launched a working oven last summer. Now Krupman is working on commercializing it.
Jesper Jensen, a baker helping out with the nearby Bread Project table, was watching Krupman as he sweated by the hot oven, which itself was more of a curiosity than the pizza it was cooking. Jensen pulled out a remote thermometer and aimed it at the interior wall of the oven — 720 Farenheit.
Also hot at the market – with the longest line – was Mission Cheese, with a special cheese melting device that toasted individual servings of raw cow’s milk raclette, right off the top of a large cheese round. Heated until it began to bubble and brown, each serving was scraped off the top onto a pile of Yukon potatoes with pickles. By the end of the night, the table had gone through about 30 pounds of cheese, according to Sarah Dvorak, Mission Cheese founder.
To the live tunes of Oakland-based Beat Beat Whisper, Saturday’s market featured plenty of cooks from San Francisco, but more than half were East Bay locals, with a smattering hailing from other cities, like Santa Cruz and even Los Angeles.
Julie Perez drove up from L.A. to serve moist cakes with a heavenly texture, made with aromatics like orange oil and enhanced with a little help from alcohol. “In the middle of these there’s this luscious little sweet spot where it’s been soaking in liquor and butter and sugar,” Perez said about her cakes, which she’s selling under the name Immaculate Confections. “People love the liquor,” she said.
Also popular was a delicate, pink, strawberry-habanero salsa, called Strawberry Xibalba, made with homegrown chilies and served on vegan black bean tamales by Hella Vegan Eats, a young, West Oakland-based trio.
These three cooks, who are also roommates, are currently working on bike delivery in Oakland and regularly serve up their self-proclaimed “cruelty-free” tamales at Art Murmur. Constantly developing new recipes, the three conduct their own version of a favorite competitive cooking show on Bravo.
“We’re really inspired by Top Chef,” said Hella Vegan Eats member James Rauschenberg. He and his two roommates set challenges for each other, budgeting out their own meals, cooking, and inviting friends to come over and judge their three-way competitions.