Heavy winds carried the scents of marinated meats and roasted garlic, with a slight hint of propane. Dogs of all sizes trampled on peoples’ feet as they weaved their owners through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. Despite the noise around them, children napped in strollers with sunshades, guarding them from the sudden spurts of heat on an otherwise perfect Saturday.
Oakland is encouraging gluttony this weekend as the city hosts two festivals, flooding the streets with thousands of locals and out-of-towners eagerly waiting to sample the various treats.
The three-day Eat Real Festival at Jack London Square focuses on cooking healthy, affordable meals with sustainable local ingredients, while the 23rd annual Oakland Chinatown Streetfest, a two-day event on Saturday and Sunday, showcases traditional Chinese delicacies with a cultural backdrop of performers and informational booths. Groups of people have been trekking the traffic-ridden six blocks to get from one festival to the other.
“I think the festival is a good thing,” said Jenny Ong, executive director of the Chinatown chamber, as she watched satisfied business owners packing up their booths at the Chinatown StreetFest late Saturday afternoon, only to set up again early Sunday morning. “It’s to promote the economic vitality of Chinatown, to celebrate the local Asian culture.” Ong said nearly 100,000 people have so far attended the event over the weekend.
Susan Coss, director of Eat Real, estimated that by the end of Sunday, the same number of people will have passed through during the three-day festivities just overlooking the waterfront at Jack London Square.
Although this is only its second year, the Eat Real has attracted a substantial following of businesses wanting to showcase their culinary capabilities. Nearly 200 vendors—including street food trucks, restaurants, and information booths—participated at each event. Each one added their own touch to the gluttonous experience.
Anna Ming, co-owner of Gerard’s Paella, spent nearly two and a half hours combining a cornucopia of ingredients for the catering business’ most popular item—chicken and seafood paella, made with chicken, Ecuadorian white shrimp, mussels, rice, saffron and smoked paprika, roasted red bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, green beans, lemons, and garbanzo beans. The dish is made entirely with organic ingredients, unless requested otherwise. Ming, and fellow co-owner Gerard Nebesky, find themselves slaving over the paella pans year-round.
“We travel coast-to-coast making paellas,” said Ming. “We’re all over the place. We cook almost seven days a week.” Aside from a lull in business during the months of January through March, Ming and Nebesky, alongside two other chefs, are sometimes booked for up to four events in a single day. But the cooking isn’t the only daunting task for the four-person crew. Each of the custom-made paella pans they travel with is about as big as a queen-sized bed.
Another vendor specializing in catered events was Global Soul Street Eats, owned by Jessica Phadungsilp and Christina Aviles. Only four months into the business, both have already established a following, with customers leaving the booth shouting praises about their jambalaya. As of midday Saturday, nearly half of the pre-prepared 60-gallon batch of jambalaya was already settling in the stomachs of a few hundred happy festival-goers.
Aviles said she spends an hour and a half constantly stirring the concoction of orzo, tomatoes, all-natural sausage, organic chicken, tomato paste, and the “holy trinity” of garlic, onions, and celery. “It’s slowly stewed with lots of love.”
Adding to the global food experience was Soul Cocina, a San Francisco-based restaurant. Co-owner and chef Roger Feely provided more than just his bhel puri, a rice dish mixed with diced vegetables. He let people witness the special way in which the dish’s sauce of garden mint chutney is prepared, using a bike-powered blender. A young man was happily pedaling the blue one-wheeled bike, watching the blender—that sat atop the wheel, between the handlebars—form the forest green chutney paste.
“We didn’t want to use any kind of electricity,” said Feely, as he worked alongside his wife and co-owner, Desiree. “Everything is 100 percent handmade.” In addition to the homemade chutney, the dish had Indian puffed rice, fried lentils, cilantro, green chilies, boiled potatoes, and yellow, red, and green heirloom tomatoes. As he doled out the remnants of one batch, Feely scurried to the back table in the tent, determined not to keep his customers waiting. After eyeing the measurements of each ingredient, which were all raw—with the exception of the rice, lentils and potatoes—Feely tossed together the colorful vegan creation.
Katie McKinstry, a mechanical engineer from Oakland, was just as impressed with the food as she was the bike-powered blender. “I like the combination of the mint with the crunchy aspect of the puffed rice,” she said. “It tastes like summer.”
In nearby Chinatown, grills ran strong as thick cuts of meat were slapped onto the grill and served on skewers, buns and paper plates. Though the primary language was Cantonese, evident by the chatter of thousands of locals, people didn’t need to know the language to understand what good food was.
At Saigon BBQ, based in San Francisco, owners Helen Nguyen and her husband Khoi Xa served up their signature barbecue sticks, which were finely cut pieces of chicken slathered in their homemade barbecue sauce. They even offered sugar cane juice, made fresh using two-foot long pieces of sugar cane stems and running them under a large steel rolling pin, forcing the sweet liquid out and flattening the stems until they resembled torn corn husks.
Across the way, Happy Dumplings served up its own rendition of the kebob, adding a spicy kick. The husband-and-wife team of James Kerson and Shuhui Jiang sprinkled a medley of spices on their cumin-based lamb kebobs. Also on the menu were the restaurant’s signature item of water fried buns (shui jin bao), available in chive and pork, and cabbage and pork, and vegetarian—with freshly chopped carrots, tofu, pickled vegetables, mushrooms, and ginger. Kerson prides himself in being able to make the pastries on demand.
Attending the festival for another year, 13-year-old Kenny Yu, of Alameda, stopped by Happy Dumplings with his father, in search of something to munch on as he strolled through the rest of the fair.
“It’s quite good,” he managed to say, while nodding and tearing the tender lamb meat off of the two skewers in his hand.
Though the Jack London Square and Chinatown food trucks will be gone by Monday morning, there’s nothing to worry about; they’ll be back on the streets at their usual locations. And anyone craving for a dish from the restaurants that labored under small tents and over portable grills can now enjoy the same food—trading in the picnic benches and paper plates for a booth and tablecloth service.