New spice shop opens up across from Lake Merritt
on January 18, 2012
There is a difference between “chili” and “chile” spice, John Beaver explains.
“If you’re going to make chili, you’ll typically use chili powder,” says the owner of the recently opened Oaktown Spice Shop, located on Grand Avenue across from Lake Merritt. That’s chili “with an ‘i,’” he adds.
To demonstrate, he holds up a jar of chili powder, a mixture made of cumin, Mexican oregano and garlic. It’s bright red and has an earthy smell.
He sets it down and grabs a jar from the shelf next of pure Ancho chile powder, which is made by grinding flat, dark Ancho chile pods. He takes a whiff. “It kind of changes it, doesn’t it?” he says. “It’s kind of sweet and toasty.”
“There are purists who will get their own Ancho, maybe even grind it and make their own chili powder,” he continues. Oaktown Spice Shop carries the whole versions, too—dark and shriveled, they look sort of like giant wrinkled raisins.
Purists, novices and everyone in between now have an option when deciding between “chili” or “chile” powder, or any of the other dozens of spices on hand at Oaktown Spice Shop, which opened the week before Christmas. The walls of the shop are lined with shelves of herbs and spices, whole and ground, mostly in large jars, but also in smaller bags and containers (bag sizes range from 1-8 ounces; jars are available from a half cup to a cup).
In the middle of the room, there’s a table in the middle with jars of salt, and long wood plank shelves and old bookcases mostly filled with spices, like Saigon Cinnamon (which gives off a sweet orange peel smell) or spice blends, like Garam Masala, a mixture used in Indian cooking that’s made from black pepper, cinnamon, bay leaf, Nigella seeds, coriander. On the walls there are old pull-down maps of areas where the spices are from: Africa, India, Asia and Central America.
The place looks a little like an old general store, an impression which is enhanced by the old-timey look of the blue apron Beaver is wearing as he packs sesame seeds into small bags and chats with customers who visit.
Beaver, a tall, easy-going guy with salt-and-pepper hair and a beard, is not only the shop’s owner but is currently also the only full-time employee. (His girlfriend helps out on the weekends). Beaver says he wanted to own a spice shop for years, since first working at one in his hometown of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He remembers feeling inspired the first time he went into a spice shop with his mom when he was 16. “I was already interested in cooking, and I think it spurred an interest in experimenting with the spices and cooking different cuisines,” he says.
Beaver worked for years as an English as a Second Language teacher, and also a cook, but couldn’t find the right job teaching in the East Bay after moving from Wisconsin with his girlfriend more than two years ago. He noticed that when he Googled “Oakland spice shop” the first result to pop up was “The Mistress of Spice,” a 2005 movie about an Indian woman who is sent to work at spice bazaar in San Francisco.
Noticing that Oakland didn’t have any neighborhood spice shops, he decided now was the time to fulfill his dream of owning his own place. While spices are readily available at grocery stores and ethnic food stores in the East Bay, there wasn’t one place with multiple, fresh varieties. “When you have all the spices in one place, and you can see it and smell it, and I think the freshness makes a difference, freshly ground versus the stuff you typically find already ground,” he says.
But people questioned Oakland’s need for a spice-only shop when Beaver would bring up his idea to just focus on spices and herbs. “Some people are really excited about it and other people are like, ‘I don’t know, just spices? Shouldn’t you do oils, or teas or beans?’” Beaver says. “By the time you fill out that list, you’ve got a health food store or something like that, not a spice shop.”
Though the shop has only been open for a few weeks, Beaver says he already can tell the shop is filling a void. Many of his customers so far are people who live in the neighborhood and stop by to check out what’s happening inside the latest store to open on the block.
Often, he says, he notices a similar look in his customers’ eyes that he had back when he was 16 and saw all the spices lined up, and all the possibilities of flavors and smells. “I think it gets people excited and spurs their imagination about cooking,” he says, motioning to a customer behind him looking at spice jars with his wife. “Did you just hear that guy? He was saying how ‘We should start cooking again.’”
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