On Sundays you leave here with your clothes smelling fusty — a combination of fryer fumes, home fries on the griddle, and the superconcentrated air of hipster brunch. The hipster miasma is metaphorical, of course. But on a recent chilly morning, in the warmth of Cock-A-Doodle Cafe’s high-ceilinged Victorian storefront, I swear you could smell the cool wafting off the young dad whose forearm was sheathed in blue-black ink, the girl-power tomboys in ultra-low-rise jeans, and a sweet-looking guy with dark eyes and the cutest little black earlobe plugs. In the lag between coffee and huevos rancheros, he was opening an arty-farty birthday present, some pimped-out homemade card. Two years after the doors first opened, Sunday brunch at Cock-A-Doodle is a party.
And it’s a party diners are willing to wait in line for. Not just hipsters, but the scowling guy who looks like George Jefferson with a Bluetooth clip-on and sweater with a high neck like a preacher’s collar. They’d all come to worship some of the brightest morning food plated up in Oakland.
Like the ceviche Benedict. It sounds implausible, I know: You’re thinking cold, questionably fresh Sunday seafood under eggs seeping sticky yolks and the molten yellow lava of hollandaise. But Cock-A-Doodle beats down any skepticism in a version with sparkle, literally — the hash of superfresh shrimp, tilapia, and diced-mango ceviche actually glistened beneath the restaurant’s complex cable-halogen lighting setup. The poached eggs were tender, and the sauce that half-masked them was salmon-colored, a blender concoction of roasted red peppers and coconut milk, spiked with vinegar and mellowed with sugar.
The only things that didn’t work were the English muffins. Pasty and spongy, they were a sulky presence in a dish that was otherwise bright and original. Warm johnnycakes — the baking-powder biscuits eaten in parts of the Caribbean — would have worked way better. In fact, cafe owner Blanca Arechiga got the idea for ceviche Benedict while vacationing in Belize, deep in johnnycake territory.
That’s the thing about Cock-A-Doodle: It’s steeped in the personal. Arechiga grew up in the Fruitvale district, in a house where her Jalisco-born parents kept goats and a cow — she says she learned to make cheese. Later, her best friend opened a coffeehouse called Cock-A-Doodle Cafe in San Juan Bautista. After the friend died in a car accident, Arechiga asked the bereaved husband if she could resurrect the name in Old Oakland. He agreed, and even gave her the sign, a wooden oval that depicts a thickly wattled rooster painted in electric colors, “as a way to keep the memory going,” Arechiga explains.
Friends and customers still drop off freaky-looking chicken figurines for Arechiga’s front window display — a de facto shrine. With that spontaneous memorial, a big collection of Afro-flavored canvases by artist James Gayles, the urban-recovery feel of the dining room and its back garden, and the mostly organic produce Arechiga scores at the nearby farmers’ market, Cock-A-Doodle exudes a quirky whiff of Oakland local.
Graham-cracker-crusted French toast offers up its own hit of quirky. Made with Semifreddi’s challah, its oval slabs were airy and cakelike and only slightly elastic. The scurf of fine cracker crumbs on its surfaces revealed the warm burr of cinnamon — a nice version, and a particularly light one. If you’re expecting the kind of gut-busting, carb-hefty breakfast that makes you want to go back to bed, you’ll leave disappointed. There’s also the letdown of pancake syrup in the thumb-latch pour bottle instead of genuine tree sap. But hey, that syrup helps keep the price well under ten bucks.
There was more heft to lemon ricotta pancakes, a customer fave at Venus in downtown Berkeley, where Arechiga was once sous-chef. Cock-A-Doodle’s double-DVD-size flapjacks had an almost custardy moistness, and a heavy scent of lemon. They were so lemony, in fact, that we suspected flavoring extract. But Arechiga insists the batter gets its flavor only from zest, Meyer lemons on that particular day.
The restaurant’s Mexican breakfasts are unambiguously tasty. Chorizo migas is a satisfying mashup of scrambled eggs and fine-textured pork sausage with a chilaquiles-like addition of tortilla chips. Scooped into warm corn tortillas with a spoonful of black beans, it was terrific. Partly it was the chorizo, a sweet-tasting version without the typically smothering breath of vinegar. Partly it was the beans, which had a gently weedy taste from cumin and toasted Mexican oregano.
Huevos rancheros managed to be both unusual and comforting. The dish started with a kind of double-crust black-bean taco: two corn tortillas sandwiching those excellent beans, with a big clump of wilting romaine shreds and the mango-studded pico de gallo that appeared on the ceviche Benedict. Fried eggs and mild-tasting ranchera sauce — a simple tomato sauce with the scant heat of chiles — topped it off. Egg yolks and sauce oozed onto the tortillas and into the beans like rich, molten gilding.
The restaurant had trouble matching its morning-food success on the lunch menu, which is available weekdays after 11 a.m. Chipotle vinaigrette shrimp tacos came closest. Two warm tortillas cradled a loose, tasty aggregate of sautéed shrimp and chunky mango salsa. There was a bowl of the house beans and a fluffy pile of pale-green cilantro rice. Tasty elements, but the plate didn’t come together as a satisfying whole. Grilled steak Cobb salad started out well, with big, crisp pieces of romaine hearts, whole kalamatas, and hunks of hard-cooked egg. But the meats — cold, less-than-crisp bacon squares and fat knobs of firm-textured tri-tip — were fatally clunky.
The patty at the heart of a seafood burger was like some humongous Chinese shrimp cake: a firm disc of finely chopped shrimp and other seafood bound with egg whites. But its shoestring-fries topping was a greasy, homogeneously pasty clump. The accompanying garlic fries (we had a choice of salad or regular fries, too) never reached the threshold of crispy. They were tossed with minced garlic that had turned amber and fierce-tasting from exposure to air — chopped too far in advance.
At a late lunch one rainy day, we shared Cock-A-Doodle’s dining room with only one other customer, a fortysomething woman absorbed in business papers and her laptop. Not a hipster in sight. We missed the weekend bustle just as keenly as we missed the quietly brilliant brunch dishes. There was even a pang of regret for the odors that weren’t there to settle into our sweaters.