Old Oakland’s New Taste of Mexico

Plus, changes ahead for Sea Salt, and sweet discoveries in Richmond.

When the lunchtime sandwich crowd recedes from Ratto’s, Old Oakland can feel semi-deserted, especially on days when the summer fog makes the corner of Washington and 9th feel as dreary as the Outer Richmond. But things are suddenly looking brighter at Swan’s Market, the historic food hall beset by closures and a noticeable lack of foot traffic. Cosecha Cafe, a sprawling food stall launched by chef-owner Dominica Salomon Rice, is the first restaurant tenant in a major overhaul of Swan’s that began last month with the opening of the Rio de Parras produce stall.

At Cosecha (Spanish for “harvest”), Salomon Rice serves up a farm-driven taste of Mexico from a glass-fronted counter running nearly the entire length of the market’s central hallway. The back wall of the former J & S Deli counter now has a broad swath of shiny white subway tiles, next to a patch of wall painted the pale turquoise of the waters off the Yucatan coast. A trio of Nelson bubble lamps gives the space a whiff of mid-century-modern cool, and there are rustic communal tables and stools for perching on.

On a recent afternoon, Salomon Rice was turning out a couple of fantastic tacos ($3.50 each). In one, the house-made tortilla (corn masa sourced from La Palma Mexicatessen) cradled moist hunks of chicken smeared with a Yucatan-style recado glowing with achiote. The other revealed thick shreds of Becker Lane pork cooked carnitas-style, moistened with its chile-fortified braising juices. Chile- and cotija cheese-sprinkled grilled corn ($4) took a street snack and gave it the Northern Cali treatment, thanks to sweet, tender, pale-yellow kernels.

The chef — who’s cooked at Chez Panisse and in Mexico City — has come up with a formula that Chicago’s Rick Bayless is best known for (and that San Francisco chef Traci Des Jardins is aiming for at Mijita), but Salomon Rice has an unmistakably Northern Cali touch. Other recent offerings included a bright-tasting Capay Farm tomato and cucumber salad, pozole, a pair of tortas ahogadas (smothered sandwiches), quesadilla, and corn tamale. Cosecha Cafe’s address is 907 Washington St., Oakland, and hours are Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Sea Salt Lands New Talent

After longtime chef Anthony Paone stepped away from Berkeley seafood restaurant Sea Salt in January, Scott Gehring took over the kitchen. Now it’s Gehring’s turn to step away, Sea Salt’s Haig Krikorian told What the Fork, after the restaurant hired a new chef. Er, make that two chefs.

Thomas Weibull, who recently headed the kitchen at Plouf in San Francisco, is now in charge of Sea Salt’s dinner service, while Chris Keely, a veteran of Rose’s Café on Union Street, has taken over the daytime kitchen (lunch, weekend brunch). Both are new hires for Krikorian’s K2 Restaurant Group, which includes Paisan, Lalime’s, T-Rex, Fonda, Jimmy Beans, and both Césars.

As for the food at Sea Salt, Krikorian told What the Fork to expect “a significant change in style” in coming weeks. “We’re leaving it to them to play around with it,” Krikorian said. Gehring will continue to do a limited number of special projects for K2.

Back to 23rd Street

My review this week of That Luang Kitchen in San Pablo gave me the opportunity to revisit Richmond’s 23rd Street, a scrappy commercial zone that feels as vital as parts of International Boulevard in East Oakland, a potential gold mine of food finds. Last week I found three:

1. Super Churros cart: Sets up in the parking strip in front of the Rancho Market and Coin Laundry, corner of 23rd St. and Wendell Ave. For a buck you get a bag of churros, freshly fried, glistening with cinnamon sugar, and utterly delicious. The Oaxacan guy who works the cart is more serious than you’d think for somebody who deals in sweets, but ask about his favorite Mexican soccer team (C.F. Pachuca) and chances are he’ll crack a smile.

2. Raspados at Taqueria Cha-Ro-Las taco truck: Parks in the carwash lot at the corner of 23rd St. and McBryde Ave. I haven’t tried the tacos here, but — lured by a pair of hand-written signs advertising raspados (shaved ice) with fresh fruit toppings ($2) — I stopped. The lady who works here makes her own topping syrups, pineapple, coconut, strawberry, or the one I tried, tamarind. She fills a cup with crushed ice and ladles over amber-colored syrup, then tops it off with an additional snowball-size scoop of ice and another thread of tamarind. It’s delicious, with the bonus of fuzzy-pulped seeds that sink to the bottom — you can fish them out and suck the tart-sweet residue of tamarind flavor. Sit in one of the busted wooden cap’n’s chairs out front of the truck, or retreat to your car, using the hood as an impromptu table.

3. Fresh garbanzo seller: Van parks occasionally on 23rd St. near Garvin Ave. The vendor wears a Clint Eastwood-style, flat-top black leather cowboy hat, fronts a couple of gold teeth caps, and has a Seventies-era tricked-out van, the back doors thrown open to reveal huge bundles of freshly harvested green chickpeas. “Se vende garbanzas frescas,” a handwritten sign proclaims — the guy says they’re from Fresno, $13 for a huge bundle the size of a ripped-out mature tomato plant. Like favas, fresh chickpeas are delicious in soups, and though I’ve never used the leaves, the vendor swears you can eat them. Bonus buy: a couple of pink dolls in slightly dog-eared pink boxes, displayed on racks in the van’s rear doors.


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