Traveling, like family togetherness, is the shadowy side of the holiday break. Despite the festive plastic-fir garlands and the vibraphone renditions of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” piped over the loudspeakers, the airport is just about the last place anyone wants to be come December 20. Pleading mothers. Businesspeople growling into cell phones about missed connections. Flight attendants with weary, fixed grins rushing through the crowd as though fording a river. Everyone’s a grinch, especially the Midwesterners sporting Christmas sweaters.
Now that the airlines are all cutting costs by cutting meals, you’re bound to arrive at your destination pallid and shaking, as well as stressed. Airport eateries aren’t exactly known for their culinary prowess. But if you’ve forgotten to pack a bag lunch, you’re stuck with what you can forage.
I braved the Hanukkah rush to survey the food being offered at Oakland Airport. I took an overnight round trip to Burbank, bookending my flights with tours of the stands in both terminals. I was surprised to find that most of the food isn’t as overpriced as I had expected. Unfortunately, the pickings are as slim as a rookie stew. Here are a few places you might find something worth eating:
360 Degrees Gourmet Burritos
Near gate 9
Portability: Burritos, easy; salads and quesadillas, more difficult
360 Degrees has a grill and a six-burner stovetop right behind the counter, so much of the food is made to order. The cooks even griddle the flour tortillas for their burritos instead of steaming them. There are a number of choices: regular “Mexican” burritos, meat and vegetarian “world burritos” (Thai, Cajun, Indian), quesadillas, and taco salads. Service is quick, and you can generally find a seat at the tables by the window.
The roasted chicken breast in my regular chicken burrito was fresh and tender, and the black beans didn’t set off any alarm bells. But there wasn’t much to taste, especially in the rice, and boy, did the burrito need salsa. At one point I spied a piece of tomato and burrowed down after it like a pig snuffling for truffles, but its presence was apparently a fluke.
A Thai vegetarian burrito contained rice, lots of lettuce, and a vegetable medley that I watched the cooks sauté to order. The zucchini and eggplant in the mix still had some crunch left. Unfortunately, the potato had even more. The peanut sauce tossed with the vegetables had no complexity, a little heat, and an odd tartness. The prices, however, matched those you’d pay for gringo burritos anywhere.
Round Table Pizza Express
One location next to gate 6 and another between the terminals
Nutrition: Low to middling
The sliced deep-dish pizza slices basking lazily under the heat lamps look pretty appetizing, and both of the Round Table stands are well-staffed with pizza makers sliding pie after pie into the oven. But I had a Proustian moment with the prefab sausage on my slice, which sent me straight back to the meat nuggets scattered over the foil-wrapped squares we got on pizza day in my elementary-school cafeteria. And the dough for the pizza crust had been proofed for so long that it tasted yeasty and sour.
If pizza is one of those foods you don’t need to think about to eat, then by all means, it’s fine.
Bay Bridge Cafe
Next to gate 9
If you’re stuck in the airport for a stretch, the Bay Bridge Cafe is probably the most pleasant place to spend a couple of hours. Sit with your back to the bustle, and you can focus on the big windows overlooking the planes. Preflight jitters keep the bar connected to the restaurant full from mid-morning to night.
I can’t say much for the sit-down dinners the cafe serves, though: baked ham, roast turkey, and tri-tip steak, all of which come with marinated green beans (sweet, crunchy, gray-green) and from-scratch garlic mashed potatoes (reeking of canned garlic). All three meats can be made into hot sandwiches. The institutional food is a cut below Baker’s Square or Denny’s. But the cafe does sell meals to grab for the plane. For $8.95 you can pick up a clear plastic lunchbox containing a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a cookie, and some chips. I was thrilled to see urns of Peet’s coffee near the register, but couldn’t finish the burnt, weak brew they dispensed. Head across the way for an espresso drink at the Knight’s Cafe.
Arrivals waiting area, terminal one
Portability: At your own risk
If you want real, human food, drag your carry-on out past the security station in terminal one to the Giant Burger stand next to the baggage claim. Stick a double cheeseburger and fries in your backpack and unwrap them on board. Ignore the guy in the next seat who’s glaring at you as you flood the cabin with the smell of greasy fried meat. It’s the holidays, and you’ve got to do whatever it takes to survive.
Juice It Up!
Food court near gate 25
Edibility: Fair to good
Juice It Up’s smoothies and shakes make a decent late breakfast or sweet snack. Just don’t convince yourself of the health benefits — all the drinks contain frozen yogurt and orange sherbet. The Cranberry Breeze I tried mixed up cranberry-raspberry juice, strawberries, raspberries, bananas, and both of the frozen treats. There’s not much you can do to mess up a smoothie, and this one didn’t fail. I didn’t crash from the sugar buzz until I made it onto the plane. The stand’s cling-wrapped pastries aren’t worth the price, unless you’re crazy for Costco muffins.
Your Black Muslim Bakery Stand
Near gate 23
Portability: Pastries, easy. Whole pies, more difficult
For December only, this stand is selling holiday pies and breads in addition to the Oakland bakery’s regular products, natural sodas, and water. If you’re angling for a wrapped pastry to stick in your bag, and can stomach the recent scandals surrounding Yusuf Bey, the bakery’s owner, then this is an option. All the baked goods look like they could have been made in your local food co-op circa 1972. But while they eschew dairy, refined sugar, and salt, the bakers don’t stint on the sweetness. I devoured a moist, messy cinnamon roll and a wedge of highly spiced bean pie on my flight down south.
Near gate 23
Portability: Made to go
The Market Fresh stand sells low-fat prewrapped sandwiches to go — some on wheat bread and some rolled in lavash — along with salads and fresh fruit. The sandwiches seem a little pricey — inching toward the $8 mark — but the pasta salads and Caesar salads can be had for decent prices. I couldn’t see a single grill mark on the baked chicken breast in my “grilled” chicken Caesar, but the crunchy, green romaine looked like it had been freshly chopped. The dressing comes in packets, so you can squeeze it on just before eating.
Food court near gate 25
The place where I saw the most off-duty airport employees, Bay Cafe is a full-service cafeteria with a rack of steam tables, a grill, and prewrapped chips, fruit, and desserts. Like the Bay Bridge Deli, it sells box lunches to go. Most of the food in the steam tables — congealing chicken noodle soup, jaundiced chicken gravy — scared me off. But the burgers and fries coming out of the kitchen looked good. I tentatively ordered a beef fajita plate that surprised me by being tasty. Essentially an open-faced burrito, the fajita was covered with soft, meaty shredded beef, fresh lettuce, and chopped tomatoes.