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The United Nations of 14th Street: It may not be a ‘Boulevard,’ but the 14th Street strip has some serious international flavor

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MUNCHIES Maya Halal Taqueria is abuzz at night as Uptown comes to life post-pandemic. (Photo by Eric K. Arnold)

On a recent Friday night, downtown Oakland was pretty quiet, with little evidence of the nighttime buzz of pre-pandemic times. The once-bustling bar and restaurant scene has slowed over the past 18 months. To a casual observer, it might seem like Oakland nightlife has regressed to the pre-2010 days, when most of downtown resembled a ghost town.

One notable exception was the Maya Halal Taqueria at the corner of 14th and Franklin, where a constant stream of people waited in line for a special menu of birria tacos, avocado-and-lettuce-topped chicken flautas, potato fajitas and steak fries. The restaurant first gained a loyal following during the pandemic’s darkest days by being one of the few establishments open for take-out. That perseverance seems to be paying off, as people get back into the swing of dining out—or at least picking up take-out food in lieu of home cooking.

In a city that takes its Mexican food quite seriously, Maya Halal Taqueria rates as well above average. It covers all the basics like burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and tacos, but also offers special menus at limited times, as well as breakfast offerings all day. It’s also indicative of a subtle but interesting trend, of ethnic restaurants on and along the 14th Street strip in between Madison and Broadway offering a diverse array of food and drink options while lending authentic multicultural flavor to the area.

Within a six-block radius of Broadway and Oak are numerous options for foodie adventurers desiring something more than basic fare, for both lunch and dinner. Currently, one can choose from Ethiopian, Viertnamese, Italian or Vietnamese fusion, Indian, Afghan, Mexican and Jamaican offerings—at fairly reasonable prices.

Minto’s Jamaican Patties and Juice Bar, which opened up roughly five months ago on Franklin just off of 14th, is decorated with red, gold and green stripes—a nod to its proprietor’s Rastafarian faith.

Cliff Minto, a.k.a. “Jah Wari,” proudly proclaims in a smooth, patois-accentuated voice that he is “born and grown in Jamaica, Montego Bay.” A 16-year resident of Oakland, he also owns Minto’s Jamaican Market on 40th and Broadway, for years a go-to spot for the Caribbean community in search of ackee, calalloo, ginger beer, Ting soda and canned mackerel.

Seated outside his juice bar on a sunny afternoon, sporting dreads under a turban and an Amharic cross around his neck, he says he has no complaints about how his business is going. “Things get better every day.”

“This is what we’re offering. We’re offering our culture to our community, which is Oakland right now,” he says, as the insistent pulse of Afrobeats wafts in from just down the street; Minto’s immediate neighbors are an African American-owned nail salon and a Malian goods store, which add to the Diasporan flavor of the block.

“The culture is Rastafari; Jamaican culture is Rastafari,” Minto says. “It’s about livity. Natural livity you ah find, so we just opened this juice bar. You ah find natural juices, the healthy stuff we live by daily.” Minto’s Rasta philosophy places his juice bar on an entirely different level than, say, Jamba Juice, which offers a similar commitment to healthy foods, but none of the cultural  accoutrements or Jah-affirming vibrations. “We embrace the natural mystic. Natural food, natural living, you know?”

Minto’s menu includes smoothies, punches and “live juices.” These range from traditional island drinks like sorrel and ginger; to common health food blends like turmeric and carrot; to exotic tropical smoothies with avocado, sea moss and pear; to the “Strong Back”—a mixture of seamoss, cashews, 21 roots, pumpkin seed, banana and almond milk. There’s a word Rastas use to encompass their holistic approach: ital. As Minto says, “Ital is vital.” His juice offerings are cold-pressed, he adds, and are traditional Rastafarian recipes whose roots are in the cultural practices of the Maroons and the Arawak indians.

The store is also one of the few places where authentic patties—a staple of Jamaican food—can be obtained. The selection includes vegetarian, beef and jerk chicken. “That’s another part of Jamaican culture,” he says. “If you’re talking about patties, you’re talking about Jamaica. Some other places, they call it empanadas or turnovers.” He also carries “wellness shots,” which he says strengthen the immune system naturally. Next month, he says, he’s opening up a full Jamaican restaurant nearby on 15th Street, at the former location of Ichiro sushi.

Other cultural restaurants have similarly transformed the 14th Street corridor from “meh” to “go deh.”

The Blue Nile, in between Madison and Jackson, effected an extreme makeover of a former Subway sandwich franchise, turning it into a vibrant display of traditional Ethiopian culture: woven fans and bowls, stretched canvas paintings on wooden frames, knitted fabrics, colorful murals depicting tribal scenes, and wooden chairs with slightly rounded backs. Afghan restaurant Kamdesh remodeled a former Chinese supermarket with a Central Asian theme. Right next door, Biryani Tika Kabab is similarly done up in Indian and Pakistani decor. The same block of 14th Street is also home to Cafe Uccello—“bird” in Italian—whose walls depict pink flamingos balancing on one leg while holding coffee cups. Farther down the strip, a rocketship announces the third Oakland location of Orbit Coffee—the others are on 7th Street and 35th Avenue—a Vietnamese fusion cafe with a brightly-lit interior and an Asian pop-music  soundtrack.

Thomas Meredith, Orbit’s manager, says the cafe has been open for about a year. “The thing that I particularly try to do at 14th Street is, we’re really trying to melt the Oakland culture in what we do here, because our, our downtown location, we are the Oakland culture,” he says. “We’re very eclectic.” In real terms, that means there’s a bit of multicultural cross-pollination. “We do have the bahn mi burrito, thematically that is a Mexican dish—being a burrito—but we’re mixing it with the Vietnamese aesthetic that we’re applying here. So yeah, we’re, we’re pretty fusion. We got a little bit of everything.”

Much of the focus is on coffee—Orbit roasts its own beans—and coffee-themed specialty drinks. One such drink is Vietnamese-style iced coffee, which uses a special drip mechanism. “Our [beans] are actually sourced from Vietnam, and they roast them to the point where it’s got that nice, bold taste,” Meredith says. “It’s a double string, the real kicker for us. We try to get that strong, bold taste and the caffeine content … we’re trying to send you off into orbit with how strong and good our coffee is.” He also notes that the fried chicken sandwich, hand-breaded fresh as orders come in, is only available at the 14th Street location, and that other Orbits have slightly different menus.

A few years ago, 14th Street and its immediate proximity didn’t have much variety or versatility in terms of food options. There was a decent deli—since closed—on the corner of Franklin, a McDonald’s on Jackson, the aforementioned Subway and not much else. Anyone who wanted some pizzazz with their meal had to venture into Chinatown or elsewhere downtown.

That’s all changed in recent years. The former Jahva House, on Alice in the same building as the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, reopened as Fresh and Best, a Vietnamese family operation serving traditional banh mi sandwiches, spring rolls, healthy smoothies, black bean soup and chopped-kale salads, as well as more typical bagels and croissants. Berkeley’s Mo’Joe Cafe added an Oakland location at Madison that serves a few worldly options: panini, lavash wraps and a Mediterranean plate. Halftime, a Black-owed sports bar, opened up just in time for the last two Warriors’ playoff runs, serving up draft beers and several varieties of chicken wings to the Dub Nation. Biryani Tika Kabab joined the neighborhood in 2018; the next year, Maya Hala Taqueria took over a previous taqueria, upping the ante with an expanded menu and a snarky message board—“Mexican food so authentic Donald Trump would build a wall around it.” Uccello is a fairly recent addition, having taken over a location once occupied by the Brown Couch Cafe.

The Blue Nile’s food quality is right up there with any Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland; entrees are served with injera, an East African grain rolled into thin pancake-like dough which is then used to scoop up food in place of silverware. Ethiopian spices like berbere and mitmita inform various dishes like Ye’Beg Wot, marinated boneless lamb with berbere, and Doro Tibs, boneless chicken; and the Kitfo, lightly-cooked ground beef, is saturated with purified Ethiopian butter. In addition to numerous dishes featuring chicken, beef, lamb or fish, there are even more vegetarian options in both appetizers and entrees. The mushroom tibs has a meaty, slightly citrus-y taste, while the Mit’ten Shuro elevates seasoned chickpeas to gourmet levels. While take-out and delivery options are available, the Blue Nile makes a great choice for family-style dinners for dine-in guests, as everything is served on a huge plate meant for sharing. And while the cuisine overall is on the spicier side of things, the spices are blended well and won’t burn up one’s taste buds.

On a recent visit to Biryani Tika Kabab, a meal for two with three entrees and several appetizers came to under $60. That’s practically-unheard-of for authentic Indian/Pakistani food. The lamb Seekh Kabab, delivered hot and steaming from a Tandoori oven, was the star of the show—impressing my friend, who normally finds lamb “gamey.” We also ordered chicken tikka masala very mildly-spiced, brown basmati rice, yogurt sauce, a mixed vegetable dish and some naan bread, which was perfect for sopping up the creamy masala sauce.

Owner Yacine Bahather says things are slowly picking up, but “there’s a lot of challenges that we’re facing right now. You know, the flow of the customer is not like before. We used to have a lot of lunch [diners], you know, because there’s a lot of offices around here [that] used to be open; now [they’re] closed. So there’s not a big lunch [crowd] and you know, we are struggling.” He says he was able to make it through the pandemic with help from his family, and decided not to shutter or raise prices like many other restaurants. “We try to keep the same prices since we know everyone is struggling right now.”

“Culturally, it’s getting diverse,” he says. “There are diverse businesses getting in here, culturally it’s getting developed. It’s pretty nice to see, to have different kinds of food and people, it’s a pretty good feeling.”