Michele McQueen is the new chef and proprietor of Town Fare, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) restaurant. Some of McQueen’s dishes will be familiar to diners who ate at Gussie’s Southern Table, her San Francisco restaurant that closed in 2014. The menu features shrimp and grits, fried chicken, cornbread and banana pudding. But the chef has added new items too, ones that fuse Asian and Latin flavors with ingredients that might be more closely associated with her Southern heritage.
I’d been to exhibits at OMCA before, but I’d never eaten at the various incarnations of the restaurant there. Set up like a cafeteria, the architecture firm Roche Dinkeloo constructed the spacious dining room with enormous windows. Light fills the entire space. One view looks onto a water feature. Another takes in a stretch of downtown buildings flanked by palm trees. McQueen has added tables and cheerful umbrellas outside. It’s a perfect setting for family gatherings or for students looking for a place to read and study.
McQueen says that she respects food from different people’s cultures, in part, because of her grandparents’ move from Georgia to New Jersey. The neighborhood was filled with Italian bakeries and Jewish delis. In addition to soul food, her mother made matzo ball soup. “That’s why I like to try to bring things together, when possible, to show a different side of me,” the chef explains. “And I’ve never narrowed myself to one cuisine in particular—but I do happen to be known for my delicious soul food.”
One of McQueen’s employees told her that the inaugural deviled egg of the month ($8) is such a hit that she’s thinking of keeping this iteration of it permanently on the menu. The order comes with two eggs split in half. The bright yellow yolks are smoothly puréed with the pleasant tang of togarashi, sriracha and white miso, and then topped with black sesame seeds and chives.
The curry spring rolls ($11) combine shredded collards, cabbage and yams with Caribbean spice and a lime aioli dipping sauce. The sweetness of the yams play nicely against the bitter, wilted greens inside of a crispy golden shell. And they’re very large! Since I have zero experience eating jackfruit, I decided to order the blackened jackfruit carnitas tacos ($16). The texture of jackfruit lands somewhere between an artichoke heart and a Jerusalem artichoke, but chewier. McQueen marinates it in a blackened spice before adding a Cajun remoulade, pickled fresnos, avocado and a jicama slaw.
“I can barely remember a time not seeing my grandmother cooking,” McQueen said. “And there are pictures of me snapping off the ends of string beans.” She attributes the Southern culinary influences to her grandmother’s roots in Georgia. “Me being a California girl allows me to put a spin on it.” Like most regional cuisines around the world, Southern food developed around the ingredients that grew easily there and were readily available. But McQueen notes that there’s an important distinction between Southern and soul food.
“To me, soul food is a term that is coined and owned by Black people,” she said. “Soul food can only be prepared by Black people.” When she makes collard greens and mac and cheese, it’s soul food. If somebody who isn’t Black makes the same dish, McQueen says that’s Southern food. “It’s more than just the food that’s prepared,” she explains. “It’s the traditions that go along with how you eat it. The hands that prepare it. All of that is what brings about soul food.”
The tradition is alive and well in Ms. Pearl’s Banana Pudding ($12). This giant bowl of vanilla bean pudding contains freshly sliced banana, vanilla wafers cracked in half and a mess of whipped cream dolloped on top of the whole confection. The recipe is from Ms. Pearl, her mother’s best friend’s mother, who’s about 95 years old. McQueen has made it consistently over the years, always crediting Ms. Pearl. “She’s been in my life since I was a very little girl,” she said. “I don’t really make desserts, but I asked her for the recipe. She shared it with me, and I said to her, ‘I will always name it after you.’”
Town Fare at the Oakland Museum of California, open Wed and Sun 11am-5pm, Thurs through Sat 11am to 9pm. 1000 Oak St., Oakland. 510.839.7685. townfarecafe.com