Wandering the unfamiliar, blandly mall-like environs of Jack London Square, a kind of mini-Emeryville, only with space, better taste, and a harbor view, you might have wondered where all the food-seeking hipsters were. It was Friday night, after all, the opening of Oakland’s Eat Real Festival, yet there was no waft of organic pork carnitas, no compostable spoons littering the ground.
But wait, what’s in the hand of that guy strolling by? Was it a Mason jar filled with watermelon wheat beer? And was that the Soviet-red logo for Ritual Roasters coffee, painted on the side of a bike trailer peddling (by pedaling) a load of high-octane iced coffee? Hay bales for seats, toddlers clutching ice-cream cones while Mom and Dad downed a brew: this was definitely the place.
Friday’s unseasonally balmy night (“Earthquake weather,” nodded numerous passerby sagely, but that didn’t seem to stop them from promenading along the waterfront, lemon-shiso sorbet dripping down their chins) made a perfect soft opening for the festival, which began with an open-air beer tasting ($25 for your own festival-logo’d glass drinking jar plus 8 tickets for filling it up, or $7 for a single serve) and ice-cream social.
Some real food to go with the beer would have been nice, but that would have to wait until the real crowds arrived on Saturday and Sunday. In the interim, then, there was the rare chance to sample and buy ice cream and sorbet from a dozen local makers with barely a line to be seen. Scream, Ici, Bi-Rite Creamery, Straus Ice Cream, Fenton’s, Ceci, and more were scooping flavors ranging from pomegranate (Fenton’s) to beet-lemon (Scream, and surprisingly good–like frozen borscht, in the tastiest possible way).
There was an open-air game of Edible Pursuit (who knew the popsicle was invented in Oakland?), a highly competitive canning contest (dubbed, of course, Yes I Can), live jazz and a whole lot of happy cone-licking kids.
Saturday, of course, was a lot busier, but the vibe stayed mellow. There was all that beer, for starters, and plenty of port-a-potties, and a lot of space to sprawl, wander, and lie out on the grass and watch the sailboats breeze by. You could check out the greywater recycling system set up by the crew at Aquaponics, watch cooking demonstrations, stroll through the expansive indoor marketplace to chat up farmers and artisanal jam-makers, or just go get more beer.
Or, if you wanted to eat, you could stand in line. It’s inevitable, at events like this that are all about the food, that the main activity ends up being waiting in line. The lines weren’t too bad, actually, but they moved slowly.
Very slowly. Watching four guys put together one plate at Jim and Nick’s–one massaging the shredded pork into a ball and put it on the bun, one scooping the pimento cheese, another putting on the pickles and saltines, and a fourth chatting up whichever cute girl was handing over her money, I did a little minutes-per-plate x people-in-line math, and gave up, even though I was longing to try a plate made by a bunch of Southern barbecue guys who had driven their rig all the way from Alabama to crash the event and show the West Coast how to bbq.
The trick, I realized, was to pick one long line–like the one for Seoul Food’s Korean tacos– and then send your friends out on recon missions to the shorter lines, so you’d have something to eat while you waited in line for something to eat.
Where the recent SF Street Food Festival skipped actual street food for slimmed-down restaurant eats, Eat Real did keep it real, with taco trucks, soul food ribs and the Sexy Soup Lady in a pink apron straddling her three-wheeled soup cart. And the prices were right, too, with nothing over $5.
Of course, this meant was nearly everything was some culturally-inspired variation on meat and dough, all squeezed down to the size of a slider, from pulled-chicken barbecue on a bun and Korean spicy-pork tacos to pupusas and bite-sized brisket sandwiches. Finding vegetables (beyond salsa and coleslaw) took a little searching, and it helped it if you liked falafel, didn’t mind patronizing the fancy-tapas truck of festival co-sponsor Whole Foods, or got there before the veggie-pie folks had sold through their entire inventory. For dessert, there was more ice cream, of course. And cupcakes!
What it was, overall, was a fun local event, a late-summer festival that did feel very Oaklandish, mixing up $3 pupusas with $20 “Street Food” t-shirts.