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.

drink real beer

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.

ritual coffee bike

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).

ici ice cream

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.

Eat Real Festival 10 September,2009Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen

  • Excellent summary of the festival. Wish I could have been there.

  • Erica

    I really enjoyed your review, but I did want to mention that I found a few delicious vegetable items during yesterday’s eat real fest.

    There was a great mozzarella dish with big slices and hunks of tomatoes from jonsstreeteats, corn empanadas from el porteno, corn on the cob from at least two vendors, sea beans from the foragesf folks, a veggie pie from the pie truck, spinach and cheese pupusas from Estrellitas (which they ran out of before we got any, but the bean and cheese were delicious anyway), Pizza politano had veggie pizzas, the soup cart had tomato miso soup, the whole foods truck had gazpacho, and I’m pretty sure Amanda’s had their veggie burgers.

    And they were more vegetarian options that weren’t necessarily vegetables.

    Thanks again for the pleasant review of this wonderful event. 🙂

  • sal

    as far as vegetarian options, you missed an excellent one – Liba falafel…organic falafel with hummus and various fresh veggie salads (tomato, beet, eggplant, carrot). delish, meat (and wheat!) free.

  • I spent a little bit of time at the festival on Saturday and thought it was well put together. Although I missed a few things because of temporary availability issues, I was pleased to see a wide range of options and to get a preview of the future market space.

    To me, not having an admission fee might be a key part of the festival’s success. Since I didn’t shell out $50 or $75 to attend (like for the Slow Food Taste Pavillions), I wasn’t stressed by a relentless push to “get my money’s worth”, and therefore a long line at this cart or that cart wasn’t a big deal. If I didn’t get enough food or it became too crowded, I could split, losing only some time and the limited expense of getting to Jack London Square (which, for me, happened to be on my errand list anyway). Of course, not having an admission fee makes the finances more challenging, and as we saw at the SF festival, is no guarantee of success.


Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include The Art of Vintage Cocktails (Egg & Dart Press), World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. She has been an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists’ residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. After some 20 years in San Francisco interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, she recently moved to Sonoma county but still writes in San Francisco several days a week.

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