All Photos: Wendy Goodfriend
Another weekend, another all-day outdoor food festival. Thanks perhaps to the mellow, lovely Night Market last month, the evening previews for these events are now my favorites: smaller crowds, less garbage, less glare, with shorter lines and beautiful sunset-streaked skies overhead.
At Oakland’s first Eat Real Festival, in 2009, the Friday night preview was a beer and ice cream tasting, featuring nothing but, you guessed it, beer and ice cream. Now in its fourth year, the festival’s added a bunch of food trucks and stalls to its Friday afternoon-to-evening beginning, plus beer, wine, and cocktail bars, live music, and for the first time this year, a West Coast version of New York City’s party of carnivores, Meatopia.
A $50 ticket got you into a fenced-off section of parking lot, where a DJ blasted overly loud vintage soul and Latin beats, and where the smell of wood smoke, charcoal, and charring meat hung heavy in the air over the hay-bale seating and shady umbrellas festooned with Eat Real pennants. 10 booths, staffed by chefs from around the country, offered small meatcentric tasting plates; a bar handed out Eat Real-branded Mason jars of Anchor Steam and Laguinitas on tap. (Wine drinkers got a choice of red or white in a plastic cup, unless, like us, you begged for a jar.)
Josh Ozersky, a man who’s no stranger to self-promotion and buzz generating, launched the original Meatopia on New York City’s Randall Island. But somehow, transplanted to the West Coast, the event–at least Friday night’s eating part– was just, well, meatiocre. (Several Meatopia-connected butchery competitions and demos were planned for Saturday and Sunday.) There were a few tasty treats, Pizzaiolo’s meatballs and Jim ‘N Nick’s pork and grits among them, but not much was really adventurous or, in fact, much different than what was on offer a la carte at the trucks and booths outside.
Using white chocolate to mellow the tang of tomatillos was inventive, sure, but did Bocanova‘s Chartreuse-green sauce really have much to say to the juicy, achiote-rubbed pork loin it was blanketing? No, although the meat was tender and juicy enough. A well-balanced peach chutney couldn’t save an underdone, charcoal-tasting chicken leg from locavore restaurant Salt’s Cure in West Hollywood. Were I a Great Dane, I’d have been thrilled by the foot-long beef ribs served up by Great American Barbecue from Alameda; alas, the smaller, boneless chunk of meat I tried was too greasily pocketed with fat to chew.
Favorites? The supple white grits and slow-cooked pork with a squirt of hot sauce from Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, the Southern barbecue chain whose massive rig was parked outside in the main area, boasting a winged pig with the slogan “First we send him to heaven. Then we send you there.” Having tasted what they do to those pigs, I can confirm their truth in advertising. Still, the same fork-tender pig was also on the menu, this time in a sandwich, at their truck outside, making Meatopia moot.
And yes, the pork meatballs from Pizzaiolo, served with a smile by owner Charlie Hallowell, will always be better than mine, yours, and everyone we know’s. Hallowell starts with organic, humanely raised pork from Iowa’s Becker Lane Organic Farm, which Hallowell calls “the best pork around,” then adds bread crumbs, eggs, milk, pine nuts, greens, and capers. After shaping, the meatballs are deep-fried, braised in chicken stock, napped in a thick crushed-tomato sauce, doused with olive oil and sprinkled with Parmesan. They fall apart under the fork, gently, and the whole bite—meat, tomato sauce, cheese, oil—cries out for pasta or a swipe of Italian bread. Good as they are, eating them plain like this turns out to be a very good argument for driving a few miles over to Temescal, sitting down at the restaurant, and ordering them off the menu, so you can eat them the way they were meant to be served.
This is the puzzlement of local restaurants and food businesses serving up their favorite menu items at these festivals: why wait and wait in line for a cardboard bowl of Homeroom’s Gilroy garlic mac and cheese, for example, when you can just go to the restaurant, sit down, and eat the same thing in comfort for a similar price?
Or take the Brittany Crepes and Galettes stand: who doesn’t like a Nutella crepe hot out of the pan? But fans can find their crepes practically any day of the week at numerous farmers’ markets all around the Bay Area. A lot of the popular food trucks—El Porteno empanadas, Chaac Mool, 4505 Meats—are now as ubiquitous as they are delicious. A good thing, of course, to see small businesses like these become so successful, but one that’s making every food-truck event and festival seem more and more the same.
Still, the pink-streaked sky was gorgeous, the harborside setting with sailboats gliding by made a relaxing change from urban clamor, and even the Oakland PD was in a good mood, keeping the peace with a little Folsom Street Fair-style handcuffing between two dueling barbecue workers.
And the flaming maw of the wood-fired cob oven, built on site by volunteers and members of the Ecology Center SF, offered a flickering promise of the hands-on DIY workshops to follow, the real heart and soul of the festival.