Oeste Introduces Rooftop Dining to Oakland

The menu celebrates Latino recipes with Southern flavors and techniques.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Robin and I thought we could assure ourselves seats at the bar by arriving at Oeste a little before 5 p.m. We did manage to nab the last remaining two stools together, but it was a sunny Friday evening in Old Oakland, and the 90-seat room was already packed with a multicultural cross-section of mostly 20- and 30-somethings who were taking advantage of the discounted 3-6 p.m. happy hour offerings. As Robin held our places, I slipped up the stairs at the back of the bar and checked out the recently opened rooftop patio. A few couch spots and stools at communal high-top tables were available, but there was no service on the roof deck — you had to tote your own drinks and no food was allowed — so we opted to stay downstairs, even though the din of conversation was rising to a roar akin to that of a 747 gunning its engines for takeoff. Service on the rooftop should now be available for both food and drink, according to management, and in June, the Oeste bar will be open for lunch, with a menu that expands significantly on the fare in the adjacent Oeste cafe, where breakfast and lunch items are offered as grab-and-go and eat-in options, with very limited seating.

Open since December, Oeste is still a work in progress. Co-owners Anna Villalobos, Lea Redmond, and Sandra Davis, along with chef Peter Jackson, seem to be taking a modified startup approach — opening with a clear vision but staying nimble enough to be sure they do things right and are able to makes changes as they take the temperature of the community and gauge the hungers and thirsts of the potential customer base.

When Robin and I first visited in February, I concluded that Oeste wasn’t ready for a full review: The rooftop — hyped as a hotspot gathering place for the neighborhood, which includes both Swan’s Market, with its trendy eateries, and Mexicali Rose — wasn’t open yet, and discrepancies in service and food marred our initial experience. Our bartender was attentive and conversational for the first half hour we were there, but we could hardly get anybody’s attention once a crowd of 40 or 50 badge-wearing techie millennials swarmed into the bar with reservations for a party.

We loved the happy hour bar snacks. Piping hot fried olives, stuffed with anchovy, were tart flavor bombs without tasting fishy. Thin-cut, skin-on french fries stayed crisp as we sipped our cocktails and wine. And the ropa vieja tacos (Cuban-style shredded beef) evinced serious commitment to first-rate ingredients and balanced spicing. Our main dishes, although artfully presented — but not pretentiously so — on fine ceramic dishes, fell short of the kitchen’s ambitions and our expectations. My beautiful seafood jambalaya, topped with three plump shrimp, struck one fairly fiery flavor note, and Robin’s strangely deconstructed, open-face poblano chile relleno was surprisingly bland, and its bed of black beans was cold — not lukewarm. Cold. 

After waiting for Oeste to settle in a bit, we returned in April for a flawless lunch in the tiny cafe and a much more consistent dinner in the bar. Oeste’s founding culinary mission was to focus on “fresh, organic and sustainably farmed California ingredients” and “fuse our family’s [sic] Latino recipes with Southern flavors and techniques.” In the cafe, chef Jackson has distilled that down to such items as a classic Spanish egg-potato-onion tortilla (plus a version with house-made Creole-style sausage), over which Robin and I struck dueling forks. I had an exquisite pollo pibil sandwich, made with slow-cooked pulled chicken, avocado, pickled onions, and citrus-spiked achiote sauce, on a crunchy-soft Acme roll. Robin, a salad queen at home, had a vegan lentil salad with toothsome arugula and pomegranate vinaigrette, to which she wisely added feta cheese; even she might not try to duplicate it. While we ate at one of the few tables inside, we eavesdropped on Villalobos and Redmond brainstorming about adding meatballs to the forthcoming lunch menu in the bar. Lamb? Turkey? I vote lamb.

 On our second evening visit, with sundown light streaming in from the west to fill the chicly post-industrial-designed, brick-walled room with a golden glow, we again transitioned from happy hour to dinner. We couldn’t resist ordering the fried olives once more — just thinking about them makes my mouth water — to go with a bowl of Serrano chile popcorn (just OK) and our happy hour beverages: a shockingly but addictively spicy tamarind-habanero margarita from the tap and a generous pour of a ho-hum house red wine. By the time our main courses arrived, we had to lean in to hear each other, and not just because we had 20 to 40 years on everyone else in the teeming crowd: The music, usually a mix of old-school and contemporary soul and R&B, had been reduced to a thump in the ambient racket; if the sound had been on for the NBA playoff game on the two flat-screen TVs flanking the bar, it wouldn’t have mattered. But that didn’t stop Robin from thoroughly enjoying a well-done burger (well done, finally!) on a perfectly no-frills bun, with lettuce, tomato, and red onion on the side (with fries), or me from eating every bit of my smoky, gooey, but I-wish-it-were-more-intense mac’ n’cheese, and three small sopes de hongas — house-made masa cakes filled with red chile, mushrooms, and guacamole.

There’s so much yet to try from the multi-culti menu at Oeste: smoked salmon and sweet potato fritters; Hamachi crudo; crispy duck confit; poached tuna niçoise salad; cheese and charcuterie plates; such brunch dishes as shrimp and grits, sweet potato pancakes, huevos rancheros, and biscuits and gravy; a lavender-oat milk latte; and desserts — chocolate-vanilla tart, pecan bread pudding. But I wonder if the thoughtfully conceived and painstaking executed and presented food is going to be an afterthought for the majority of the clientele, who will be well rewarded in their quest for a delightful place to drink and socialize but might overlook — or take for granted — the care and skill that goes into Oeste’s far-above-conventional bar-with-food cuisine.

 

Oeste Bar & Café

Latin American, Southern & Soul Food, 722-730 Clay St., Oakland, 510-817-4157.

Cafe breakfast items $2-$4.25, salads and sandwiches $8.95-$9.95; brunch dishes $12-$17.50; bar snacks $3-$8, taco plates $13-$14, salads $7-$9, larger plates $9-$19, desserts $8, cocktails $10. Serves breakfast and lunch in the cafe Tue.-Sun.; serves brunch in the bar Sat.-Sun.; bar is open Tue.-Sun. with happy hour and dinner service. OesteOakland.com

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