Nosh Box: Flavors of the Fruitvale

Here’s a little history with some spots for great dining in around the Fruitvale District.


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Fruitvale Avenue, its namesake street and major artery, runs from the Fruitvale Bridge to Alameda.

Eric Fredericks

Sometimes famous for its infamy, it’s a boulevard, a neighborhood, a district, a bridge, a BART station, a movie, and more. Consider it district hegemony, because its social footprint is larger than the outline on a topographic map. It pervades surrounding venues like the Dimond, the Laurel, Melrose, Highland Park, and Jingletown. March presents an ideal time to learn its history, savor its flavors, and explore the byways shown here: localwiki.org/oakland/map/Fruitvale_District.

 

In a Nutshell

Fruitvale Avenue, its namesake street and major artery, runs from the Fruitvale Bridge to Alameda, northward to the Oakland hills above the Dimond district. This avenue once included three Safeway stores, two public libraries, Dimond Bowl with hand-set pins, two Guy’s Drug Stores with soda fountains, Dimond Roller Rink, Old St. Jarlath’s church, and a wooden Casper’ Hot Dogs stand with roll-up canvas walls.

The blue-collar giants are nearly gone — or relocated. But the industrial roster once listed Ferro Enamel, Montgomery Wards, Del Monte Foods, Owens Illinois, the California Cotton Mill, General Electric, Pacific Tire and Rubber Company, Safeway Stores Warehouse, and both Mother’s Cookies, and Dad’s Cookies.

Illuminated marquees on cinemas dotting the area showed The Fruitvale, The Foothill, The Dimond, The Fairfax, The Hopkins, and The Laurel, which morphed into Ciné7.

 

Social Points of Interest

At East 17th Street, Elizabeth B. Sanborn Park was an afterschool childhood playground and has been renamed Josie de la Cruz Park, where soccer has replaced  football and drug dealing as the pastime of choice. Less than a mile away, the clubhouse of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club stands at 40th and Foothill, with a bail bondsman across the street.

 

Gone But Not Forgotten

Culinary excellence and diversity are not Johnny-come-lately accolades. Two examples date back more than a half century. Boomers and oldsters bemoan the demise of the Taqueria Morelia, which was  on the cusp of the Fruitvale and Melrose districts, at 55th Avenue and East 14th  Street — as it was called then. The customer line snaked out the door, with workers in coveralls, cops in uniform, folks in business suits, and bikers wearing their colors. Praised by  restaurant critics from “the voice of the West,” it was unmatched by any taqueria in the Mission.

More contemporary eateries are offering single-item menus. Such was the case with Dorfer’s Vienna Bakers. On Foothill near Seminary, Dorfer’s was the temple of cheesecake excellence, serving a local walk-in clientele, while supplying fine-dining establishments on both sides of the bay. Not New York style, but Viennese style: light, yet rich, with a creamy consistency in a graham-cracker crust.

 

Brick-and-Mortar Standouts

It’s both a border business and a diamond in the rough: Los Mexicanos Market, on High Street and International, straddles the Fruitvale/Melrose line. Family-owned since 1973, this mart sells Mexican and Central American products like fruits, vegetables, groceries, liquors, baked goods, and jewelry. Much of the produce originates from family farms in the San Joaquin Valley. But the carniceria, or meat department, is the standout. The market owners raise cattle — “free-range fed” — so the beef cheeks are aces, and the chorizo so lean, it needs fat added to pan-fry. These contemporary eats are stocked amid a building and fixtures with down-home funk and neighborhood prices.

Originally called Otaez Mexicatessen of Oakland, this small market with kitchen served traditional favorites to locals. In November 1986, Jesus and Socorro Campos bought the original in a storefront building on International Boulevard at 39th Avenue, Jesus had been a cook and Socorro a waitress. Two decades later Jesus opened the much grander Otaez Restaurant on Park Street in Alameda. Designed, built and decorated from the ground up, the restaurant remains a monument to Jesus, who was tragically killed in 2011, and his family.

The restaurant was named after a small town in Durango, Mexico, and its dishes range from chile rellenos to carnitas to pozole — all at friendly prices. Standouts are weeknight dinner specials and an amazing Sunday brunch, with  American and Mexican dishes, including bottomless bowls of the East Bay’s finest menudo. For details visit OtaezRestaurant.com.

Just a few paces toward 38th Avenue from the original Otaez, you might think that you’re in Mexico’s capitol. At El Huarache Azteca, homestyle Mexico City fare revolves around a sturdy corn masa produced on site. This foundation becomes thick, hand-formed tortillas, and a sandal-shaped specialty flatbread called a huarache. Another specialty appears weekends only, when lamb barbacoa is sold by the pound, for enshroudin in those fresh tortillas, hot off the comal.

Huitlacoche, or corn smut, is a prized fungus on the quesadillas menu, but also can be ordered as a huarache topping. Far from mainstream, it’s hard to find: Gourmands seek to devour it, while the USDA for years has sought to eradicate it. But before looking supercilious about fungus-feasting on “smut,” remember just two things: white truffles and black truffles. For details visit ElHuaracheAztec.com.

Guadalajara Restaurant & Tequila Bar Just a short walk from BART at 1001 Fruitvale is a roomy eatery that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner — all day, every day. Late-night dining is part of the service with 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. closures. Seafood and vegetarian dishes abound on the menu.

Enjoy weekday breakfast specials, lunch specials, and happy hours with discounted bar drinks and half-off appetizers from 2-6 p.m. The food is fresh, delicious and reasonably priced; the array of tequilas outstanding. Guadalajara also deploys two food trucks nearby, and operates a condensed version of itself, El Agavero Restaurant, in Montclair Village. For details visit GuadalajaraOakland.com and ElAgavero.com.