SO MANY PLACES, SO LITTLE TIME. It’s the blessing and the curse of the traveler. At some point, you come to the realization that you simply won’t be able to see all the places you want to see.
Luckily, today’s modern cities play host to a variety of cultures, each contributing their authentic dishes and traditional events to the experience of daily city life. You could have breakfast in Belgium, lunch in Taiwan, and dinner in Japan, without missing a meeting and still making it home in time for the evening news. And of the many cities that enable this local world travel experience, Oakland might just be the West Coast king. Its history as a crossroads of culture, industry, and activism manifests today in its striking multiculturalism — over 170 languages are spoken by Oakland residents, making it one of the most diverse cities in the country.
Here are some destinations around the world that are perennial traveler favorites, and how to experience them without ever leaving the Oakland area.
Oakland’s Chinatown has been around since the mid-1800s and is possibly one of the best in the country. It’s home to numerous dim sum and traditional Chinese restaurants. Take Shanghai Restaurant, for example, which has whole forums and blogs dedicated to how good its food is. The results are in, and while everything comes out sounding delicious, their xiao long bao (soup dumplings) rank as some of the tastiest you’ll find Stateside.
For the cultural side of things, catch the annual Oakland Chinatown Streetfest, or hit up the Red Bean Cantonese Opera. Oakland is also a regular stop for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Shanghai Ballet, and Shanghai Circus.
Okay, there are no Colosseums in Oakland (except O.co of course, but that’s a little different). Fortunately, Oakland does have some pretty legit dining options, such as the new(ish) Desco. From the antipasti to the atmosphere, Desco (in Old Oakland) consistently ranks highly for its authentic regional Italian cuisine. Other purveyors of the Italian experience in the East Bay include Dopo, Pizzaiolo, Centouno, Italian Colors, and Bellanico.
And forget the stuffy exhibits of Renaissance art — Oakland’s many galleries host contemporary artists from around the world…including Italian street artist Moneyless (known for his 3D PVC installations). If you time it right, you might just get a sense of what you’d see on a trip to modern Rome or Florence.
This is a destination for which, when experiencing it Oakland-style, you’ll not only get a sense of its culture and flavor, but you’ll also get California’s take on it. At Doukkala (named after a region in Morocco, and formerly the popular Tanjia), the self-proclaimed “California Moroccan” eatery is serving up tagine next to escargot, and mint tea with panna cotta.
For immersion in a more wholly Moroccan experience, you may have to stray a bit into Oakland’s backyard (Berkeley), where you’ll find Sahara Import. The owners have a satellite shop in Tangier, so you know it’s legit, and host parties featuring native foods, music, and henna under a traditional Berber tent.
There’s no shortage of kickass French eateries in Oakland to help contribute to your Parisian inclinations. Topping the list is newcomer Michel, a French bistro on Lakeshore where you can order a lamb burger and bone marrow…if you’re into that kind of thing. And don’t overlook À Côté on College Ave, where you can eat at large communal tables as well as have a more intimate, romantic experience.
And we aren’t the only ones sensing an Oakland-France connection. Take Virginia R. Garcia’s recent Kickstarter-backed photo project, Oakland/Paris. In the online gallery, she juxtaposes photos shot in Oakland and those shot in Paris, and challenges the viewer to decide: “Is it Oakland or Paris?” Having struggled with the task myself, I suspect Oaklanders are actually getting a pretty solid Parisian experience on the daily. And the suspicion definitely bears out once you wander into Entrez Open House, a boutique housewares and gift shop specializing in French and other European items.
Oakland has some pretty excellent options for getting a taste of Vietnam. Start at Tay Ho on 12th, a family-owned establishment that’s been turning out authentic recipes and regional dishes since 2010. You can sample proper Hanoi cuisine, including the bun cha Hanoi (trio of pork) and cha ca la vong (turmeric fish with dill).
For some Vietnamese culture, check out the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, which hosts events year-round celebrating the many Asian cultures that call the East Bay home. You might be able to drop in on one of the many that feature Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American artists, or witness a combination dance performance and statement piece by the Nguyen Dance Company.
For starters on your Oakland-Cambodia journey, head to Battambang (on Broadway) for a taste of proper Khmer food. Its ratings are routinely high, regardless of whether the diner is seeking authentic Cambodian cuisine, or just some tasty grub.
If you happen to be in Oakland in spring, you can take part in the Cambodian New Year festival in Peralta Hacienda Historical Park on 34th. A day of celebrating Cambodian culture, the event showcases performances of traditional musical arts from the older generations, as well as crafts from local Cambodian artists. At any other time of year, head to the Oakland Cambodian Buddhist Temple on East 10th. Hosting regular cultural gatherings, ceremonies, and classes, it’ll give you a feel for how Cambodians (and Oakland-Cambodians) practice Buddhism.
Two big things come to mind when I think of Germany: beer and chocolate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, you can find both in their most pure German form in Oakland. At Brotzeit Lokal on the Estuary, you’ll get your wiener schnitzel and sauerkraut fix, as well as any of the 16 beers they have on tap in the biergarten (a selection of German, Belgian, and Californian).
And on Grand Ave sits Michael Mischer Chocolates, a little shop locals are raving about. Hailing from northern Germany, Mr. Mischer knows his stuff (having apprenticed under a Swiss Master Pastry Chef) and has brought this knowledge to Oakland. Yes, it’s on the pricier side, but I’m looking at the pictures online and can’t stop drooling.
Of course, Germany is more than chocolate and beer, and for that healthy dose of German culture you can check out the Excelsior German Center at the Altenheim, located on Excelsior Ave. With a mission of “connecting our community with German Language, Culture, and Heritage,” and through regular events, lectures, and the weekly German School of the East Bay Saturday school program, it seems like a pretty solid place to get a feel for the country.
The Bay Area loves to tango, making this standard bearer of Argentine culture a great place to start on your Buenos-Oakland experience. Few do the traditional dance better than Jean-Pierre at the Tango Magdalena studio. If you don’t want to attend classes, there’s no shortage of tango events, tango nights, and tango-centric clubs to check out around town.
Another purely Argentine prize to be found in the East Bay is the Buenos Aires alfajor, served up by the Wooden Table Baking Company and available in grocery stores in the area. The alfajor, described as a “traditional Argentine pastry made of two shortbread-like cookies joined with dulce de leche,” is not only incredibly delicious, but also has a lot of locals addicted.
Oakland seems to be home to more Thai restaurants than either of the neighboring areas of San Francisco or Berkeley. When it comes to authenticity, though, Neecha Thai (on Grand between Elwood and Lake Park) and Soi 4 Bangkok Eatery (College Ave) are pretty safe bets.
For your dose of Thai culture, we couldn’t not mention the Thai Cultural Center in Berkeley. Sure, it’s in Berkeley, but they host events all over the Bay Area, and their mission is to bring Thai culture (and many Bangkok-based teachers) to the region at large.
Oakland, as one of the premier cultural spots in the US, is regularly blessed with visits from Ivan Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra when they tour the US, which comprises some of the best young talent in Hungary. The city also proudly features Hungarian artists, and was actually the host-site for the cataloging of Hungarian heritage folk music during the WPA California Folk Music Project in the 1930s.
For Hungarian food, you may have to head north a bit to the Crixa Cakes bakery. It’ll be worth the trip, I promise, as their kilfi, kremes, tortas, and vatroushka look absolutely amazing.
Oakland and surrounding areas are home to a few thousand Ethiopians, and these East African immigrants have definitely added their tastes and traditions to the East Bay melting pot over the years. Addis Ethiopian on Telegraph serves up classic dishes like tibs and yedoro wot and features some unique thatch decorations around the restaurant. Others options include Asmara and Café Colucci (both also located on Telegraph).
If you like what’s on offer at Colucci, check out their associated property, Brundo, a spice shop that puts on cooking classes. Once you pick up the skills you need to make your own injera and other Ethiopian staples, you can take the culture home with you…talk about local-global travel.