Sunday, May 16, 2010

BROWN SUGAR KITCHEN - Southern Cooking Comes to West Oakland

Beignets @ Brown Sugar Kitchen
Oakland’s bad girl reputation was something I spent much of my youth refuting. Even now, I can hear myself explaining my hometown to others who pictured her a squalid, dangerous crime-ridden blight on San Francisco’s shiny image. An image that could be envied, apparently from a nice, safe distance across the Bay. Travelers felt San Francisco was the place to be, not Oakland. Yet I insisted they were wrong. Oakland had her charms. She was pretty, with a lovely natural lake in the center of town, she had verdant green hills. She was a nice place to live, with her sleepy streets and homes rich in architectural history, including Art Deco, Victorian, Beaux Arts, — period revivals of Italian Renaissance, Spanish Eclectic, and English cottage. Oakland wasn’t at all how they pictured her, I insisted. They should just give her a chance.
For years my hometown’s image remained eclipsed by that Glittering City by the Bay that lay just over the Bay Bridge, the one where all the tourists would leave their hearts. Oakland’s grimy reputation as its slattern little step-sister grew, strengthened by her struggling economy and waning business districts. Oakland sat on the wrong and dangerous side of that big bridge waiting like a wallflower at a dance waits for attention, her questionable reputation keeping suitors at a distance. Low expectations kept too many from exploring her streets, experiencing her landscapes, or exposing themselves to her wealth of cultures and vibrant history. But that was then. Brown Sugar Kitchen is now.

The 1989 quake took down the Cypress Structure that ran through West Oakland, leveling the freeway and ending lives. It was horrific. But that quake opened a door. The citizens of the neighborhood stood up and demanded that Oakland acknowledge them, allowing the area around Cypress Street to be re-imagined and renamed Mandela Parkway. Out of the ugly, the depressing, the smothered— came something new and alive and very, very Oakland.

Bar-be-Que Shrimp
In fact, the times they are more than “a changing.” Now Oakland herself stands erect and head held high she too demands acknowledgment. She is a City on the verge of a serious rebirth. She’s got game. Her foodie scene is impressive and varied, rivaling that of her Big Sister. New restaurants pop up everywhere, and these eateries offer fare that easily matches what can be had in that “other” city on the water, and while some of them may seem to have appeared out of nowhere — they didn’t. Oakland has been working for quite some time to redefine herself. City leaders have courted new businesses, and her restauranteurs not only have a point of view, they have attitude. Be they saloon, bistro, cafĂ© or white-table-clothed restaurant, these eateries are all young and hip and spirited, possessing a sense of artistry and passion unique to the city of my birth. One among the best of these is the Brown Sugar Kitchen, a lively breakfast and lunch spot located right there along Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. Yeah, you heard me.
Brown Sugar Kitchen

When she arrived in Oakland, BSK’s owner/chef Tanya Holland brought with her an “imagination de cuisine” that is uniquely her own. Informed by her African-American heritage, a lifetime of exposure to a broad variety of foods and her classical training in France, she has seen the inside of many of the world’s best kitchens, resulting in food with a deeply inspired background that goes well beyond “Soul Food” into something transformative.

Her menu is essentially Southern, her dishes all prepared with that incomparable hospitality of spirit that is the defining component of Southern cooking and Soul Food. There is a deep tradition in African-American kitchens to express love with food and Tanya speaks this language fluently, in simple flavors and without pretense. Her cooking is authentic, and it is delicious. I swear I could taste the love in every bite. Those who line up on any given day to compete for a table and a meal apparently agree.

Fried Chicken & Cornmeal Waffle
We began our meal with an order of beignets, on the menu as a lunch special on the day we were there. Now I know beignets, having just returned from a lovely junket to New Orleans, where they can be found in abundance and variety. Brown Sugar’s were lighter than a traditional beignet, fluffy and airy as little fried sugar clouds. Fresh and hot from the fryer, they melted on the tongue almost as readily as cotton candy. The powdered sugar sprinkled generously over the square donuts, blending nicely with the traces of hot grease from the fryer. Hallelujah!

Brown Sugar Kitchen's
I then experienced a gumbo unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Gumbos I’ve tried elsewhere are generally fatty, with a heavy broth. Not so at BSK. The broth was light, not at all greasy and much to my delight not overly laden with okra. What fat it contained was flavorful, adding to the richness of the tastes. Its flavors were abundant and complimentary, each ingredient working with the others to make a perfection of a whole. The vegetables within had lovely textures, with an unanticipated happy little crunch in every bite, nothing overcooked here. Delightfully spiced, there was just enough pepper to get my attention, but not so much as to overwhelm anyone less spice-happy than I. Savory, strong — perfection.

Cornbread is one of my biggest weaknesses. I cannot resist good cornbread, and Brown Sugar’s cornbread is buttery and savory, with a nice, grainy texture against the tongue. Half the pleasure of cornbread is that texture, the unmistakable coarseness that is the character of the grain itself. I prefer a hearty cornmeal, one that hasn’t been ground so much that it is almost flour. This bread still had personality, and lent itself well to enhance the other dishes. But I will get to that in a moment.

Macaroni & Cheese
The Better Half tried their Cornbread Waffle & Fried Chicken combo. BSK’s Cornbread Waffle is an extremely popular dish. It’s reputation was one of the reasons we tried the restaurant. Having heard many positive advance reviews from patrons, we were assuming it would be tasty, but once I tasted it, I realized the reviews had not done it justice. The cornbread waffle at Brown Sugar may quite simply be the best waffle I have ever tasted. It had a lovely primitive texture to it, there was something comforting and earthy about this hearty chew of a waffle. A welcome departure from the soft, doughy version one might get elsewhere, these were an adventure. I am always impressed at human ingenuity in all of its forms, and imagination in cooking will stop me in my tracks every time.

I had Bar-B-Que Shrimp. The seafood itself was moist, they were fairly big crustaceans, all languishing in a traditional black butter sauce. The sauce itself was peppery hot, herbs and spices swimming in a pool of butter, with a bit of fried spinach laid over fluffy basmati rice.  The airy basmati was a nice departure from a heavier, more traditional rice, and it allowed the butter to be absorbed and eaten while taking a back seat to the flavor of the shrimp. Smart choice. And that cornbread came in handy here for soaking up the lip-smacking sauce.  Each shrimp was easily peeled, the thin shell rolling back neatly to reveal the fluffy pink meat beneath— moist and juicy, each mouthful covered in tangy, spicy sauce. Biting into these mounds of tender butter-coated shrimp was like experiencing the cheery pop of a cherry tomato, as the flavors inside explode right into your mouth. In my mind Bar-B-Que Shrimp are the crown jewel of southern cooking.
Blackened Catfish

Our dining companion sampled Brown Sugar’s Blackened Catfish, which he was extremely pleased with. He found the fish well-cooked, it’s exterior coated with a nice spice-laden heat, the inside of the fish fillet smoky and soft. The Better Half ordered the Fried Chicken as his main, and he reported it a good solid fried chicken. Not as remarkable as the waffles perhaps, but moist and crunchy in all the right places. Overall a definite success.

As a side to my meal I also had the Mac & Cheese, which was creamy and mild. Given the complexity of the Bar-be-Qued Shrimp, I felt it may have been a deliberate choice to allow the macaroni and cheese to remain such a simple dish, that it might serve as almost a palate cleanser between bites of the spicier items on the menu.

The food here is cooked with ample care and creativity, as well as an abundance of skill. I say make it a point to get there and check it out. As always ~ bon appetit!

Open from 7 - 3pm, they serve a menu that is a breakfast lunch combo all day.

Brown Sugar Kitchen
2534 Mandela Parkway
Oakland, CA 94607-1727
(510) 839-7685


  1. Great post! As a native bay area resident, I am happy to see that Oakland is making a resurgence to the food sence. Diablo magazine just did a expose on the up and coming restaurants. Will have to check this one out!

  2. Thank you kindly! I've lived in the Bay Area all my life, and it's a beautiful place. Brown Sugar is really happening. If you go, get there early, or plan on a bit of a wait!


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