Monday, March 21, 2011

HOMEROOM - Attention Class!! Today's menu is . . .

Trailer Mac (M&C with chips & hot dog!)
Some places just have a good vibe about them. We often say “it’s about the love” in the food writing biz, but it is really evident when the love is completely genuine. When the people who run a place care as much as the folks who gave birth to Homeroom, their efforts are more obviously evident to their patrons.

When I arrived at Homeroom on their second day of business, I was instantly reminded of a time and place in childhood that was very specific. Food is a wonderful method for retrieving pleasant memories. Our dining partner, @CarinaOst, also a food writer, picked up on the same thing. Walking into Homeroom and sitting down, we felt a little like we were suddently back in a classroom. No surprise there, given the name, but often restaurants fail to achieve the exact synthesis of atmosphere and impact that they’re going for. Not so, Homeroom.

The space the restaurant occupies on 40th & Shafter is small and inviting, kind of like your cubby was at school. The little piece of real estate that was yours alone. Its simple interior contains several object d’arts intended to draw a customers’ visual interest. Standing in the doorway and viewing the large, wall-sized chalkboard directly across from the entrance, I could appreciate the cheery white-chalk drawing of the State of California, an artwork that features cartoonish wiki-like bursts of info along the State’s landmarks. I’m not sure if it changes, but on my visit it depicted the locations of many purveyors of cheeses & wines local to California. In that moment I could not help but remember Mrs. Hazel Stone’s sixth-grade relief map of Brazil, similarly featuring information along it’s borders. Our elementary school project contained many of the various imports of Brazil (If memory serves, I was responsible for sugar production). My entire sixth-grade class had collaborated on the project and its effectiveness in getting us all to work together was a lesson I remember to this day.

Mexican Mac (Chorizo, Jalapeno and a slice o' Lime)

The table where our lunch companion, @CarinaOst, had managed to successfully snag a coveted seat for our party, was solid and wooden, like the heavy desks in the Catholic elementary school I found myself vividly recalling. And like those desks, the tiny carvings layered in the surface of the tables gave the restaurant an immediate sense of history. Desk carvings are the cave art we leave for the generations that follow. In elementary and high school there were always names of students from years (perhaps decades) past, etched deeply into the surface of the wood, “SJ + JP” or “Bobby Forever”, as though we could unburden ourselves of the pain of adolescence with a few well-placed cuts of a ballpoint pen stabbed repeatedly into the surface of the soft, forgiving wood. Developing a groove there, determined to leave behind a message. The ache to make a mark in life that other’s might recognize. Vandalism is perhaps an immature act, but in this form it is a childish bid for immortality we can all relate to. We’ve all known the painful ache of a first crush. It made me wonder how many desktops have suffered at the hands of spurned youth in the name of unrequited love.

When we first sat down, I noticed @CarinaOst was particularly smitten with a tiny carving of a paper airplane that adorned her side of the table. Her finger traced the outline in a gesture of remembering. There was something comforting for her about that tiny, subtle token of childhood. Something fondly familiar. It felt like an older sibling had been there before us and left us a message of welcome. It is thoughtful touches like that, things that seem random but arent’t, that serve to enhance the comfort-food menu that is Homeroom’s particular brand of experience.

While my Catholic grammar school was run by nuns, Homeroom is run by two Berkeley Law grads who decided the law wasn’t for them. Bonding over food, they partnered up and began to test the market for their variations of classic macaroni and cheese, upgraded with the use of some really stellar local dairy products. As one enters, your olifactory senses are assaulted with the inviting smell of melting cheese, toasting bread and baking cookies. The sorts of smells that take you straight into Mom’s kitchen in that hour after you get home from school. It is not yet dinner time, but you are hungry, and everything smells so good.

But I digress. The food at Homeroom is simple, and simply perfect. @CarinaOst and my BH both ordered the Trailer Mac, an inviting combo of Macaroni & Cheese layered with Prather Ranch hot dogs and potato chips. For myself, I had the Mexican Mac, a blend of Macaroni, Cheese, Star Meats' homemade Chorizo, cilantro and Jalapeno (the latter neatly blended into the cheese itself). I think we’ve established that I like heat in my food, so this made me very happy. The hot, cheesy, goodness was set off nicely by the Lagunitas Pilsner (Petaluma) I ordered, and if you aren’t sure which one you want, the menu comes complete with suggested (beer & wine) pairings for the various dishes.

To finish off the meal, we ordered a few of their cookies. After a lot of rich, gooey, cheese, I think we all found ourselves hankering for something sweet. Homeroom’s menu features some yummy cookies baked fresh in their on-site convection oven. We sampled the chocolate chip (since this batch was on the smallish side they brought us two, but ordinarily an order is a single cookie), and the ‘homemade oreo’ which was almost a moon pie. Two thick, warm, dark-as-night chocolate cookies with a lovely whipped marshmallowy filling. Maybe a little more like a moon pie than an oreo, but who’s going to quibble with delicious?

Home Made Oreo, Chocolate Chip Cookie(s)
 Love the place. Loved the food. Simple comfort food done really well, with enough variety to keep it interesting. All of it reminding me somehow of an elementary school cafeteria, but in a very very good way.

As always, check it out for yourself, and bon appetit! WARNING: They do not take reservations, and as with many good ‘n trendy things, you aren’t the only one who’s headed that way. Get there early if you want a table! (We arrived at 11:15 for the lunch hour, and lucked out. By the time we’d all collected at our table the line was almost out the door).

UPDATE: Went again today 3/25 & they've switched the line out for table service.  Still awesome!

400 40th Street
Oakland, CA 94609

Table size: adequate
Noise level: high
Cost: moderate