A white van with “La Poblana” emblazoned on the side passed us at an intersection, advertising authentic cemitas. Zach, as the passenger, quickly got on his smart phone to find out what cemitas are. These are sandwiches that originate from Puebla, a region of Mexico. La Poblana turned out to be a food truck, and like the cemita, everything served is based on recipes from Puebla. Despite being run out of a food truck, nothing is “typical” for this Mexican mobile food eatery. In fact, a lady walked up and asked for tamales, but you won’t find anything like that here. We had the opportunity to try every item on the menu, and each was savory, rich, and flavorful.
Of the groups of people that came through while we were here, there was at least one in each party who ordered either a cemita or a pambazo (see below). The beef in this sandwich with a soft brioche-like roll was breaded and very, very tender and juicy with the slightest crispiness on the outside. Its seasoning was more bold than spicy, so August absolutely loved being able to taste Mexican flavors without the heat. Also, this version of a sandwich had two kinds of cheese, including special Oaxacan cheese shipped in from Mexico, along with the familiar queso fresco. With roasted red peppers and Bolivian coriander to round it out, this was a multi-layer sandwich in both flavor and texture. Most of the items like this one came with side finger vegetables, such as grilled nopales, peppers, and spring onions, all tasty additions to the plates.
“Pambazo” technically refers to a specific style of bread, often dipped in red guajillo pepper sauce before becoming a sandwich. Most typically, the pambazo sandwich is made with chorizo and potatoes, which was how we tried it. The bread is crispy and buttery, and while it’s usually a tougher texture, dipping it in the special sauce makes it softer and flavor-packed. The chorizo used was great because it wasn’t as fatty as others that we’ve found before.
Quesadillas, when written in English, don’t have to be qualified with italics anymore. Pretty much everyone in the United States recognizes a quesadilla as a tortilla folded around melted cheese. Today, though, we tasted quesadillas with italics, because these are likely how they should be done. These are with cheese, of course, but not Jack – instead, authentic Mexican cheeses with light, creamy flavors are used. The tortillas are particularly impressive because they are made by hand, on site. They are denser and way tastier, making the quesadillas absolutely deliciosas. On the left is a quesadilla with pumpkin blossoms, which tasted a little green and somewhat floral, very spring-like. On the right is a quesadilla with corn smut, aka huitlacoche. This ingredient is a pathogenic fungus, but it is good. Somewhat nutty, somewhat eggy, and somewhat mushroomy, this was an interesting flavor that we’re happy was introduced to us.
The chorizo in this sope is the same as what was in the pambazo – not extremely greasy, and not ground up like dog food. It was nice to see firm chunks of meat on top of a handmade sope shell. The beans were tender and flavorful, and the plentiful cheese always helps to cool down the mouth once the Mexican Coca Cola has run out.
Chalupas at Taco Smell are nothing like the authentic chalupas. As a vegetarian dish, these are fried, crisp mini rounds of dough, much like thick tortillas, with a special sauce. Spicy, fresh, simple, and at four for $1, this is the most filling and delicious bang for your buck you can probably find on all of International Blvd!
Every year when August gets to a certain point in her teaching curriculum, she tells her students about the two food groups in the world: foods that are enhanced with garlic, and foods that are enhanced with chocolate. Chicken is one of the few items that goes both ways, and when her students look mortified about the thought of chicken and chocolate, she tells them about mole. The most recognized and classic mole is the mole poblano, from Puebla, which is dark red-brown and tastiest served over meat. Despite having the smallest bit of chocolate, and chocolate usually makes us think “sweet,” this sauce is not at all sweet but rather savory, for the chocolate serves to counteract the heat of the peppers. With beans, rice, queso fresco, and more grilled vegetables, the mole tasted great over everything on the plate.
Pipián is technically a type of mole, since mole is a Nahuatl word for “sauce.” But what puts pipián in its own category is the main ingredient. Seeds are pureed for the base, mixed with rich cilantro, garlic, and tomatillos. Pumpkins seeds, sesame seeds, and peanuts are commonly used for making the base. This was one of the spiciest items we tried today, but it was equally refreshing with cilantro and tomatillos. If you love spicy food but still enjoy the flavor behind the heat, you have to try this dish.
Tacos árabes, inspired by Middle Easter shawerma, are tacos wrapped in cone-forms around crispy meat; here we have tacos árabes al pastor. The pork had a mild tanginess and hint of sweetness from being grilled with pineapple and onions, and with no other garnishes besides ripe avocado and juicy lime, we got to savor the simplicity in this well-composed plate.
We are so fortunate to have found this food truck by chance and Victor, the owner, originator, and gracious host, is an amazing chef. We were overwhelmingly impressed by the flavors and care taken in preparing our food. With a comfortable seating area, blooming flowers, and food so good, it doesn’t matter that it was prepared in a food truck; in fact, once you sit down and start eating you’ll feel like your at an international cafe instead of a stretch of one of Oakland’s most infamous streets. Businesses like this one help to erode the stigma of street food.
Looking online for reliable restaurant information in Oakland is limited. Searching for “taquería oakland” gave us literally nothing in our neighborhood within 4 miles. But driving around Oakland, one can find many restaurants, sometimes almost a dozen on a single block. A lack of an online presence seems untrustworthy nowadays, as we rely so much on that fallible resource, yet taking a shot in the dark can prove fruitful. On a whim around lunch time, we pulled into the back parking lot of Taquería Los Dos Gallos at 5901 International Blvd, and we don’t regret it in the slightest.
Almost half of the menu here has breakfast items, with a mix of Mexican dishes, omelettes, and even waffles and pancakes. We were well past craving breakfast for ourselves, being a late lunch as it was, but we got the chilaquiles rojos so that we could try something off the expansive breakfast selection and write about it here. Essentially tortilla chips, eggs, cheese, and salsa, it’s a scramble with bright flavors and many layers of texture. The red sauce was very bold with chilies, garlic, and onion. It melded with the crispy chips, gooey cheese, and velvety eggs. With sides of sour cream, rice, beans, and freshly chopped onions and avocado, this is part of a complete, savory, and international breakfast.
The word torta changes meaning depending on where you are and who you’re talking with. For Mexico, torta is a delicious sandwich with fresh vegetables, mayonnaise, avocado, and your choice of meat. Carnitas are little fried bits of pork, and here they were riquísimas in this torta with a grilled and buttery soft roll. Tender, rich, and flavor-packed, carnitas has always been one of our favorite styles of Mexican meat preparation. Thick tomato, crispy lettuce, and creamy avocado added to the enjoyment.
We got three types of tacos; there were enough different kinds of meat, we had to try a few. Each one was loaded with fresh meat, cilantro, and white onion. One was al pastor which is a style of pork you can find most places. The meat was grilled and crispy, and only mildly spicy with a tiny bit of tanginess from the pineapple with which it was roasted. Because we’re adventurous, we also tried one cabeza and one lengua (that’s head and tongue, respectively). The cabeza was nice and tender with a mild marinade so the flavor of the meat was the star. The tongue was just as tender with more of a gamey flavor, but it was mild and pleasant. While the two meats came from the same region of the body, the tastes were very different.
Don’t get sucked into limiting yourself to restaurants with an online presence, focusing on the stars given by someone who doesn’t know good food. There are restaurants which have yet to be discovered, and it only takes a hint of courage to break away from the chatter on the ‘Net and try somewhere new.
The foundation of all Western rice-based entrees, paella is Spain’s crown dish. Regional varieties offer some with all seafood, some with surf and sky, some even with rabbit. But the three things that unite all paellas are saffron, fresh ingredients (from sources as local as possible, preferably), and an open flame. Cooking on a stove top instead of in the oven results in the desired texture of rice with just slightest bit of firmness.
48 oz. of organic chicken broth
3 cups of arborio rice
3 cups of water
3 bone-in chicken thighs (pull the skin off yourself; you want them skinless, but save the money)
1 lb. of large, cleaned, peeled, raw prawns
18 farm-raised black mussels
12 farm-raised little neck clams
1 1/2 cups of white wine
12 oz. of frozen peas
12 oz. of kielbasa
5 organic carrots
5 stalks of organic celery
1 large onion
1 large red bell pepper
6 whole garlic cloves
4 tbs. of extra virgin olive oil
1 tbs. of saffron threads in 1 cup of warm water, having soaked for at least 3 minutes
2 tsp. of kosher salt
1/2 tsp. of cracked black pepper
Roughly chop the carrots and celery. Peel and halve the onion. Cut one of the onion halves in half again, and put this with the carrots, celery, and garlic cloves in a large stock pot with 2 tbs. of olive oil over medium heat. Cook for about 8-10 minutes, until the vegetables begin to caramelize.
Deglaze the stock pot with the wine. Add the chicken stock, saffron, saffron water, and 3 cups of water, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium-low and let simmer for no more than 30 minutes; too much time can cause the vegetables to make the stock bitter. Strain the vegetables when done and discard the solids, leaving just the liquid.
In a large paella pan, heat the remaining 2 tbs. of olive oil on medium heat. Put the bone-in, skinless chicken thighs on the surface and begin to lightly brown the meat, about 5 minutes on each side. In the meantime, remove the seeds of the bell pepper, then evenly dice the pepper and the remaining onion.
Move the chicken to the side of the pan, and add the bell pepper and onion. Cook for about 7-8 minutes until the onion is translucent and the pepper softened, but you don’t want to brown these yet – if you see them starting to brown, reduce the heat.
Cut the kielbasa in 1″ chunks, and add to the paella pan. Let cook for an additional 4 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the pan so that it is easier to stir in the rice. It is essential that the rice grains all have the chance to be evenly coated by the pan oils, and ingredients need to be evenly mixed. Nestle and somewhat submerge the chicken back into the rice, evenly spaced, after the rice has been sufficiently coated.
Pour in 2 1/2 to 3 cups of the stock. Bring back to a simmer, still on medium heat, and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the rice is about three-quarters of the way cooked. Keep adding stock through those 15 minutes, with 1/2 to 1 cup at a time to maintain the rice continuously submerged.
When the rice hits the three-quarter mark, add the frozen peas. Also add the seafood, slightly nestling it similar to how you placed the chicken. Whatever stock remains, add that as well. Cover the pan with foil (it may require a few pieces to span the width). Let sit for 10 minutes more, then remove from heat and let sit for an additional 5 minutes, still with the foil cover.
Peel away the foil and serve immediately.