Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Of God and Liquor

"I have seen the sleeping knights of Jesus
Gazing out across the open sea
I have seen the sleeping knights of Jesus
And they look extremely tired to me.

Dying of starvation in the gutter (in the gutter)
That is all the future holds for me (holds for me)
Or alcoholic poisoning in the toilet of my choice
That's all there is as far as I can see..."

-Robyn Hitchcock

On my many walks and bicycle rides around the East Bay, I am time and again drawn to the many old-timey signs on the Churches and liquor stores. I have to admit I am both drawn to and repulsed by both of these institutions. Churches for their architectural splendor and their ability to turn people into monsters; liquor stores and their ample alcohol with its pleasant intoxicating effects and its ability to turn people into monsters.

Last week I happened across a man splayed out upon a bench at a BART station. He had imbibed a bit too much, vomited, passed out, and pissed himself. The paramedics were called. At least he only did it to himself. Many others just like this man might find themselves behind the wheel of a car where they injure or kill themselves, or someone else's son or daughter. Or maybe they'll simply return home and hurt a loved one. Similarly, earlier in the month our good friends at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints encouraged the people of California to pass a ballot measure that writes discrimination into the state's Constitution. This institution of good will and morality encouraged mistrust and discrimination of a minority group.

They don't make them like they used to. The sign on the Pentecostal Church at 38th and Telegraph almost looks older than the church itself. Does Jesus save only Pentecostals? Or Pentecostal Churches? Or maybe only this particular church?

I'm an Oregon native. In Oregon, the sale of liquor is controlled by the state and liquor is only sold in special liquor stores. Conversely, liquor stores in California do not sell only liquor. It's just the common name for convenience stores. Many of the liquor stores in this area are owned by immigrant families carving out their own piece of the American dream. There are a lot of stories in these places.

The All Nations Church of Christ is a small attractive church on the South Berkeley/North Oakland border. I like their cross.

Williams Liquor, only a few blocks from my humble abode, has a sign that lights up in the evenings. It's really quite a sight to behold. Many a thirsty traveller has felt relief upon spotting the flickering lights.

Lily of the Valley Baptist is a small and unassuming church on San Pablo Blvd. in Berkeley. Their sign which may or may not light up at night is more visible than the small cross.

While liquor and organized religion often provide us with comfort and solace through tough times, they can at times reveal our most appalling selves. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, let's forget about all that and be thankful for their aesthetically pleasing qualities here in the East Bay. I don't know why so many of these old signs still exist, but I'm certainly grateful for them.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Taco Truck Mi Grullense Revisited

Let's make this one short and sweet. I revisited Mi Grullense for a shot at tacos this time. Once again, the truck nearest the Goodwill entrance was the busy one so I ordered there. I ordered tacos de carne asada and received the satisfaction that I have come to expect from the local taco trucks.

I can now recommend that you visit Mi Grullense.

In tight economic times, $1.25 tacos and goodwill shopping seem like a no brainer. Also, If you have any work you need done on your house, there are day laborers milling about as well.

Mi Grullense
2925 International Blvd
Oakland, CA 94620

Friday, November 14, 2008


Fall foods are always a greatly appreciated arrival, and this year is no exception. But the topic of today's post is not about a favorite fall food from growing up, but a more recent one. I didn't taste my first persimmon until moving to Busan, South Korea in the fall of 2004. I was at first intrigued, unsure, and then hooked.

I ate the firm variety, called Gam in Korean. I also ate the soft ones, called hong-shi. The persimmons growing on the trees in the neighborhoods by my apartment is one image I will always remember. For months they were sold at stores, in the alleyways, and out of the backs of trucks. When the season wound down, those same truck sold truckloads of dried persimmons.

I returned to America and kind of forgot about persimmons. I moved to Thailand where persimmons are sometimes sold as an "exotic" fruit on the streets or stores in Bangkok. This kind of fruit I would often refer to as status fruit. Besides eating persimmons briefly in Vietnam, I always ate whatever was available locally, and it certainly wasn't persimmons.

Since moving to the State of California, I've enjoyed the expected berries, stone fruits, and recent apples. How delighted I was to learn that in fact persimmons are an abundant fall/winter crop. I'd had no idea.

I hit up the Old Oakland farmers market every week and buy many pounds of fruit. Persimmons are a welcome re-addition to my normal diet.

Today I bought three pounds of firm fuyu persimmons, and six soft Hachiya persimmons.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tacos Mi Rancho

On the weekends I find any reason at all to end up in East Oakland long enough for a plate of tacos. After an almost six mile walk I realized that I was in fact on to something. Getting in your car, or walking a couple of blocks to the neighborhood taqueria is a sure way to find yourself on the losing end of the American health care system. If you are uninsured you will soon find yourself indebted to some hospital for the rest of your miserable health plagued life. If you are in fact insured it would be wise not to document your exploits for some weaselly insurance agent to see and decide that insuring you is an immense liability without some hefty premiums. Just a thought.

Where were we? Oh yes, tacos, waist lines, and the search for the meaning of life. Today I stumbled across Tacos Mi Rancho and sampled their fine tacos.

On a small spit of Land on 1st Avenue and east 14th sits Tacos Mi Rancho. I can't think of a better place for a taco truck.

It feels like I'm on auto pilot writing about these trucks. So here's the verdict on Oakland's taco truck scene. It's pretty damn good really. You can get pretty consistently good tacos for a good price all over East Oakland.

Most places serve just about the same thing, so deciding on a truck is not a make or break situation, although my fave is still Tacos Alonzo. None of this is particularly scientific though. I try slightly different stuff at each truck as I refuse to eat asada or pastor twenty times in a row. So today I went for a plate of tacos de buche. What is buche you ask? Pork stomach of course. The helpful if not entirely accurate menu for the Spanish impaired is certainly cute.

I took my first bite and was reminded that buche is not in fact my favorite meat. I don't dislike it, but the texture is not my cup of tea. It's soft, and doesn't give much when chewed. I like a bit more resistance. Regardless of this, the flavors were still very nice. The tortillas tasted fresh, the richness and spice was all there, and they were very generous with the pickled carrots and radishes. Friendly service was certainly appreciated as well.

Tacos Mi Rancho
1st Ave & E 14th St
Oakland, CA 94606

Saturday, November 8, 2008

La Torta Loca

La Torta Loca is my kind of place. It serves the mostly Spanish speaking community in East Oakland. It shares a space with a laundromat, the seating is quite limited, and there are absolutely no frills. This is some of the least pretentious food there is, the kind that is sadly lacking from most people's radar screens in the Bay Area. It's about the food dammit. I'm losing my voice saying this again and again.

I like La Torta Loca's menu. They offer a nice spread of Mexican comfort foods. Besides the straight ahead tortas you've got pombasos, flautas, huaraches, and sopes. Until recently they had served the fascinating and delicious huitlacoche, but it has since been crossed off the menu. Shame. All in all, there appears to be some real potential at La Torta Loca. I say potential because of my recent meal there.

On my visit I ordered a torta de milanesa. Milanesa is pounded and fried beef. That's the quick explanation at least. The seven dollars I paid seemed really steep until my food arrived. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. What came was a little bit disappointing.

Huh? What am I looking at here? I've spent a fair bit of time in Mexico and eaten my share of tortas. Tortas that I am familiar with are made with a bolillo. A Bolillo is simply a Mexican baguette like bread. They are firm and crusty on the outside, and soft on the inside. Just what are we looking at here? So far the tortas I have gotten here in the Bay Area are made with something else entirely. Recently I have been served tortas upon what can only be described as hamburger bun-like bread. This torta seen above was actually a step up, but not a huge step. The bread is still very airy and rather tasteless. It was grilled to make the outside a bit crisp but it was still less than inspiring. I'm lead to believe that there is no bakery in town baking proper bolillo as hard as that is to believe.

This torta might not look it, but it was massive. It was filled with: meat, beans, lettuce (argh!), onions, avocado, and a couple of nice pickled jalapenos on the side. This torta was massive owing to being so full of meat. This is a problem for me as I normally eat a largely vegetarian diet. I'll eat meat when I go out on occasion, but never at home. To be confronted with such a meat extravaganza was more than I could comfortably handle. My advice to you: bring a friend and split one.

Regardless of the misfire, there's something I like about La Torta Loca. Call me crazy but I think I'll be back soon. The huraches look like a good bet.

La Torta Loca
3419 International Blvd
Oakland, CA 94601
(510) 532-7105

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Taco Truck Oaxaco

Parking lots are a serious blight upon the land. Filled with cars or empty, they are a waste of space and an insult to the land they sit upon. Sometimes I think that there is no better symbol of America than her vast parking lots.

In south Berkeley there sits a parking lot at Ashby and Alcatraz where every weekend, there is a flea market. On these days I put aside my hard feeling and rummage around for junk.

I rarely buy anything at the flea market, but it's quite a nice cultural experience. You can buy handicrafts, old records, or the stuff people have stolen from you. There is another very important reason why I always go back. Every Saturday and Sunday, a very good taco truck sets up shop.

Taco Truck Oaxaco has a pretty typical spread of Menu items, none of which remind me of the flavors of Oaxaca. Oh well, they are a competent and cheap truck. The burritos at this truck are certainly nice, and the tacos look ok as well, but it's the gorditas I return for.

I first ate a gordita in the state of Chihuahua way back in 2002. My memory is hazy, but around this time Taco Bell was selling something they called a gordita with a bizarre advertising campaign that used Communist and Cuban imagery and that goddamn dog wearing a barret much like Che Guevara wears on all those t-shirts. Needless to say, I never ate one of their gorditas.

So what's a gordita? Well, think of a pita but made of masa, and fried. You fill it with meat, cheese, beans, cabbage, and salsa. I'm leaving something out or saying one too many things I'm sure, but there are no hard and fast rules.

So here's my fresh, hot gordita. In the words of a rolling Stone author upon hearing Bob Dylan's 1970 album Self Portrait: "What is this shit?" Why is it that so often Mexican food in America uses lettuce instead of the more typical and superior cabbage? Why oh why would any rational person do such a thing? Lettuce cannot stand up to heat and it always gets limp. The texture adds little or nothing. Also, in terms of food value there is nothing. Nada. Zip. It's not that you'd never get lettuce in Mexico, but it's just not common. I want cabbage. Keep in mind that I tend to overreact about these kinds of things. It has simply boiled over at this very moment into a stream of consciousness rant. No hard feelings.

Anyhow, this gordita has lettuce in it and I can deal with that. But what else is there? Well you've got some sour cream, which once again is not exactly right, but it is good. There's some very lovely cabeza inside, better than I would have expected frankly, and a very good and spicy red salsa. Wrapped up in fresh hot masa, you've got yourself a snack or a small meal. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend two-fifty at a flea market, but I'm hard pressed to think of a better way.

Taco Truck Oaxaco at the Berkeley Flea Market
1937 Ashby Ave
(between Martin Luther King Jr Way & Otis St)
Berkeley, CA 94703
Every Saturday and Sunday 7am-7pm

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

Voting time is here and once again we're telling ourselves that this is the most important election of our lifetime. I like to think that the last couple were equally important but sadly the bad guys prevailed. We had ourselves a judicial Coup coup d’├ętat in 2000 fitting for the government of a two bit tyrant, not the world's remaining superpower. 2004 saw more dirty tricks, disenfranchisement, and unanswered questions. Our constitution has been dragged through the mud by a rich kid and his no good pals. They may never be invited back to the party, but they sure as hell will break all the toys before they leave. How do you recover from something like this? It's a wonder the streets aren't constantly filled with an angry population.

I would like to think that there is something special going on right now, but it's hard to be sure. We'll know soon enough. American politicians often say with a straight face that our institutions are the envy of the world even with a pathetic 54% voter turnout. Let's see if we can do better than that. You know what to do.