Munching through a Cultural Cuisine Tour with Local Food Adventures
It’s a sunny autumn afternoon near Oakland’s Lake Merritt, and Lauren Herpich is laying out three principles that will frame our two hours on her Local Food Adventures’ Grand Lake Cultural Cuisine food tour: “No one leaves stuffed or starving. Share history. Have fun.”
The company’s food tours focus on neighborhood favorites rather than tourist hot spots, catering especially to locals who want to explore their own environs. Herpich, not a native Oaklander herself, used food to get to know the community when she moved to the Bay Area a few years back. Now, with her pockets full of facts and favorites, she treats her guests (up to 12 per tour) to a good dose of neighborhood lore and stand-out flavors accompanied by ample servings of her own easy charm and charisma.
The eating begins at Barlago, a bar and kitchen specializing in “Italian comfort food.” Its name, literally meaning bar on the lake, is appropriate, given the location’s front-and-center view of what owner Philip Raskin calls “the Oakland Riviera.” We find comfort indeed in an arugula salad topped with goat cheese, bruschetta, and a hearty plate of meatballs, as well as in the restaurant’s casual feel and rustic interior. Cozying up in a corner booth, we swap stories about Herpich’s home state of New Jersey. My companion is impressed by the offerings of house-made burrata and wine on tap.
From there, it’s a short walk down Grand Avenue to Oaktown Spice Shop, where Lauren stops us before we enter. “Breathe in,” she suggests with a twinkle in her eye. Even several steps from the door, the air is rich with an earthy mixture of aromas that transports us to far-off lands. Inside, a chipper employee conducts us along walls of salts and spices, rubs and herbs, allowing us to sniff and sample our way through the shop. This olfactory feast serves as a perfect gastronomic respite before we dive back into real eating.
Next up is Caña Parlor and Cafe, “the most authentic Cuban restaurant in the neighborhood,” where we munch on beef and chicken empanadas as well as both sweet and savory plantain dishes, with salsa verde and cinnamon crema close at hand. The décor conjures images of a sultry Havana evening, and our guide reveals that this is a happening spot for live music and events. Mambo!
Our journey toward the final stop takes us past the Grand Lake Theater, where Herpich stops to drop some trivia regarding the historic landmark. We learn that the sign above the almost century-old theater—visible to commuters whizzing past on I-580—is the largest of its type west of the Mississippi, dazzling with its 2,800 colored bulbs, and that the theater’s owner has a propensity for sharing his progressive politics on the marquee. A theatrical pipe organ in the main auditorium, originally designed to accompany silent films, still plays before the 7pm show on Fridays and Saturdays.
For dessert, we stroll up Grand to La Parisienne, a boulangerie and pâtisserie where we polish off a rare croissant stuffed with both chocolate and almond (take that, Starbucks!), testing the limits of the principle “no one leaves stuffed.” Our minds and stomachs full of good things, we say our goodbyes.
The Grand Lake Cultural Cuisine food tour runs selected Saturdays through 2018, with additional options for private group tours. Local Food Adventures donates one dollar from every ticket sold to the Alameda Community Food Bank.
Sam Tillis is an Oakland-based man of many hats. When not writing, copy editing, or wrangling Edible East Bay’s social media, he can be found running Quantum Dragon Theatre, the Bay Area’s premiere science-fiction/fantasy theatre company. quantumdragon.org