Taste is not what you think. Every schoolchild learns that it is one of the five senses, a partner of smell and sight and touch, a consequence of food flitting over taste buds that send important signals—sweet or bitter, nutrient or poison?—to the brain. Were it so simple.
In the past decade our understanding of taste and flavor has exploded with revelations of the myriad and complex ways that food messes with our consciousness—and of all the ways that our biases filter the taste experience. Deliciousness is both ingrained and learned, both personal and universal. It is a product of all five senses (hearing included) interacting in unexpected ways, those sensory signals subject to gross revision by that clump of nerve tissue we call the brain.
Let’s start at the beginning: Food enters your mouth, meets your teeth and begins to be broken down by enzymes in your saliva. The morsel soon moves over your papillae, the few thousand bumps that line your tongue. Each papilla houses onionlike structures of 50 to 100 taste cells folded together like the petals of a young flower about to bloom—taste buds, we call them. These cells have chemical receptors attuned to the five basic tastes—bitter, sweet, sour, salt and umami, the last a word borrowed from Japanese that describes the savory flavors of roast meat or soy sauce.
The “Saahside” oftentimes gets a bad rap, mostly for the shortage of parking. If you can find a spot on one of the many narrow streets, park and head to The Urban Tap. I promise it will be worth the aggravation.
The Urban Tap is only a couple years old, replacing a few other restaurants that have tried to survive in this location, including one of my old-time favorites, Old Europe. I can safely say, with the inventive bar grub and extensive beer offerings, it will become a permanent fixture on East Carson Street for years to come.
After ordering one of the many beers, craft cocktails or wines on tap, you don’t want to overlook the small-plates menu and head straight for the larger ones. The small plates are honestly where it’s at.
The steam table gets a bad rap in most quarters, but especially in the Bay Area, where restaurateurs take particular pride in the freshness of their offerings — the tomato that was picked off the vine just this morning, the burger patty that never once saw the inside of a freezer. In this context, “steam table fare” is usually shorthand for low-quality food prepared by and for the lazy — food that has just been sitting there, coagulating, for several hours at a time. The opposite of Slow Food, if you will.
Here in Oakland, though, at least two steam table restaurants — a soul food spot just outside of the Fruitvale district and a Korean bodega downtown — are challenging the conventional wisdom that restaurants geared toward quick-service takeout business necessarily need to sacrifice deliciousness.
I’ve written before about Lena’s Soul Food Cafe and how Calvin Andrews and his nephew Lamont Andrews saved a struggling family business by turning what had been a chicken wings joint into a tribute to the soulful home cooking of their Texas-born family matriarch, Lena Mae Andrews — Calvin’s mother — who died in 2004. Now open for two and a half years, Lena’s might be the most popular restaurant in Oakland that you’ve never heard of. It’s not uncommon for there to be a line out the door, even at, say, 3 p.m. on a random weekday. On weekends — when things get really crazy — an employee often heads to the back of the line with a tablet to put in orders ahead of time, In-N-Out drive-thru-style.
“People don’t know how to eat any more.” It’s a bold statement – but, then, that’s typical of Gizzi Erskine. The food writer, TV presenter and trained chef doesn’t mince her words. She credits this tendency for being a bit “gobby” as having helped launch her career more than a decade ago, when she was picked up for Channel 4’s Cook Yourself Thin TV series. Several hit recipe books followed, all with the basic premise that good food, cooked well, can be healthy and delicious.
With titles such as Skinny Weeks and Weekend Feasts to her name, you might assume the 35-year-old would be at the forefront of the latest foodie trend: clean eating. Armies of food bloggers are using social media to promote super-healthy regimes; search for the hashtags #fitfood or #eatclean to witness oceans of Instagrammed snaps of avocado toast and green juices.
But all this has Erskine worried. Actually, it’s made her mad. When we meet at members’ club Shoreditch House, near her home, she launches into her “campaign” against this trend before she has even sat down. “Over the past 18 months I’ve seen this hashtag of eatclean, cleaneating, fitfood. In the beginning there were techniques coming out that were interesting: spiralising, cauliflower rice, bone broth. But how we’re using some of these techniques is not entirely… delicious.”