Tamales and Champurrado with John Birdsall in Oakland's Fruitvale
A couple of weeks ago we met one of our heroes. He doesn’t save lives (that we know of) but John Birdsall is one of our favorite food writers on the planet and happens to write eloquently about queer kitchens, among other things. He also knows some of the best tamale stands in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. John asked us to meet him at seven AM, a little early for Little Blue (she doesn’t usually wake up before nine) but we were able to rouse her for the trek across the bay.
We met at Los Mexicanos Panaderia, which was a node for the breakfast crowd. They served all manner of classic Mexican pastries along with delights such as cinnamon coffee and ready-made sandwiches. We got some coffee and concha, (delicious sugar-encrusted bun) and perched the truck out in front of the bakery for a couple minutes and got to know each other a bit. John began his food career on the other side of the counter, in the kitchen at Greens in SF, and later on as a chef at a restaurant and catering company in Chicago. It wasn’t until he returned to the bay in 2002 that he picked his pen back up and began to write about food seriously at the Bay Guardian.
Later on we drove down the street and parked outside of a small grocery store and walked to one of the local taco stands, Tamales Soledad. If the bakery was busy with people stopping in for their morning coffee, the tamale stand was bustling. They serve Mexican tamales wrapped in corn husks along with wetter Central American tamales in banana leaves along with other delicious treats. The texture of the tamales was perfect, the salsa just picante enough, the crunchy sabbage slaw the perfect counterpoint to the richness of the tamal.
Turns out, if you want to see what the Fruitvale taco trucks are really all about, you HAVE to be there that early, especially during the week. For all of the talk of gentrification in Oakland, Fruitvale is still very much a working class neighborhood and the food served at the bakeries and taco trucks on the main drag is not made for hipster “tourists” from Temescal and San Francisco, but for the men and women who are busting their asses to get to work every day at 8. And of course, especially on cold grey mornings, they fortify themselves with a tamale and champurrado. Humbled, we walked back to the truck...and talked more and had a photo shoot! When you wake up early you have so much time to do fun things!