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Gay4U's Closing Is Not a Goodbye: The Trans-Centric Vegan Cafe Hits the Road

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Three vegan quesabirria tacos in a takeout container.
The vegan quesabirria in one many dishes at Gay4U that feature bold flavors and interesting textures. (Paloma Cortes)

O

n the corner of 14th and Peralta Street in West Oakland sits Gay4U, a small, unassuming restaurant that sells kimchi chilaquiles, vegan quesabirria and other meatless wonders. But the space has grown to be more than just another vegan restaurant. The trans flag colors (light blue, white and pink) that decorate the restaurant’s facade are just one sign of how Gay4U has made its mark on the Bay Area’s queer and trans communities of color—and in the hearts, and stomachs, of many. 

Now, after two and a half years in West Oakland, the restaurant is closing. Or, to be more accurate, it’s hitting the road: Gay4U will have its last day of service as a brick-and-mortar restaurant—at least for now—on Sunday, March 27. Starting in April, the business will morph into a roving pop-up that will move across the country, from city to city, at least through the end of September.

Beyond its menu of vegan dishes that draw on Latinx, Asian and American comfort food flavors, Gay4U became a fixture in West Oakland by building a supportive and safe space for trans people of color. The restaurant instituted a program wherein trans people of color could always eat for free. It set up a bright pink community fridge right outside to provide for those experiencing food and housing insecurity. Every month, it hosts a local market called “GayMart” that holds space for LGBTQ+ artists, live music and more. 

All this has made the restaurant a go-to for queer and trans folks in the area.

A display inside Gay4U with blocks that read "Black Trans Lives Matter."
The West Oakland restaurant has been a haven for queer and trans communities of color. (Paloma Cortes)

The nurturer behind all of this is Ginger Espice, a trans femme woman who moved to the Bay Area from San Diego in their early 20s, launching a series of pop-ups to show off their vegan tamales and other vegetable-based goodies. In 2009, Espice (who was known as Sofi Peligras at the time) and their then-partner started Hella Vegan Eats, a food truck in Oakland’s Uptown Arts District. 

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“Once I moved to the Bay Area, I felt really allotted to be myself, and a lot of that had to do with starting Hella Vegan Eats, selling food on the streets, and all the fun vegan foods that people [are] recognizing me for,” Espice says. 

For its last three years of business, the popular food truck operated out of Classic Cars West, but it was asked to leave in early 2019. Espice’s relationship with their partner ended, too, not long after that. So, Espice needed to figure out a new plan.

“I was like, ‘I’m not coming correct, I’m not being myself as I need to be and that just needs to come out,’ [so] I agreed with myself that it was okay to be myself,” Espice says.

The end result of this journey of self-acceptance was Gay4U, which opened in its new West Oakland home toward the end of 2019, with its new trans-POC-eat-free policy in place. 

The food itself was a big attraction from the very start. “Unusual things are what’s inspiring, just trying different flavors and textures,” says Espice, who wanted the restaurant to reflect California’s rich culture of hole-in-the-wall restaurants—like doughnut shops that also sell amazing cheeseburgers or Chinese food. 

Gay4U’s vegan quesabirria is a nod to their parents’ roots in Tijuana, with well-spiced snow mushrooms that imitate the chewiness of meat, a crispy blue-corn tortilla, cashew-based cheese, and a cordyceps mushroom consomé on the side for dipping or sipping. The makka birria crunch wrap (think Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme) stuffs two of those crunchy quesabirria tacos into a soft flour tortilla, along with a vegan cheddar mac and cheese, and tops the whole thing off with a sprinkling of cashew-cotija cheese—a vegan take on the much-admired aged Mexican cheese. 

For Espice, food is a kind of love language: “That’s just what I do. I see people and I’m like, ‘Let me make you dinner!’” But Gay4U was never solely about the food. Espice’s bigger goal was always to make queer and trans people of color feel welcomed, seen, accepted and supported. 

“I think for me [it’s about] having a resource and a place to see the community that I want to see held up and prized,” Espice explains. 

Toward that end, Gay4U also hosts the aforementioned “GayMart,” which Espice figured would be a clever antidote to the big corporate stores like Kmart and Walmart. One Sunday a month, the restaurant converts into an outdoor lounge for the community. Queer and trans artists set up tables and clothing racks outside, selling vintage clothing, crystals, handmade candles and a plethora of other creative things. Local DJs come through with their sound equipment and vinyl collections. Other folks stop by the community fridge to enjoy some free food, or to grab the free clothing that’s available there at times.  

For Noelle, a local beauty aesthetician and owner of Oakland’s De La Derma, “GayMart feels like a once in a lifetime experience—the people are so lovely and sweet, and it’s one of my favorite places to be.” Rizza, a tooth gem artist in Alameda who runs Topshelfgold, says, “I’ve vended for three years now, and there’s no other space that has been provided to me like Ginger’s space—it feels so much more supportive. There’s no words to express how much I love Ginger and how they support the queer community.” 

Artists and other creatives set up booths on the sidewalk for the outdoor market known as "GayMart."
One Sunday a month, the sidewalk outside Gay4U turns into a sprawling outdoor market known as “GayMart.” (Paloma Cortes)

For the past year, Espice has joined forces with Oakland-based mutual aid and QTIBIPOC artists collective We Are The Ones and Visibilit_, a trans migrant-focused fundraising platform, to host dedicated trans skate parties. ThemBoys, a Bay Area skate crew, provides skate rentals, helping attendees prep for an evening dedicated to skating, rolling and bouncing. Of course, Gay4U provides the food.

The final West Oakland iteration of the skate party, at least for now, will take place at Defremery Skate Park on March 26, in honor of the Transgender Day of Visibility. 

Espice hopes to bring the skate parties with them on the road, but the challenges of the pandemic made them realize that they needed to bring this chapter of their business to a close. They spent the last four years working over 100 hours a week to serve the community, build their brand and keep Gay4U afloat. But in the end, it all proved to be too much. After selling most of their belongings to pay the lease and not receiving any PPE grants, Espice decided they needed to take a break. 

“The stresses of running a business on my own started weighing on me,” Espice says. The pop-up tour would provide a different set of opportunities. Espice plans to be on the road for six months, starting with a two-month stint at the queer, Chinanx taqueria Mis Tacones in Portland, Oregon. The other stops have yet to be announced, but Espice plans to end the tour in New York City. And trans people of color will eat for free everywhere Gay4U goes.  

As for the restaurant’s current West Oakland location, Espice wanted to be sure that the kitchen went to another vegan POC-owned business. Starting in April, Don’t Be Chiki’n, a Black woman-owned food truck serving vegan soul food classics like fried chicken, mac and cheese, beignets and milkshakes, will be moving in.

 With many projects in the works dedicated to what they call the “gay agenda,” Espice promises that Gay4U is just getting started. During the next six months, you can also expect Espice to co-host a podcast focused on queer and trans artists, sell hand-designed clothing made in collaboration with their sibling, and much more. They’re currently working on popularizing the idea of “Trans Tuesday”—a day of the week when people are encouraged to be a little different. 

In other words, Espice doesn’t believe this is a goodbye to the Bay Area from Gay4U, but a see-you-later.

“I am someone who believes this is all a lucid dream, and I want to express that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Black trans femmes,” Espice says. “I want to always show my love and admiration for the culture that blossomed and inspired me.” 

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Gay4U’s last day of business is Sunday, March 27—it will be open from 10am to 5pm at 1327 Peralta St. in Oakland. The Trans Skate Day will take place on Saturday, March 26, 2–6 pm, at the Defremery Town Park Skate Park.

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