The Eat Real Festival is now upon us, and like last year, we’re acting as your Virgil-esque guide to the maze of artisan doughnuts, craft beers and chia seed samples that make up the annual event. The Jack London Square festival lasts all weekend and has over 70 food vendors from around California, offering dishes emphasizing local, organic and sustainable fare. All dishes cost $8 or below and proceeds benefit the Food Craft Institute, an artisan food business incubator. In addition to the food offerings, the festival offers classes, music and events like whole hog butchering featuring a group of local female butchers.
Before we get to our favorite dishes, some general tips: as with all food festivals in the Bay Area, the Eat Real Festival is extremely popular. Over 10,000 people attended last year’s event, and ten minutes into this year's festival, lines were already starting to form for popular vendors like Burma Bear and Curry Up Now. Prepare for the day like you would for a trip into battle, or at least, Disneyland: bring a reusable water bottle, comfortable shoes, a hat, and sunscreen. (Jack London Square has barely any shade, and the weekend is supposed to be a hot one). Some, but not all of the booths take credit and debit cards, so make sure to bring cash. Yes, there are ATMs, but save yourself the probably-astronomical fee by withdrawing some beforehand. There’s a parking garage in Jack London Square, but the festival’s location is close to the ferry, bus, and BART, via the free Broadway shuttle. (Plus, you’ll probably be grateful for the walk after a day of eating). And if you somehow find yourself hungry after the festival, wander to the other side of Jack London Square, where the Town Eats Festival is also taking place.
Here are some of our favorite dishes from the festival. Did we miss yours? Let us know in the comments!
Poki Time: Poke bowl
One of this year’s biggest food trends is the poke bowl, with restaurants offering the dish opening up around all around the Bay Area. Poki Time’s version, served at their location in San Francisco, is traditional, with every element--from the fresh ahi tuna to the bright orange fish eggs--works well together, proving why the dish has become so popular. It’s spicy, salty, mildy fish-y and crunchy from the addition of fried onions, providing a satisfyingly well-rounded dish.
El Sur: Verde empanada
An empanada is a wise choice for a festival like Eat Real--since it's handheld, you can take it with you as you walk around plotting your next meal. El Sur offers traditional empanadas, but they also offer more creative versions, including a prosciutto and cheese Parisen and a mushroom and creme fraiche Champinones. The Verde was a decadent vegetarian option, with a flaky, buttery crust encasing a tangled mess of chard, spinach, eggs and five cheeses. It was well-seasoned and rich, and as an added bonus, it was ready immediately--unlike the ten minute wait we had for other dishes.
CACOCO: Midnight Mystic
There’s hot chocolate, and then there’s drinking chocolate: an ultra rich, decidedly adult beverage that’s more like a melted down chocolate bar than your childhood cup of Swiss Miss. Drinking chocolate purveyors CACOCO take it one step further: their ethically sourced chocolate blends--all available to sample at the festival--offer a decadent chocolate mixed with beneficial add-ins like turmeric, maca and adaptogenic herbs. Our favorite was the Midnight Mystic, one of their simplest blends. A thick mix of 80% cacao, Himalayan salt and coconut sugar, it was remarkably rich and creamy despite it’s lack of dairy.
Roderick's BBQ: Brisket slider
While there’s every type of food trend and bizarre food mash-up represented at the festival, sometimes you just want something familiar. Roderick’s Barbecue, based in Oakland, doesn’t reinvent the smoked meat wheel, but its simple menu is classically enjoyable. The smoky beef brisket was tender and was perfectly complemented by creamy slaw and a not too sweet barbecue sauce, making it an ideal palate cleanser in between stranger offerings.
Core Kitchen: Thai Zucchini Noodles
If you’ve eaten one too many artisan Choco Tacos and are looking for something a little more virtuous, Core Kitchen is worth a visit. The booth, like their downtown Oakland restaurant, specializes in organic food that’s also gluten, salt, sugar, flour and oil free. (They bill themselves as “the world’s first produce-only restaurant.”) Luckily, the food isn’t just virtuous--it also happens to taste good. Their colorful Thai Zucchini Noodles feature thick spiralized zucchini noodles, crispy cashews and mixed vegetables drowned in an intriguing tart and sweet coconut sauce. It’s refreshing--crunchy, saucy, and spicy--but not ascetic, and unlike other foods at the festival you’ll feel good both during and after eating it.
Chico Chai: Iced Chico Chai
If you’re used to watery chai that tastes more like cinnamon-spiked milk, Chico Chai will be a revelation. The owner has perfected her recipe for over a decade and the company grinds their organic spice blend themselves, resulting in a drink that’s robustly spicy. You can get a dairy-free rooibos tea version, but the milk-based version we tried was sweet, creamy and aromatic with the scent of cloves and ginger. (Prudently, all their chais come over ice, making them an ideal drink for the weekend’s hot weather.)
Clove and Hoof: Oakland's Best Burger
There are a number of local restaurants with booths at Eat Real offering a selection of their most popular dishes. For Oakland’s meat-centric Clove and Hoof, that’s their burger, which they tout as “Oakland’s Best.” It’s certainly an impressively specimen, with a 4 oz grassfeed patty topped with spicy pimento cheese, briney pickle mayo and crunchy shredded lettuce. All the elements coalesce into a delectable, satisfying burger. It also comes medium rare, so if you prefer it more cooked, make sure to let them know. Its one flaw? It’s incredibly messy, and fell apart midway through our sampling (however, this didn’t keep us from finishing every last bite).
Beer Shed: Cleophus Quealy Beer Company’s Hibiscus Saison
Eat Real also boasts an impressive beer, cider and spirit selection, with options ranging from Hanger 1 vodka to newcomers Novel Brewing. There’s a handy chart to guide you through the many beer options--are you looking for something light? Sour? Belgian-esque? I opted for a Hibiscus Saison from San Leandro’s Cleophus Quealy Beer Company. It’s beautifully red and unlike other fruit beers, it’s not cloying. Its slight bitterness balances out the fruitiness and making it a refreshing beverage to help you survive the Bay Area’s Indian summer.
Fat Face: Fried chicken and waffle ice pop
Davis’ Fat Face specializes in popsicles far from the traditional (and locally invented) versions from your childhood. They do offer fruit flavors, but like us, you’ll probably be more interested by their bizarre-sounding, carb-centric flavors like Thai tea and sweet potato and mango and sticky rice. One of the most intriguing was the fried chicken and waffle flavor, which was surprisingly delightful. The ice cream was a rich, butter and maple combination, and it’s topped with a shower of black pepper spiked fried chicken bits. It’s quirky, and thoughtfully so: the ice cream isn’t too sweet, and its salty, sweet, crunch makes for a delightfully weird yet balanced dessert.
Green Girl: Cardamom and balsamic fig ice cream sandwiches
We also sampled the virtuous ice cream sandwiches from Green Girl that are both gluten and dairy free. Although the opposite side of the dietary spectrum from Fat Face, we were similarly surprised by how good they were. Their ice creams boast strong, bold flavors--like a delicately sweet fig and a spicy, delicious cardamom--and their cookies are chewy and sturdy enough to support the ice cream. We’d recommend trying two mini ice cream sandwiches: it’s a cheap way to try some of Green Girl’s many tasty offerings.
Barlovento Chocolate: Habanero chocolate bar
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the food options outside, but don't miss the festival’s indoor options, where you can get cocktails and attend classes about pairing cheese and beer. There are also local vendors like ten-year-old Barlovento Chocolate, a family-run Oakland chocolate company that uses Venezuelan single origin chocolate as the base for their truffles and chocolate bars. Several of their bars mix salty, sweet and spicy with delicious results: one of their best is a habanero chocolate bar, made from 64% Venezuelan chocolate and topped with habanero and chunky salt. The habanero’s mild burn and flecks of salt enhance the chocolate's richness, making it an entertaining alternative to your traditional bar.
Eat Real Festival
Jack London Square
65 Webster Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Ph: (510) 842-1017
Facebook: Eat Real Festival