"Wait, there's still 10 cheeses here you haven't tried!" insisted Chris Howse, the enthusiastic, lavishly tattooed general manager of Oakland's' new Sacred Wheel Cheese and Specialty Market.
When was the last time you heard that over a cheese counter? Especially a few minutes before closing time, after you've already tried several dozen different cheeses, each handed over eagerly, complete with full description.
In my experience, 3 tastes is about the limit of most cheese-wranglers' patience. After that, there seems to be a tacit agreement that you'll pick one, pull out your wallet, and seal the deal, or else slink away to make room for the next dairy-loving freeloader in line.
Not at Sacred Wheel Cheese and Specialty Market, which opened early January in the rapidly foodie-izing district of Temescal. Here, the staff seems much more eager to discover your new favorite cheese, reveal their latest find, or simply blow your mind with a groovy but unfamiliar flavor or texture. Specializing in domestic cheeses from mostly small, farmstead producers, the emphasis right now is on mostly Northern California cheeses. But you'll also find wheels and wedges from Oregon, Utah, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
Going all-American was part of co-owner Jena Davidson Hood's plan to create an unpretentious, unintimidating, neighborhood-friendly shop, where anyone could drop in, taste, and learn, without being overwhelmed by an enormous selection or a wall of hard-to-pronounce names. And while Jena may have the most food knowledge, thanks to her culinary-school training and years as a chef with Michael Mina's restaurant group, she emphasized that "no one here is pretending they know everything. We really encourage tasting--we'll taste any cheese in the shop, because it's fun to learn with people."
Said Jena, "Now that we've been open a little while, people are starting to come to me," with handmade accompaniments. "I'd really like to see the shelves fill up with local stuff, tiny, small-batch products." Already, the shelves are stocked with hot-pepper jellies from Inna Jam; honeys from Five+Dime and Bay Area Bee Company; and baguettes from Berkeley's Bread Workshop.
Not everything will be local, however. Sacred Wheel is a family affair, and Jena, her brother Merrick Davidson, and her mother Bernice Davidson, all of whom work in the shop, are proud of their Virginia roots. "We grew up country," Jena laughed, "on a farm in Bedford County, so we wanted to bring a little bit of home here." In a green shelving unit (made by her husband, Brian Hood, out of an old truck bed) are all manner of edible Virginiana, including jars of sweet chow-chow and hot zucchini relish from Meadowcroft Farm and cans of she-crab soup and blue crab chowder.
Still, Jena is proud to be living "100% Temescal" lately. She and her husband, who did much of the carpentry and design work needed to turn the long-empty storefront into a homey and welcoming space, live just a few blocks away, close enough so that she can run home to walk their dogs at midday. Said Jena, "We moved here 5 years ago, but I think even if we hadn't, it would have ended up being our favorite neighborhood. We're hoping this will help make Shattuck less of a stepchild" to the more popular and already restaurant-lined Telegraph Ave. "I'm happy we got in when we did."
While the bulk of the business is in take-home cheese and products, there's also a short menu: a couple of soups, including chunky, beer-spiked "tomato PBR" and a daily special, like silky, creamy carrot and roasted garlic; and a simple, kid-friendly grilled cheese sandwich of Cowgirl Creamery's Wagon Wheel cheese on sourdough bread. On the second Saturday of each month, James Whitehead of Fist of Flour will be setting up his mobile pizza oven on the sidewalk outside, making pizzas with a variety of Sacred Wheel's cheeses.
So, it's clear: Temescal likes its cheese, the bigger and bolder the better. And what could be better than grilled cheese dunked in tomato soup? Well, how about mac and cheese washed down with beer?
A few blocks east of Telegraph, a lunchtime line is snaking from the counter at Homeroom, past the Kraft-yellow wall almost all the way to the door. As you might expect, woolly hats, trucker caps, goatees, and I hella (heart) Oakland tees are much in evidence. But despite the line's slow crawl, everyone seems to be smiling. And why not? Above the counter is a chalkboard reading A is for Apple, B is for Beer, C is for Cheese.
It's the last two that Homeroom is banking on, with a menu that's all mac and cheese, all the time, serving ten varieties (loaded with Vermont cheddar, Mexican chorizo, goat cheese, Prather Ranch hot dogs, and more--and yes, they do make both vegan and gluten-free versions) alongside a dozen draft and bottled beers. There's wine, too, a few veggie sides (broccoli with ranch dressing, roasted carrots, salad) and a handful of simple desserts (brownies, peanut-butter pie, homemade Oreos, ice cream floats made with housemade root beer or Old Rasputin stout). The mac and cheese, plenty of it, comes bubbling in wide ceramic dishes, while the beer arrives in Mason jars, a few ounces shy of a pint. Just enough for a pleasant little lunchtime buzz, especially over the ballast of all that cheese and starch.
In the kitchen, a wiry crew is sweating over the pots, shoulders hunched with the pressure. "Even working in a mac and cheese restaurant, I think I've lost 5 pounds since we opened," laughs co-owner Erin Wade. Less than a week after opening their doors on Valentine's Day, Wade and her co-owner Allison Arevalo are still getting their systems down, gearing up for an all-day schedule that will see them dishing up from 11am to 9pm from Tuesday through Thursday (and Sunday) and from 11am to 10pm on Friday and Saturday.
Like the crew at Sacred Wheel, Arevalo and Wade have made Homeroom into a community affair; with the help of their husbands and friends, they did much of the space's renovation themselves, giving the big, open space a sweet and quirky feel that's almost kitschy, but not quite. The chunky red coffee mugs, decorated with the Homeroom logo, are instantly covetable; the old-fashioned library card catalog, now a repository for customers' "buy 10 get one free" cards, is a nice touch, even if few of the 20something patrons here would remember ever using a card catalog for real. Still, there's no denying the moneymaking appeal of cheesy-good nostalgia, especially with beer and without homework.
The only thing missing? Some no-nonsense lunch ladies to keep the din down.
Sacred Wheel Cheese and Specialty Market
4935 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, CA, 94609
Hours: Tues-Sun: 11am-8pm
Facebook: Sacred Wheel Cheese and Specialty Market