The Best Restaurants In Oakland guide image


The Best Restaurants In Oakland

From bánh mì institutions and casual sushi joints to New York-style slice shops, this is where you should eat in Oakland.

Oakland and San Francisco are connected by a small body of water and a bridge. But that’s about all the two Bay Area cities have in common, and longtime residents will tell you Oakland pride runs deep. And on top of giving the world Zendaya and the word hyphy, Oakland is also an incredible place to eat. The largest city in the East Bay is also one of the most diverse in the country—and that’s reflected in the diversity of its restaurants, from new spots to classic institutions. If you want to get to know the city through its food, use this guide.


Mama’s Boy

Mama’s Boy is making some of Oakland’s best slices. The two-story spot (from the people behind Oakland and San Francisco Athletic Club) feels like it’s been around for years—like other Oakland pizza greats Zachary’s and Nick’s Pizza—and the combination of family photos, red stools, and Pac-Man give this place a nostalgic touch. This Uptown slice shop nails the New York-style, including a bubbly crust that’s sturdy enough to hold the toppings. Be sure to get the pepperoni slice, but don’t overlook the behemoth heros on pillowy rolls.  

A 20-ish block stretch along International Boulevard and East 12th is where you’ll find a concentration of Vietnamese phở houses, cafés, and bánh mì spots—like Banh Mi Ba Le. The counter-service place in Little Saigon is the answer when you need a not-so-sad lunch to power through (another) neverending week. There are 24 sandwiches on the menu, each generously loaded with the most flavorful fillings, from fall-apart grilled pork to meatballs, fish cakes, and sardines, and served still-warm. The bánh mì mastery happening here isn’t exactly a secret, so prepare to exercise the ever-dying art of patience.

You can find good Chinese food all over Oakland. But if you want great, like 2014-2019 Golden State Warriors great, head to Shan Dong in Chinatown. The big draw at this institution is the thick, chewy hand-pulled noodles that are made fresh behind a glassed-in counter at the front of the restaurant. The best decision you can make is to order the saucy sesame paste noodles, and the Shan Dong dumplings with chicken and dry-braised green beans. Just prepare to wait outside in a line longer than the DMV.

Champa Garden is located on a residential corner in East Oakland’s Ivy Hill and is the spot for Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese specialties that are bright, flavorful, and just really damn good. The best move is coming here with people you like, and kicking off this casual lunch or dinner with the Champa Sampler (a name we’d get tattooed on our left rib). It’s served on a plate shaped like a boat, and shows off the restaurant’s greatest hits—Lao sausages, fried rice ball salad, crispy spring rolls, and lettuce wraps.

Because this is the Bay Area, we’ll always embrace any place serving excellent lunch specials with BBQ chicken or curries with a side of rice for under $13 dollars. Enter Vientian Cafe—the standout Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese spot in East Oakland. But also come here for the flavorful deep-fried rice with fermented pork ($12.95), the perfectly spicy, fresh papaya salad ($12.95), and the sweet-tangy angel wings ($10.95). You’ll also want to ask for the separate menu of Lao specials, which includes a tangy fermented sausage.

The Trinidadian restaurant on High Street in Oakland is a literal bright spot, pure joy in restaurant form: on any given day, you might see live music or Caribbean dancers performing on the sidewalk out front. The same warm energy is infused into every dish—thick chicken roti stuffed with chickpeas and potatoes, an herby, life-changing jerk chicken that slowly builds heat on the tongue, and fall-off-the-bone curry chicken dinners served with beautiful pelau rice and deep-fried plantains. Always grab a housemade tropical juice, like sorrel or mauby. There are no seats inside, but just a few tables on the sidewalk.

We always feel like we’re hanging out at home with our aunts and uncles and our fifth cousin’s cousin whenever we go to Lucky Three Seven. This casual Filipino takeout spot on Fruitvale Ave. is a family-run operation, which means friendly service and classic adobo, pork and chicken tocino served with a fried egg over rice, garlicky chicken wings, and the longest lumpia we’ve ever seen. Walk up to the outside window to order (it’s cash-only), and grab a stool on the patio. All dishes are made-to-go, but you should absolutely stay awhile.

Lovely’s is the Uptown patio hangout. The smashburger and fried chicken joint shares a string light-filled outdoor space with Two Pitchers Brewing, and it’s where to meet up before a show at the Fox—or any time you want to fill a picnic table and drink fruity radlers with a fantastic handheld meal. The caramelized patties pretty much melt in your mouth, and hot chicken sandwiches are served on squishy sesame buns that soak up the spicy juices. Hop in the inevitable line, order a cone of soft serve for later, and stay for an hour or three. 

There’s no shortage of exceptional taco spots in Oakland, whether you want to scarf down al pastor from a late-night truck like Tacos Mi Rancho or load up on mesquite-grilled carne asada at Tacos El Último Baile. El Paisa is the queen bee. The East Oakland spot—complete with picnic tables under a covered patio and a meat assembly line—is serving fall-apart lengua, perfect suadero, and juicy carnitas atop impossibly moist corn tortillas. Anticipation builds after you order, and watch staff chop and dress tacos a mile a minute in the kitchen behind the counter. Once you’re handed a steaming plate of tacos (with nopales and cebollitas, too), go feral at the salsa bar, which is loaded with options that range from mild to “send milk, now.” 

Punchy, bold, bright, and “we have romantic feelings" are what come to mind when we think about Jo’s Modern Thai. The Laurel District restaurant is the party dinner spot, and the middle ground between roll-up-in-sweats casual and fancy. Colorful touches like a tropical back patio oasis, a hanging neon monkey, and bright purple cocktails keep things loose. And the Thai classics with seasonal, Californian twists are also two steps above casual. Thick shrimp toast is buttery and drizzled with a sweet-sour mayo. Drunken noodles are leveled up with fatty-salty slices of locally smoked brisket. And oysters get the special treatment of chili jam and strawberries. Birthdays, flirty dates, and catch-ups with friends who are in town for 36 hours are all happening here. 

This former pop-up is making hands-down the best bagels in Oakland. And if you aren’t already a regular, it’s time to get to know them. Golden-brown crusts are evenly covered in seasonings, and the inside of each one is both fluffy and stretchy. The open-faced bagels are the way to go: the toppings, like deep-red heirloom tomatoes or seasonal vegetables with salsa macha, are straight out of a farmer’s market. But we won't stop you from ordering a “freshie”—a.k.a. whatever bagel is hottest out of the oven—smeared with butter and salt. And don’t skip out on the housemade chocolate and cinnamon rugelach. 

Do you recall the last time you had a meal so good that you inhaled it faster than a kid with a helium balloon, and then licked the plate sparkling clean until there was no trace of a single crumb? If not, go to Dela Curo. The closet-sized stall at Old Oakland’s Swan’s Market turns out heavenly plates overflowing with Japanese black curry, a darker, less-starchy version than the curry many of us know so well. Order one with tonkatsu or silky omelette, prop yourself up on one of the stools overlooking the kitchen, and watch as things are fried, folded, and scooped in front of you before enthusiastically eating up your own massive plate.

At this point, you’ve either heard stories about how your neighbor’s favorite Safeway cashier waited hours for Horn Barbecue’s gargantuan beef rib, or you’ve waited on the sidewalk yourself, camping chair and all. The West Oakland spot is barbecue royalty. Beautifully smoked meats reign supreme, and their wide-open patio with picnic tables and massive smokers is always filled with folks rolling up their sleeves and diving into piles of saucy ribs. The menu of Central Texas-style barbecue covers everything from unbelievably juicy pulled pork and sliced-to-order brisket to hot links longer than most adult hands. Grab a book, that fold-out chair (or a chatty friend), and hop in line. 

There are Ethiopian spots in abundance in Oakland—from the Lake Merritt mainstay Enssaro to the casual cafe Alem’s Coffee. Cafe Colucci in North Oakland is one of the city’s most dynamic. This fun, casual all-day spot doubles as a spice shop (for Cafe Colucci’s Brundo Spice Company) that's stocked with berbere, hop leaves, alicha kimem, and more. You’ll watch workers make spongy injera at the bar counter. And the serene patio is ideal for drinking ginger-lemon kombuchas or anything from their menu of housemade drinks. The crispy, beef-stuffed sambusas, garlicky buticha, and satisfying meat and vegetarian samplers with heaps of deeply spiced mitten shiro and gomen are the must-orders.

Even if you regularly identify as an omnivore, you won’t miss meat during your night at Lion Dance Cafe. The downtown vegan Singaporean spot cranks the flavor dials up to the max for every plant-based dish. Lightly fried mushroom goreng is flawless over a fresno calamansi sambal, and the laksa has rich, earthy depth that really shines through. Even their bread—crusty, golden-brown shaobing covered in glossy sesame seeds—is something you’ll be dream journaling about for weeks. This spot is also just a lot of fun, like a rainbow ball pit come to life. Walls are covered in colorful paper lanterns, lion dances are projected by the door, and a massive lion’s head surveys the dining room from above.

This Japanese restaurant is more peaceful than a casual jog in Mountain View Cemetery (yes, it’s a thing). The minimalist, counter-service space is covered with light wood, and a large glass window lets you look inside the room where buckwheat noodles—Soba Ichi’s specialty—are kneaded, rolled, and cut each morning. This spot is one of the only places in the country that makes soba by hand, and we’re lucky they do so here in West Oakland. The noodles are perfectly soft and chewy, and are served hot in a delicious dashi soup, or cold on a plate with a small cup of dipping broth. When you’re done, make sure you grab one of the incredible, seasonal mochi from the Mochi Koubou pop-up.  

Mujiri is the best sushi deal in Oakland. The $25 nigiri and maki combo is their bread and butter, and what draws us to this low-key Japanese spot on San Pablo Ave. It comes with seven pieces and a chef’s choice maki roll, and they all star high-quality fish and plump, well-seasoned rice. If you’re in the mood to round out the meal with more (you should, since this is some of the best sushi in town), add on the well-stuffed negi toro handrolls, or the nigiri and sashimi specials presented to you on a beach ball-sized tray like a gift.

Going to Mama in Adams Point is like scooting into your friend’s breakfast nook and recovering from a hangover over eggs and coffee—but instead of breakfast, you’re getting a delicious Italian dinner. Mama does a three-course prix fixe dinner for only $39.95 that changes weekly. And on any given night, you can get things like a salad with roasted delicata, pomegranate, and pear, beet ravioli with spaghetti squash and ricotta, and polenta cake with baked apples for dessert (they’ll also serve gluten-free and vegetarian sets). If you’re looking for more of a classic, the spaghetti with Mama’s tomato sugo, beef, and pork is amazing and never leaves the menu.

World Famous HotBoys should be synonymous with greatness—or, at the very least, their Nashville hot sandwiches should be. The former pop-up’s brick-and-mortar spot in Uptown Oakland (they also have an outpost in Sacramento and Walnut Creek), and their perfect, crispy sandwich is what we order when we want to feel spice, heat, and joy. You can choose from various heat levels that range from no spice to training wheels to painfully spicy. At one point, the Hot Hot sandwich required you to fill out a spice-tolerance questionnaire when you ordered. Serious sandwich stuff.

This Korean pub is open until 1am, which is a rare thing in a city where most restaurants shut down by 11pm. While you could go home after a few drinks and warm up your two-day-old half of a burrito before passing out, you should go to Dan Sung Sa instead. Affectionately called Porno Bar or Porno Palace (raunchy magazine spreads used to cover the bathroom walls), Dan Sung Sa serves dishes like kimchi fried rice and BBQ galbi in a dark, energetic space that will make you want to keep eating, drinking, and talking well into the evening. This is where you come to watch late-night Oakland unfold.

Incredible house-nixtamalized masa is the name of the game at this Dimond District spot. Located in a former firehouse (hence the name), Bombera is where to go for a nice meal of homestyle Mexican dishes starring said housemade masa. Tamales are impossibly fluffy and stuffed with chicken. Tetelas are smoky on tender blue corn tortillas, and gooey Oaxacan cheese spills out of the ever-so-charred quesadillas. Equally awe-inducing are the heartier entrées, like fall-off-the-bone duck confit over mole verde or carne asada topped with crispy cheese. If this is also a “f*ck-it, let’s get tipsy” night, they also have a ton of agave spirits and cocktails. 

Lois The Pie Queen was a real person, and now it’s also a true Oakland classic. This family-owned restaurant in North Oakland is an essential gathering spot, and has been serving classic Southern food at its current location since the ’70s. The restaurant is especially packed on weekends, with longtime residents eating chicken and waffles, biscuits, pancakes, pies, and the Reggie Jackson special (a hearty meal of two fried pork chops and two eggs, and named after the legendary Oakland A’s player). Lois’s lemon icebox pie is also near-mythical, and probably partly why there’s an impressive collection of local celebrity photos on the wall— like Danny Glover, Damian Lillard, and Boots Riley. Head’s up, it’s cash-only.

Up the street from Burma Superstar is Teni East Kitchen. The Burmese restaurant in North Oakland is a can-do-everything spot. It’s ideal for walking in with a group, and you can easily get a table. The noodles, soups, and curries are rich, spicy, and beautifully seasoned (and there are lots of gluten-free and vegan options to choose from). The creative cocktails—we like the Kiki’s Delivery with mezcal and elderflower liqueur—will make you want to keep the conversation going until closing. Ask us where we’re headed for a dinner that hits the sweet spot between casual and sophisticated, and it’s Teni East Kitchen everytime.

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photo credit: Angelina Hong

The Best Restaurants In Oakland guide image