Oakland has it all: great weather, a diverse population, slightly more affordable rent (than San Francisco at least) and a booming foodie scene. Many of the city’s true culinary gems can be found on the oft-maligned International Boulevard, a 90-block thoroughfare that cuts through most of East Oakland.
Originally known as East 14th Street, International Boulevard was renamed in 1996 in an attempt to rebrand it. Unfortunately, the name change did not really work: International still has a reputation as a street that cuts through Oakland’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and the data from Oakland Crimespotting seems to back that up.
Unfortunately, the area’s bad reputation deters many people from exploring some of the delicious eateries that exist on International Boulevard. During the day, I found it to be bustling and safe, and I enjoyed better Mexican, Vietnamese, Salvadorean and Thai food than in comparable San Francisco establishments. Here are five places you should check out.
Pho King: I started off in Eastlake, the district of International Boulevard near San Antonio Park, around International and 6th. Eastlake is a Southeast Asian enclave and boasts a multitude of Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian and Laotian restaurants (as well as many Southeast Asian–owned businesses). Pho King, which was packed on a Sunday morning, is a standard in the Eastlake neighborhood and has been there for over 20 years. The standout dish here is the Bun Bo Hue ($7.25), a perfect rainy-day or hangover cure. The broth is spicy and pungent with strong notes of lemongrass. Don’t be surprised if you find a pig knuckle at the bottom of your bowl. The dish includes flavorful beef brisket, pork, rice vermicelli and, indeed, pig blood—but don’t knock it until you try it. You’ll be hooked.
Chai Thai Noodle: Chai Thai Noodle, also located in the Eastlake district, is an absolutely adorable restaurant that’s perfect for a date and slightly more upscale than some of the other restaurants I tried on International Boulevard. Chai Thai boasts an extensive, authentic Thai menu and a short wine list, and they even serve Drake’s Beer. On a Sunday night, it was busy with couples, families and young Oakland hipsters. The pumpkin curry with chicken ($12.95) was a standout, combining chunks of stewed pumpkin, chicken and bell peppers in a fragrant red coconut curry sauce.
Banh Mi Ba Le: Confession: I’ve been cutting back on the bread and refined flour lately, so I haven’t been eating as much banh mi these days. However, on a local tip, I headed down to Banh Mi Ba Le at 19th and International to try their famed meatball-and-fried-egg sandwich. At $3.50 a pop, this is a bargain that can’t be beat, and the sandwich was good to the last bite—I devoured the entire thing in a couple of minutes! The meatballs were dripping with juices and fat, and the egg yolk was slightly runny and soaked in the freshly toasted baguette. There was a line out of the door when I arrived there on a Sunday at lunchtime, but things moved pretty quickly, and I was able to get my sandwich in less than 10 minutes.
Taqueria Sinaloa: If you’re looking for a truly sublime carnitas taco, skip the Mission and make a short trek across the Bay Bridge to the Taqueria Sinaloa truck in the parking lot at 22nd and International. Tacos are $2 a pop, and for $8 you can get a big carnitas burrito loaded with sour cream and cheese. The carnitas are juicy and crispy, with a nice balance of cumin, cinnamon and citrus notes. Top off your taco or burrito with some of their fresh, tangy salsa, and you’ll be in taco heaven. Sinaloa’s tacos beats 90% of the tacos I’ve had in San Francisco and rival many of the best taco places in Los Angeles too.
Cafe Platano 2: Fruitvale warrants a whole other article in itself, as there are many notable Mexican and Salvadorean places in the neighborhood. Cafe Platano 2 is the sister restaurant of the much-beloved Platano restaurant in Berkeley. Located not too far from the Fruitvale BART station, Cafe Platano 2 is famed for its pupusas, which are freshly grilled in the back while you wait. In particular, the pollo ($2.50) and the queso con vegetales ($2.50) are standouts. The latter is chock full of cheese and zucchini, with a crispy exterior. Don’t skimp on the cabbage salad or the hot sauce. Make sure to add some of each on top of your pupusa, and savor every juicy, delicious bite.