A decade after it was rehabbed, the historic urban market known as Swan's is looking sad: vacant stalls, papered-over storefront windows, and just about zero foot traffic on non-farmers' market weekdays. But with last week's debut of a daily organic produce stall, Swan's has taken the first step in an overhaul of the complex in Old Oakland, overseen partly by the organizers of the defunct Beehive Market in Berkeley.
Built between 1917 and 1940, Swan's is owned by the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), a community economic development nonprofit. EBALDC hired Beehive founders Isaac Cronin and Julia Fry to act as curators and marketers for new food tenants at Swan's, including produce stall vendor Rio de Parras Organics from Salinas. On her first day at the market last week, owner Ana Bertha Juarez presided over two tables of vivid, crisp-looking chard, carrots, strawberries, and other produce grown on land Rio de Parras leases from small-farmer incubator nonprofit ALBA.
Cronin said he and Fry are close to signing a handful of other food vendors for the empty stalls and self-contained restaurant space at Swan's. That includes a tenant for the corner spot formerly housing Jesso's and a locavore beer and wine stall for the old Sam's Wines and Liquors. Longtime Swan's tenants Taylor's Sausage, Japanese cafe Suruki's, and the Sincere Seafood fish counter are staying put. EBALDC is also lining up funding to do general renovations to the block-wide complex, which also contains affordable rental units and a co-housing complex.
"We feel that if you give people really interesting options that are worthy of them, they're going to come," Cronin said. "Between the new development in Jack London and the whole area of Uptown, this is right in the middle." Rio de Parras' plans called for being open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Besides produce, Juarez has committed to stocking flowers, eggs, and organic honey, all sourced from the Salinas Valley.
The next business slated to open at Swan's signed a lease before Cronin and Fry began consulting: Cosecha Café, in the old J & S Deli space, from chef Dominica Rice Salomon, who cooked at Chez Panisse for half a decade. Rice Salomon hopes to have her Latin American-inflected Cali bistro open as soon as June 17, pending final inspections.
On Rio de Parras' first day at the market, Rice Salomon was busy painting sealer on a wooden bar. Born in Los Angeles, the chef spent a year and a half in Mexico City, and told What the Fork she was inspired by the food stalls in farmers' markets there. That, and the kind of simple, ingredient-centric cooking she learned in Berkeley, in a menu designed around tortas, salads, soups, tacos with slow-braised fillings, with locally brewed beers on tap.
"Everybody complains about Chez Panisse not being more experimental," she said, "but I still feel there aren't enough places doing the simple things right."
Japan's best-known street food: takoyaki, pan-fried batter balls filled with bits of baby octopus. Takoyaki are a product of Osaka in the 1930s, then spread to greater south-central Japan and beyond.
One of those beyonds is now Temescal, aka Lower Rockridge (depending on whether you rent or own). Sundays, when the Temescal farmers' market takes over the DMV parking lots, a couple of friends have begun selling takoyaki from a sidewalk table outside a house at 491 Cavour Street between Claremont and Redondo, directly across from the market, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. They call themselves Takoyaki Yum.
Mei-Yen and Teppei, who didn't want to divulge their last names, use a cast-iron takoyaki pan with a dozen dumpling wells set onto a portable butane burner. If you've never seen takoyaki being made, it's sort of a trip: The thin batter swells as it cooks, and if you poke them around the dumpling wells with a chopstick or skewer, you can achieve a perfectly ball-shaped dumpling, like a Danish ebelskiver — an ebelskiver filled with bits of diced, poached octopus, pickled ginger, and scallion.
Teppei sources octopus from Koreana Plaza on Telegraph, and uses the poaching liquid to make the batter. He squirt-bottles the finished balls (three for $4) with Kewpie mayonnaise, sweet-thick okonomiyaki sauce, and wasabi mayo (though you can get that on the side), then a flurry of shaved bonito flakes (katsuobushi) and dried seaweed.
They're tasty: chewy, salty, sharp from the ginger, marine-like from the bits of octopus, which is convincingly fresh. And if you hit up Takoyaki Yum before you slip into the market, you can find yourself rolling the taste of cephalopod around your Sunday morning mouth before you've had your Blue Bottle drip.
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