Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Lucia's Adds Cicchetti Menu with Italian-Style Tapas

by Janelle Bitker
Tue, Oct 31, 2017 at 11:42 AM

A few cicchetti. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LUCIA'S
  • Photo courtesy of Lucia's
  • A few cicchetti.

Already one of the best Neapolitan pizza hubs in the East Bay, Lucia’s (2016 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) is now introducing the region to cicchetti.

Cicchetti are small bites traditional in Venice, Italy, designed to pair with ombra, usually a small glass of local white wine. Similar to Spanish tapas, cicchetti make for a nice snack or, if you order a few,  a full meal.

While the East Bay is home to Italian restaurants serving similar small plates, Lucia’s purports to be the first to package them as cicchetti with a focus on Venetian dishes. Menu items include bruschetta, frito misto, meatballs with ragu, chicken liver on bread, and salted cod. If you go for happy hour, you can partake in ombra for $6 — it will always be a Venetian or other Italian wine.

Lucia’s has also been slowly, methodically adding larger plates and hand-made pastas to its arsenal, such as Roman-style porchetta and lasagna. These will eventually be added to the permanent menu, but for now, they function as rotating daily specials. The keenly observant might notice that Lucia's also dropped the "Pizzeria" from its name in recent months. In other words, the Berkeley restaurant is growing more and more ambitious.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Les Arceaux Brings the South of France to Downtown Berkeley

by Janelle Bitker
Thu, Oct 26, 2017 at 9:03 AM

A spread of Provencal-inspired fare. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KELLY PULEIO
  • Photo courtesy of Kelly Puleio
  • A spread of Provencal-inspired fare.
When Alanna O’Neal moved to the South of France at age 19, she assumed law school was on the horizon. After a few months into her study abroad program, though, she realized all she wanted was a career in food.

“Even though I grew up with good food, there was something about the ubiquity of good food there that really struck me,” she said. Even her French university cafeteria offered composed salads instead of a build-your-own salad bar, inevitably containing canned beans and wilted greens.

The Bay Area will soon get a hint of what inspired O’Neal all those years ago. On Friday, she and Mikha Diaz will officially open Les Arceaux (1849 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Named after O’Neal’s favorite farmers’ market in Montpellier, Les Arceaux is an ode to simple French fare made with great ingredients.

The restaurant is also the highly anticipated follow-up to Two Sisters Bar & Books, the popular cocktail bar in Hayes Valley known for its cozy, Victorian atmosphere and literary bent. Diaz closed Two Sisters, where O’Neal was also the chef, earlier this year. Diaz said they simply had outgrown the space and wanted to grow professionally. And given that she, O’Neal, and most of their team already lived in Berkeley, the prospect of a shorter commute didn’t hurt.

Compared to Two Sisters, Les Arceaux is far more bright, sleek, and modern. It’s open and airy, with colorful images of produce that look like they arrived straight from Montpellier, while an enormous open kitchen with a wrap-around bar dominates the room.

With such a large kitchen, O’Neal and Diaz hope to offer job training opportunities to the formerly incarcerated and people struggling with homelessness. O’Neal never went to culinary school, instead getting her start as an intern at Millennium in Berkeley. Now, she wants to give back.

Alanna O'Neal (right) and Mikha Diaz. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KELLY PULEIO
  • Photo courtesy of Kelly Puleio
  • Alanna O'Neal (right) and Mikha Diaz.

“I want to teach people culinary skills and provide apprenticeship — not just how to make a really delicious sauce, but how you cost it out and work on a team,” she said. “There is a lot you learn in a kitchen that’s really valuable.”

Les Arceaux will start out in the mornings as a cafe, serving pastries baked in-house as well as plated dishes such as whole wheat pancakes with poached pears ($12.50). Lunch will see a selection of soups, salads, and tartines, such as tuna confit, peppers, tomato jam, and egg over Acme olive bread ($14). In the evenings, the space will transition into a wine bar with share plates in a range of sizes and price points. Think along the lines of mussels poached in sour beer ($19) or fried strips of socca, the Provencal chickpea pancake, with harissa aioli ($6.50). The lengthy wine list focuses on California and France, balanced out by a couple of beers and five inventive spritzes — without a full liquor license, these spritzes are the closest Two Sisters fans will get to the bar’s wonderful cocktails. Luckily, they're plenty interesting, using ingredients such as house-made balsamic vinegar, pink peppercorn vermouth, and roasted blood orange juice.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Crooked City Cider to Expand with New Oakland Taphouse

by Janelle Bitker
Tue, Oct 24, 2017 at 11:29 AM

Crooked City is on the move. - COURTESY OF CROOKED CITY CIDER
  • Courtesy of Crooked City Cider
  • Crooked City is on the move.

Oakland is about to get a full-fledged cider bar.

Crooked City Cider just signed a lease at 222 Broadway near Jack London Square. Owner Dana Bushouse expects to launch her Crooked City Cider Taphouse there in spring 2018.

Crooked City started informally in Bushouse’s basement about three years ago, becoming Oakland’s first official cidery in 2015. It’s basically a one-woman show, with Bushouse currently pouring out of a small tasting room (477 25th St.) shared with Two Mile Wines and Oakland Spirits Co. There, she can only serve three days a week and use four taps.

The new taphouse will be a big change: 2,800 square feet with 25 taps.

“It’s gonna allow us to have a lot more cider on tap and obviously feature ciders from all around,” Bushouse said.

To start, she’s thinking about five taps dedicated to Crooked City  she currently makes six ciders on an ongoing basis  and maybe 15 to guest ciders, plus a few for beers. Crooked City specializes in dry, unfiltered ciders with no added sugar, but Bushouse is excited to showcase a variety of cider styles: sweet, dry, off-dry, tart, farmhouse, and so on.

The new space also has a kitchen. Red Door Catering signed on to handle the food  expect soups, salads, and sandwiches with vegan and gluten-free options. (Crooked City's ciders are also gluten-free.)

Bushouse plans to keep the shared taproom space in Uptown, Oakland, so regulars won’t have to venture farther for their growler refills. Today, she’s celebrating at the new location with free cider from 5 to 7 p.m.  just know there’s no seating, lighting, or much of anything at the space yet.

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Preeti Mistry’s The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook Is Full of Magic

Plus, Oakland Alex Lewin tells you how to make your own fermented beverages in Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond.

by Janelle Bitker
Tue, Oct 24, 2017 at 9:04 AM


The world is about to fall in love with Preeti Mistry.

In Oakland, we’ve already seen her in the kitchen and tasted her food and felt the importance of her work. But for folks who live elsewhere, The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook will likely be their first real dose of Mistry magic.

The cookbook, authored with local food writer Sarah Henry, arrives Oct. 31 via Running Press. Like its namesake restaurant, the book is full of charm, hot pink, and unexpected twists. Of course, recipes for all of Juhu Beach Club’s classics are there, too: vada pav, doswaffle, and, yes, Manchurian cauliflower.

But this is also very much a book about Mistry herself. It’s the story of how a London-born, Ohio-raised, Indian-American kid grew to love her culture through food and found home in Oakland. It’s how the unique vision and flavors at Juhu Beach Club came to be.

Mistry dives into biases and inequities in the food world in a smart, personal way. She also spells out exactly what she’s doing at Juhu for any diners who don’t quite get it: “I’m trying to educate people that non-European cuisine can also be elevated and innovative,” she writes.

And, yeah, she does talk about that time on Top Chef.

The format reads similarly to Roy Choi’s part-memoir, part-cookbook L.A. Son, with narrative chapters followed by recipes that thematically fit those anecdotes — plus big, glorious photography worthy of a coffee table. Reading it cover-to-cover, it totally works. As an easy-to-reference utility — well, there’s an index.

There is something very bittersweet about reading The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook right now, knowing that the restaurant’s current iteration in Temescal is coming to an end. The pages explode with love for the restaurant, neighborhood, and community, and it’s a delight to see so many shout-outs to Bay Area chefs, farmers, and other personalities. Will the next Juhu Beach Club have such a beautiful story? Can it possibly? Let’s hope so.

Funky Drinks

If Oakland resident Alex Lewin had his way, we’d all be drinking kimchi punch for breakfast every day.

I’m exaggerating, I think, but Lewin and Raquel Guajardo present a compelling argument for why we should all be drinking fermented beverages in their new book, Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond: A Fun and Flavorful Guide to Making Your Own Probiotic Beverages (Fair Winds Press). We’ve all heard about the health benefits before, but Lewin, a Harvard grad who travels the world teaching fermentation classes, hammers down the scientific evidence. Even better, he and Guajardo make the process seem fairly simple.

There are recipes for kombucha, kefir, root beer, homemade wine, as well as more old-timey concoctions such as kvass, switchel, and mead. There’s even a recipe for prison wine, partially made in a plastic bag.

The most surprising chapter, though, is the one devoted to pre-Hispanic Mexican drinks. Among them, the most well-known is probably pulque, which is made from the maguey plant. In fact, it’s what inspired the book. Lewin met Guajardo at the cooking
school she runs in Mexico, and they dreamt up this book over glasses of pulque.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Hella Black Brunch Fosters Community Around Food

The quarterly meals center on the Black experience.

by Janelle Bitker
Thu, Oct 19, 2017 at 12:11 PM

A sampling of food from the last Hella Black Brunch. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JASMIN PORTER
  • Photo courtesy of Jasmin Porter
  • A sampling of food from the last Hella Black Brunch.

In these gloomy, apocalyptic times, sometimes all you can do is seek out a safe space to break bread in community. And sometimes that’s all you really need.

That’s the idea behind Hella Black Brunch, a quarterly gathering that debuted in January, right after Donald Trump took office. Oakland resident Carrie Y.T. Kholi felt the heaviness in the local Black community and decided folks needed to come together. She organized her first meal at Ethiopian restaurant Enssaro.

“It was so amazing,” she said. “We were in a Black-owned space and people were there to be intentionally Black.”

At the time, Kholi didn’t necessarily think she’d organize another one, but the demand became clear. Each event since has held a theme. In April, “Resurrection” pondered Black and queer spirituality outside the church setting. In July, “Libertad” celebrated freedom away from the usual Independence Day festivities. With "Harvest" on Saturday, Oct. 21, Hella Black Brunch attendees are encouraged to think about abundance in the midst of so many natural and unnatural disasters.

“Things literally feel like they’re being ripped from us… but we have more than enough because we still have ourselves and a space,” Kholi said. “It’s really a 'thank you' from us to the community.”

Carrie Y.T. Kholi (center) leads a community greeting. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JASMIN PORTER
  • Photo courtesy of Jasmin Porter
  • Carrie Y.T. Kholi (center) leads a community greeting.

The event has shifted into private homes, supper club-style. Anywhere from 30 to 50 people sprawl out across the floor and tables, inside and outside, to feast on several dishes and cocktails. It’s supposed to feel like an endless amount of food, and guests can even take food home.

“We want to give you so much more than you’d usually get at brunch,” Kholi said.

The chefs are twin sisters Redwood Hill and Christina Wilson, who also runs The Pleasure Principle catering company. They cook from cuisines across the African diaspora, including Southern, Caribbean, and Liberian. Gluten-free and vegan eaters are always covered.

Kholi moved to Oakland four years ago and felt immediately inspired by the city’s political climate and social activism. Her PR firm, Khafra & Company, started out with style and online retail, but lately, she’s been trying to also do work that builds equity. That’s where Hella Black Brunch comes in — to provide a space that centers on the Black experience. Folks from other racial backgrounds are welcome to join, too.

“It’s hella Black,” Kholi said. “It’s not Black-only.”

Hella Black Brunch takes place Saturday, Oct. 21. Tickets cost $42.50 for one or $70 for two people. HellaBlackBrunch.com.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Overland Country Bar and World Ground Cafe Shut Their Doors

by Janelle Bitker
Wed, Oct 18, 2017 at 3:41 PM

Overland's country twang is no more. - JANELLE BITKER
  • Janelle Bitker
  • Overland's country twang is no more.

Oakland's Jack London district abruptly lost two businesses last week: Overland Country Bar & Grill and World Ground Cafe.

Overland’s Paul Hayward blamed the closure primarily on the city for not doing enough to bring more people to the Jack London area. His country bar was popular, but he suspects it’s only because he hired a full-time promotions and marketing staff.

“The rents are just way too high considering there’s no foot traffic,” he said.

Hayward had events booked through the end of October, but over the weekend, he just decided he’d had enough. He’s ready to take a break, enjoy some time in the foothills, and then focus on the other Oakland restaurants he’s involved with, Mockingbird and The Temple Club.

When Overland opened in 2015, it immediately made a splash because it was so unexpected: a fun, freewheeling country bar with line dancing, live music, and stuffed burgers. It grew into as much of a hub for Oakland A’s fans as the Oakland Black Cowboy Association.

“My goal was to create a very, very Oakland bar with all ages, all races, everything,” Hayward said. “We had a lot of great times. We’re really proud of the friends we made.”

Just a few blocks away on Jackson Street, World Ground unexpectedly closed last Wednesday, although its original location in the Laurel district is still alive. The owner didn’t respond to interview requests from the Express.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Upcoming Restaurant Zys_Oakland to Give Ex-Cons a Second Chance

by Janelle Bitker
Tue, Oct 17, 2017 at 2:32 PM

  • Photo courtesy of Zys_Oakland
  • Zorina Price

Most small, independent restaurants don’t bother doing background checks on all of their employees. Such was the case at a New York spot Zorina Price managed several years ago. But a larger company bought it, and the company wanted background checks.

Price, an Ohio native and now a resident of Oakland, learned one employee had a criminal record. Because of company policy, Price had to fire him. Not too long after, he wound up back in jail.

“I feel like if the employee would have stayed, the trajectory of that person’s life could have been different,” Price said.

The incident stuck with her, and now Price is opening her first restaurant with a heavy dose of social responsibility. Zys_Oakland — pronounced as “Z’s Oakland” — will largely be staffed by the previously incarcerated. It’s not an entirely new idea. San Francisco’s Cala, the Mexican fine-dining restaurant, operates with a similar model. It’s challenging for ex-offenders to join the workforce, and Price plans to provide extensive training, opportunities for professional growth, and economic stability.

“I don’t think people should be held to their past,” she said. “People deserve second chances.”

Even beyond the staff, Zys_Oakland sounds like it’ll be an unusual, ambitious destination for the East Bay. Price wants it to be an upscale, all-vegetarian restaurant serving hyper-local, contemporary California cuisine. She anticipates serving a seven-course tasting menu for $75, which might change as often as every week. And she plans to go tipless in order to provide her staff a living, stable wage.

Price has held various front-of-house and management positions in restaurants around the country; her San Francisco credits include La Mar, the Peruvian seafood restaurant. For Zys, she has a chef in mind she’d like to work with, but he’ll remain nameless until recruitment is finalized. Similarly, she has already scouted a location — a 40-50-seat spot in downtown Oakland — but still needs to secure it. If all goes according to plan, Zys_Oakland should open in fall of 2018. Price is still in the fundraising stage, having just launched a Kickstarter to match private investments.

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Ambitious Cafe, Restaurant, and Bar Oeste to Reflect Oakland in Its Food and Staff

by Janelle Bitker
Tue, Oct 17, 2017 at 9:13 AM

From left to right: Sandra Davis, Lea Redmond, and Anna Villalobos. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HANH NGUYEN
  • Photo courtesy of Hanh Nguyen
  • From left to right: Sandra Davis, Lea Redmond, and Anna Villalobos.
Anna Villalobos is Oakland through and through.

A third-generation resident, Villalobos was raised by her Mexican-American family and surrounded by African-American neighbors in West Oakland. That mixing of cultures was reflected in the food she ate as a kid. Villalobos fondly remembers white gravies over potatoes as well as her grandma’s layered enchiladas, served alongside rhubarb pie.

This fusion is the driving force behind Oeste (730 Clay St.), an ambitious cafe, restaurant, and bar from Villalobos, Lea Redmond, and Sandra Davis scheduled to open in November. None of the owners explicitly come from restaurant backgrounds — although Villalobos is a co-owner of Miss Ollie’s — but they’re all passionate about food and their home city. They also want Oeste to serve as an example for the kind of socially minded restaurants they think Oakland should have more of.

“We’re three women of color,” Villalobos said. “We’re a rare find in terms of what we’re doing, and we’re proud of that.”

Located in the heart of Old Oakland, Oeste will have two storefronts: a small, daytime cafe serving coffee from Roast Co. and a selection of grab-and-go sandwiches and salads; and a bar-centric restaurant that will only serve folks 21 and over.

They’re hoping to pull off the sort of lively bar you don’t see too much of in Oakland, where the drinks and atmosphere are as equally exciting as the small plates-focused menu. Going back to that fusion idea, the food will be rooted in Latin cuisine but also incorporate Asian, Middle Eastern, and American soul food flavors — all through the lens of California’s focus on organic, local ingredients.

“We want to include the influences of what makes Oakland so special, which we’ve always believed is the diversity,” Redmond said.

The trio hasn’t yet revealed who the chef will be, but Oeste isn’t going to be a chef-driven restaurant, anyway. It’s really about the owners’ collective vision. “We want to speak through our food,” Villalobos said.

The concept originally began out of a desire for Villalobos to work with her son, Che Freeman, a bartender best known for his years at the now-closed Paragon at the Claremont Club & Spa. As the bar manager at Oeste, Freeman will focus on sparkling wine, wines on tap, and cocktails made with small-batch spirits.

Oeste’s building dates back to the 1920s — a 3,000-square-foot brick, industrial shell that needed loads of work. The team also added a 1,500-square-foot rooftop deck. Redmond described the design as coming from a hodgepodge of influences, with an emphasis on color, comfort, and plant life.

“Some old and some new. Some African-American, some Latin,” she said. “A mix of sophistication and down-home-ness.”

Oeste’s owners talked about a strong desire to make the restaurant socially, politically, and environmentally responsible. They’re working on a greywater system, for example, and hope to provide opportunities for people of color to grow professionally.

“Generally, at restaurants that are catered to a higher income level, the front of the house is very white and doesn’t reflect what Oakland really is,” Davis said. “We want people to come in and say, ‘This is Oakland.’”

Oeste, 730 Clay St., OesteOakland.com.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Copper Spoon and Paulista Brazilian Kitchen Now Open in Oakland

After months of buzzing and waiting, two high-profile restaurants finally opened in Oakland this weekend.

by Janelle Bitker
Mon, Oct 16, 2017 at 11:51 AM

Crowds flooded into Copper Spoon as soon as it opened Sunday night. - JANELLE BITKER
  • Janelle Bitker
  • Crowds flooded into Copper Spoon as soon as it opened Sunday night.

The owners of Copper Spoon (4031 Broadway) spent two and a half years renovating the former Art’s Crab Shak location in North Oakland, and it’s paid off. The space is barely recognizable, with tall ceilings, lots of natural light, an enormous wood bar, and all the hip accents you might expect. Owners Vita Simone Strauss and Carmen Anderson previously ran the quirky Sassafras Seagrass food truck, and truck favorites stud Copper Spoon’s menu, including the lamb merguez burger and salmon hand rolls.

Their eclectic approach to locally sourced California cuisine is taken a step further with executive chef Andre Hall, who has held positions at big-name spots in San Francisco such as Bar Tartine, Alexander’s Steakhouse, and Fifth Floor, and has a thing for Japanese cuisine.

You can that fondness for Japan in dishes like the soba noodles with miso dashi, wasabi, avocado, and a 62 degree egg. You can also see Hall's time at Eastern European-centric Bar Tartine in the country bread served with eggplant harissa, tomato-bacon jam, and a sweet potato-maple spread.

With its late-night hours — 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily — Copper Spoon is fittingly bar-focused. Strauss is a well-known fixture in the bar scene, having worked at Bar Dogwood, Prizefighter, and Kingston 11. Unsurprisingly, Copper Spoon’s cocktail menu looks bold and exciting, with mezcal heavily featured on opening night.

Meanwhile, Paulista Brazilian Kitchen & Taproom (4239 Park Blvd.) owners Jesse Madway and Alex Yamamoto have been teasing followers on social media all year with its progress in the Glenview neighborhood. Paulista is the first Brazilian restaurant of its kind in Oakland: an all-day destination focused on everyday Brazilian dishes and street food. In other words, it’s not an all-you-can-eat steakhouse.

It's still in soft opening mode, but today Paulista opened its cafe at 7 a.m., serving acai bowls, smoothies, and pastries. The taproom portion, focused on local beers, wines, and ciders, opens at noon. Dinner service starts at 5 p.m.

The opening weekend menu featured coxinhas, fried croquettes filled with cheese and chicken; pastel, a thin-crust pie filled with savory beef; and, of course, Brazil's national dish, feijoada, a black bean stew punched up with sausages, beef, and pork.

Copper Spoon, 4031 Broadway, Oakland, Facebook.com/CopperSpoonOak.

Paulista Brazilian Kitchen & Taproom, 4239 Park Blvd., Oakland, Paulista510.com.

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Absinthia Brings Organic Absinthe to Oakland

by Janelle Bitker
Mon, Oct 16, 2017 at 9:00 AM

  • Photo courtesy of Absinthia's Bottled Spirits
  • A new look for absinthe.

J. Absinthia Vermut first tasted neon green absinthe in 1996. A year later, she was already making her own.

“It fascinated me. I wanted to know why it was illegal for so many decades, why it was so loved and then so hated,” the Oakland resident said.

For years, Vermut worked on her absinthe and became known for serving the anise-steeped spirit at Burning Man parties. Someone gave her the nickname "Absinthia," and she identified with it so much, she made it her legal name. In 2007, the absinthe ban was finally lifted, and Vermut set her sights on launching her own small-batch absinthe brand using organic, West Coast ingredients. Now, it’s ready: Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits.

Absinthia is currently just selling blanche (white in French) absinthe, although a verte (green) version is in the works. Vermut recommends mixing roughly two-and-a-half parts water into one part absinthe, until the color turns milky. Compared to other absinthes I’ve tried, Absinthia’s Absinthe Superieure Blanche is lighter, cleaner, and exceedingly smooth. The other artisanal absinthe player in the region is Alameda's St. George Spirits, which makes an also delicious but very different version that’s more floral and intense. Absinthia’s recipe follows a traditional Swiss style, and it's even made in copper pot stills.

Given the spirit’s relatively recent legalization, plenty of people have still never tasted absinthe. Vermut, who is also behind the popular Caged Heat cocktail syrup, is ready to educate. She hopes people won’t cling to their initial reaction, which is often that absinthe’s anise makes it taste like black liquorice.

“Of course, everyone hates those cheap, nasty candies,” she said. “That’s the first association people have but it’s not correct.”

Certainly, it's an herbaceous drink, full of fennel, coriander, lemon balm, and, yes, wormwood.

Absinthia's Blanche is available in 375ml bottles for $35 — Vermut decided to go for smaller bottles and a lower price point than the norm in an effort to convert new drinkers. Similarly, she moved away from absinthe’s more typical imagery of evil, death, and darkness. Instead, her bottles sport a minimalist look.

“I really wanted to make it alive and approachable. People have been scared off for a long time,” she said. “It’s such a misunderstood, demonized product. … I want to see it as popular as it was at the end of the 1800s.”

In the East Bay, find Absinthia at Alchemy Bottle Shop (3256 Grand Ave., Oakland), Crown Liquors (6125 Medau Pl., Oakland), Eddie’s Drive In Liquors (5491 College Ave., Oakland), Ledger’s Liquors (1399 University Ave., Berkeley), Savemore Market (4219 Park Blvd., Oakland), and Sidebar (542 Grand Ave., Oakland). Absinthia.com.

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