Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Fear and Hunger at OB's Cafe

By Jesse Hirsch
Tue, Apr 10, 2012 at 12:01 PM

OB’s Cafe may be a fantastic restaurant, but the owner isn’t interested in your praise.

A food writer friend hipped me to this tiny Cajun spot in Old Oakland, saying that he “didn’t want to take credit or blame” for the suggestion. Intrigued, I did my Internet due diligence. The OB’s website is a slick Mardi Gras party, with Flash animation, zydeco music, and a curious slogan: “There really is such a thing as Southern hospitality which comes with a certain attitude that says ‘Calm down and enjoy yourself.’”

Yelp tells a more nuanced story. On one hand, you have scores of one-star reviewers, telling tales of OB’s irascible owner berating them or kicking them out for minor infractions such as asking for a menu or a glass of water. Comments like “He threatened to kill a customer!”, “Avoid this place and its toxic owner/chef at all costs!”, and “The Soup Nazi is a saint compared to this guy!” paint a bleak picture.


On the other hand, you have five-star reviewers gushing about the best shrimp and grits since they left Louisiana, calling the formidably named chef/owner (Javonito De La Cruz De Morfulleda, aka OB) a Van Gogh in the kitchen, and describing his catfish as “life-altering.” Between the five-star reviews and the one-star reviews is very little middle ground. You couldn’t keep me away.

I stopped by with my friend Christo on a recent Tuesday afternoon, feeling a potent mixture of hunger and fear. Inside the wee space, a TV blared some daytime drivel, a woman kvetched on a hot-pink phone while sipping coffee through a straw, a grad-student type read a book and drank grape Shasta, and a large man sat glued to the TV.

When we approached the counter, the big man barked, “What do you want!” without looking up. “Ah, lunch?” OB gruffly ordered us to sit down. He seemed put out.

Besides a small lending library of cheap horror books and textile manuals, there weren’t many niceties at OB’s. We didn’t get water. We had to find menus in a stack near the entrance. It was loud, yet weirdly desolate. When OB approached for our order, he stood there without a word, only grunting after we placed our orders. When I asked if I could get a po-boy to go, he said “No,” and walked away.

And the prices! Fourteen dollars for a po-boy was the low end, scaling up to almost $20 for the priciest lunch items.

Christo and I waited quietly (afraid of doing anything to earn OB’s ire) while the chef went to town in the kitchen. Everything was prepped via hot plate, griddle, and toaster oven. Lemons were squeezed. Pinches of spice were thrown. Liberal amounts of cream were poured. I smelled bacon frying up.

And after half an hour of preparation, a terrific meal. My shrimp and grits had an ample base of creamy cheddar-laced grits, sticky but not lumpy, and mounds of plump shrimp and bacon in a lemony Bayou gravy. Christo’s gargantuan jambalaya was red-hot and garlicky, with tender white chicken, Andouille sausage coins, and a savory blend of Cajun spices. We were insanely full, but couldn’t stop eating.

After we finished, OB said he was going to charge me for eating off my friend’s plate. I protested, then detected a slight twinkle in the eye (not so gruff!). As he was ringing me up — no plate-sharing surcharge — OB explained he didn’t sell po-boys to go because they’d be awful when you get them home. I also learned that OB’s Cafe has been there for ten years.

Ten years. Despite totally unpredictable hours, high prices, no ambience, and customer service that ranges from reticent to outright hostile, OB’s Cafe has plugged along for a decade in Old Oakland. At essence, its only asset is really great food. Looks like that’s enough.

OB’s Cafe, 729 Washington St., Oakland, 510-268-9696

Comments? Tips? Get in touch at Jesse.Hirsch@EastBayExpress.com.

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