Oakland’s (Still) Got Soul

Oakland’s (Still) Got Soul

Lady Esther’s brings Southern comfort food with history to downtown.

“It’s not California cooking.”

Those aren’t my words; they’re what Deimentrius Clay said in describing the food at her new downtown Oakland lunch spot, Lady Esther’s Original Southern Café.

And far be it for me to argue if your definition of “California cooking” is the sort of light, simple, seasonal, produce-focused fare that’s become the calling card of Bay Area cuisine. Shrimp po’ boys, smothered oxtails, and green beans that have been cooked damn near to liquidity certainly aren’t the sort of dishes you’ll find on the menu at Chez Panisse.

But if we’re taking a longer view, you could argue that the kind of down-home, stick-to-your-ribs soul food at Lady Esther’s has a stronger historical claim on the state’s food lineage than kale salad and poached salmon. After all, Clay is carrying the cooking torch from her mother, Louisianan native Esther Clay—the original “Lady Esther”—who ran a soul food eatery in East Oakland for decades starting in 1968. The roots of the food, meanwhile, stretch back hundreds of years to the U.S. South and were introduced to cities like Oakland during the World War II and post-WWII migration of African Americans seeking industrial jobs on the West Coast.

Which is to say, soul food has a pretty long memory in this country and the city of Oakland. But in many ways, Lady Esther’s skews in the exact opposite direction of prevailing dining trends, particularly in Frank Ozawa Plaza (where it took over for the short-lived Crossburgers) and the adjacent Oakland City Center, which cater primarily to a downtown work crowd generally looking for something quick, cheap, and, increasingly, light. Unlike recently opened nearby spots like CORE Kitchen or Organic Coup, which tout all-plant and all-organic menus respectively, Clay serves up unapologetically hearty, solid soul food in an unpretentious setting (you’ll have to look elsewhere for filament lights and reclaimed wood tables).

Maybe that’s what makes dining there so refreshing. Lady Esther’s is decidedly untrendy. It is what it is, and in the rapidly gentrifying East Bay, which has seen longtime African-American-centric dining spots like Art’s Crab Shack and Dorsey’s Locker shutter in recent years, it’s something increasingly rare.

All that being said, any recommendation for Lady Esther’s should come with a couple of disclaimers. One: Don’t come here expecting a light meal. The food is good, often quite good, but it’s heavy, a good percentage of it is fried, and it’s aggressively seasoned (Clay says her goal is for diners never to reach for the salt or pepper shaker), so don’t be surprised if an afternoon nap comes beckoning. And two: Don’t expect a quick meal. While Clay seems to have steadily ramped up her workforce since opening in March, it’s still a bit of a skeleton crew—so an hour wait time is not unusual if the restaurant is busy.

Let’s start with a must-order: the fried chicken, one of the stars of the menu and some of the best I’ve eaten in recent years. It comes out fried to order and piping hot with a thin, addictively crispy crust that’s robustly seasoned with salt, pepper, and a fair bit of spice—it’s Clay’s mother’s recipe and one of several items in which the cuisine’s Louisianan lineage manifests itself. The interior meat, three pieces of white and dark meat, is extremely juicy and flavorful.

In general, fried is a good way to go, but not always. In the case of the breaded pork chop, a special on Wednesdays, it just seemed unnecessary. The chop has enough natural flavor on it’s own, and the frying actually dried out the meat, while the more robust pork overshadowed the fry batter that shined so brightly with the chicken. I’d take a plain-old baked pork chop any day of the week.

Seafood, on the other hand, does benefit. The best example was the shrimp po’ boy—perhaps not coincidentally another dish with Louisianan ties. Po’ boys have become a trendy menu item all over the Bay Area, but similar to the ones you can still find in some of the older spots in New Orleans, Lady Esther’s rendition was refreshingly simple: soft, squishy white bread torpedo roll; cold chopped lettuce, tomato, and red onion; and sweet and bouncy shrimp fried in a sharply peppery batter. Bringing everything together is a creamy mayonnaise sauce with a hint of ketchup and a spicy Creole seasoning kick. It’s not fancy and it’s a little messy, but all those ingredients combine for a delicious comfort food treat that I could eat multiple times a week.

For the most part, the fare at Lady Esther’s is pretty straightforward—chicken, meatloaf, fried fish, burgers. There are two exceptions: oxtails and chitterlings. Let’s get the bad out of the way first: those chitterlings. Commonly known as chittlins, these are in fact stewed pork intestines. It’s important to note that this is a dish that carries strong historical significance in African-American dining culture, similar to the sort of items like fermented herring in Scandinavia and stinky tofu in China. It’s the kind of thing that to appreciate, you kind of have to grow up eating—which I didn’t. The chittlins come in a gray, wet, steaming pile, and neither the sight, the taste, nor, in particular, the smell, did anything to make me forget that this is a part of the organ whose primary purpose is digestive. I managed one bite before pushing them aside, and unless you’re a diehard lover, I’d recommend steering clear.

In polar opposite, were the “Uncle Big’s” oxtails. The generous helping included four, robust, surprisingly meaty segments slow-cooked to tender deliciousness and covered with rich, savory gravy. The kitchen leaves intact a good portion of the existing cartilage and tendon, which is rich in good-for-you gelatin and collagen and also offers interesting texture and mouth-feel. These slot alongside the fried chicken as a must-order item.

Entrees come à la carte or with three sides for an extra few dollars. If you get the sides, it’s probably best to stick to basics: Mac ‘n’ cheese is tasty, if a bit oily in the way that can happen when it’s kept and served out of a container, buffet style. The mashed potatoes are solid, especially when covered with that gravy, and the collard greens had a vinegary, spicy punch and held up well to the stew-like preparation. Not as successful were the green beans, which came out mushy and overcooked.

But let’s be honest: You’re not coming to here for the pristine veggies. You can get those in a lot of places. Tender, smothered oxtails and unpretentiously delicious fried chicken and Louisiana-style po’ boys from recipes that span generations and thousands of miles are a little harder to find these days in Oakland. So give Lady Esther’s a shot: It’s food worth keeping around.

Lady Esther’s Original Southern Café

300 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Suite 150,
Oakland, 510-823-2447.
Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11am-5pm
(Look for breakfast to start sometime this summer).
Average dinner entrée: $11 (without sides).
No alcohol. Credit cards accepted. .

Faces of the East Bay