Freshly squeezed at Cafe Van Kleef

After we left Mexicali Rose, my friends wanted to introduce me to one of the coolest jazz clubs in Oakland, Cafe Van Kleef. Known for a killer Greyhound, Cafe Van Kleef is located in the “Oaksterdam” district of downtown Oakland at 1621 Telegraph Avenue. The nickname developed quite recently due to the numerous cannabis clubs, cafes and dispensaries opening up in the area offering medical marijuana in both smokable and edible preparations to certified patients.

On the outside, Cafe Van Kleef reminds me of something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but inside there is such an crazy, eclectic mix of decor it’s difficult to pinpoint.  There are all kinds of classical details like busts, columns and urns, but my favorite feature would have to be a huge painting that covers the entire wall opposite the bar.  The painting features a number of famous personalities throughout history all sitting in a cafe eating and drinking together.  I was able to recognize Freida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh and the Dalai Lama

My friends were eager for me to try Van Kleef’s signature drink, the Greyhound which is simply vodka and grapefruit juice.  The key to the bar’s success with this particular cocktail (as well as other citrus cocktails) is the fresh squeezed juice.  Our Greyhounds (modeled here by my dear friend Scott) would have served as the perfect breakfast beverage because of its star feature, a full quarter of a large grapefruit sitting on top!

If you’ve read some of my earlier blogs, you’ll know that the Circle Bar in Lee Circle was one of our (Shalom and I) most favorite hangouts.  Well, for a strange twist of fate and yet another example proving how small this world really is, one of the bartenders who now works at Van Kleef’s formerly worked at the Circle Bar in New Orleans.  What are the chances?  Even more amazing, the San Francisco Chronicle recently dubbed Cafe Van Kleef as “one of the five places in the West that would do the Big Easy proud.”

We relished the rest of the evening perched on high, well-padded stools around a large table, sipping our fresh fruit cocktails and enjoying the live jazz band cranking up the volume at the end of the hall.  I almost felt like I was back in New Orleans for a moment with the wailing sax, friends both old and new mixed with delicious cocktails. If you ever find yourself in Oakland…I highly recommend Cafe Van Kleef.

A novel classic: The Mexicali Rose

On 7th and Clay in Oakland, California lives what is touted as the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Bay Area, the Mexicali Rose. Open since 1927, this classic restaurant was completely unknown to me until just this past weekend. During the 33 years that I lived in the Bay Area, I had become familiar with many of the cities, from San Francisco to San Jose and there were very few towns that I had not explored. Oakland just happens to be one of them. I can’t tell you how cool it was to visit my friend Shalom in a Bay Area city where I felt like a newbie as opposed to an old hack.

In New Orleans, Shalom and I used to go out for a huge breakfast at 5 am after a hard night of drinking and it seemed to me that Mexicali Rose is the Mexican equivilant of St. Charles Tavern.  The food may not be spectacular but there was a lot of it for a great price in a comfortable atmosphere.

We pulled into the small parking lot outside the Mexicali Rose at around 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night.  The restaurant was full of diners crammed into red leather booths with wood-flavored Formica tables, a stark reminder of late 60’s and early 70’s decor.  I couldn’t help grinning at the walls featuring large murals of Incan-like art (also very 70’s) as we slid into a large circular booth in the corner…the only one that would hold a party of five and reserved, as it seemed, just for us.

We were immediately served tortilla chips and a searing hot salsa. Someone requested a pitcher of margaritas as we browsed the menu.  From their a la carte options, I selected the Chicken Enchilada with Chile Verde sauce while my friends ordered Pork Burritos, combination plates of Chicken Enchiladas and fresh Tacos. We also put in an order of guacamole, a must-try according to my friends. I have to admit, I was a bit fuzzy on the other orders since my friends had showered me with libations before we even arrived at the restaurant.

Along with more tortilla chips, a huge pile of guacamole topped with grated jack cheese was brought to the table and no one hesitated before grabbing a chip and digging in.  It proved to be fairly tasty and chunky with avocados.

My eyes popped when I saw my friends’ entrees arrive. The burritos were easily as big as my head! At only $8 a plate, Shalom and Scottie’s entrees could easily provide them with sustenance for several days.The burritos were tasty too, loaded with chunks of moist pork, lots of melted jack cheese, rice and refried beans. My enchilada was a much more manageable size, not to mention slathered with a tasty chile verde sauce that was tangy and plentiful, which I preferred over the red sauce on Shalom’s burrito.

Although we couldn’t help but giggle a bit at the “classic” atmosphere and our handwritten “reserved” sign posted on binder paper, the Mexicali Rose is, nonetheless, a great spot for affordable Mexican food in Oakland…especially late night. We ordered another round of margaritas (heavy on the salt!) and discussed where to head next. The night had only barely begun…