I took a seat in the cushioned carmine red chair at the counter and put my hunger aside to scope out the scene around me. It was 10 o’clock on Sunday morning. Outside, the Oakland air was chilly and smoggy, but inside, happy clattering, and the smell of coffee, BBQ shrimp and waffles welcomed us.
I have loved Brown Sugar Kitchen ever since I heard about it in 2010, when my dad, a chef, heard about its opening. While its concept has been incredible from the start, the business truly has expanded for the better since its beginning. The beignets came first, deep-fried, with powdered sugar laid over the top like a blanket. Beignets are a type of French donut, usually square, originating in New Orleans. My mom grabbed the first, snatching the smallest one, hoping it would save her the calories, while my dad, the French chef with a stomach of about a two foot diameter, took the largest, hoping that this deep-fried masterpiece would take him back to his childhood. I was left with the middle-sized one. Perfect.
My teeth broke the exterior and plunged themselves into the doughy center. My immediate reaction was, “Incredible!” But nothing is incredible in our family until my dad says it is. My mom and I waited for the response to his first bite, and gave him a drumroll to build up the suspense. A lot of pressure was riding on this bite.
We were relieved to find out that the beignet was, as a matter of fact, as good as, if not better, than what he had eaten and made in France. This bite set the tone for the rest of the meal. “Astonished”, and “blown away” were the first words out of my dad’s mouth.
The interior of BSK is pretty small. There’s a counter that sits eight and in total the restaurant seats thirty. The co-owner and husband of the head chef, Phil Surkis, describes Brown Sugar Kitchen as, “the little restaurant that could.”
Despite its size, the eatery retains the ambiance of its diner predecessor. It is situated in a small, ex-diner located on Mandela Parkway, which was originally the Cyprus Structure of the Nimitz Freeway. When the structure collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Mandela Parkway, a large street, was built. The location makes this restaurant all the more unique considering that it is a tiny place nestled on an intersection of a busy street full of industrial warehouses.
The biscuits arrived, then the shrimp and grits. From the texture of the green onion bacon cheddar biscuits, to the rich, flavor packed BBQ shrimp and grits, everything was great.
Tanya Holland, head chef and co-owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen, often speaks about her sharing mentality,how she doesn’t keep “secret recipes” but rather she exposes them to the world to replicate and enjoy at home. As my family and I noticed the diversity in the restaurant, we reflected back on the Brown Sugar Kitchen cookbook.
Next in our meal, my mom received what she had ordered: buttermilk fried chicken and waffles with apple cider syrup. For starters, these waffles aren’t ordinary waffles. They are made with cornmeal and yeast. Cooked in their tiny kitchen, they have four industrial waffle irons and a giant batch of batter, because they anticipate the uncanny amount of waffles they are going to need to make. When I first bit into the waffles they were light, crispy, and aerated. It was the most unique dish I’d ever tasted and the best part of the meal.
Everybody I know, whether from the East Bay, San Francisco, Marin County, or the Peninsula, who has gone out of their way to indulge in BSK has praised their buttermilk fried chicken and waffles with apple cider syrup. I decided to do a little bit of investigation. I whipped out my smartphone and looked up the review on Check, Please, KQED’s restaurant review program. One of the Check, Please critics had said, “The waffles at Brown Sugar Kitchen are the best waffles in the universe and any other universe.”
he most complex flavors, though, came to me when my BBQ shrimp and grits arrived at the table. Steam rolled off the top of the liquidy grits. I inhaled and it gave me a sense of what the sauce was going to taste like. The shrimp were grilled to perfection. The mixture of the soupy grits and the crunchy exterior of the shrimp combined to perfection.
Interspersed throughout the pages of the recipes Tanya shares, she highlights different members of the community. Flipping through the pages, she highlights a variety of regulars at the restaurant, ultimately emulating the diverse community that Brown Sugar Kitchen has been helping create for the past four years and counting.
To top off my meal, I ended with a personal favorite of mine, usually ordered at Peet’s or Starbucks. The chai tea latte was a spot-on conclusion to a spot- on meal. Spice. Coziness. Two characteristics that coated my throat to leave a memento of my first time eating at BSK.
Historically, Oakland has been predominantly African- American. During World War II, African-Americans concentrated themselves in Oakland because of the ship building industry and the housing situation. So, why was it that when I looked around the restaurant, there were families, couples, friends, and singles of Black, Latin, Caucasian, Arab, and Asian backgrounds dining in the same restaurant?
The diversity in the restaurant has to do with West Oakland itself. This section of Oakland, notorious for violence in the past, has become less rugged. One possible cause of this change is the rising controversy over housing in San Francisco. The ‘City by the Bay’ has now become the most expensive city in the country and is over-crowded. As a result, Oakland has been converted into an equally pleasant alternative for city-loving young people who can’t afford the prices in San Francisco. One person highlighted who represents this theory is Cynthia Curiel, a dog walker and member of the Bay Area Derby Girls skating team said, “I liked what I saw and ended up moving here from San Francisco in 2012. There are a lot of families buying homes and a huge number of artists living here.”
pleasant alternative for city-loving young people who can’t afford the prices in San Francisco. One person highlighted who represents this theory is Cynthia Curiel, a dog walker and member of the Bay Area Derby Girls skating team said, “I liked what I saw and ended up moving here from San Francisco in 2012. There are a lot of families buying homes and a huge number of artists living here.”
In general, it’s been concluded that the reason for the immense diversity is the African- American history of Oakland and the rising young generation moving into West Oakland. What better way to bring everyone together than a fantastic restaurant that incorporates sophistication (Tanya’s French training) and home-cooking (Tanya’s southern paternal roots)?
Tanya Holland and BSK represent the revived heart and generosity of West Oakland. Like Boots Riley, a musician, a community activist, and front man for Street Sweeper Social Club and Coup said in his spread in Tanya’s cookbook, “the people in West Oakland are really proud of Brown Sugar Kitchen. Like the neighborhood, it’s a remix of the old and the new. Because the food represents black culture, people see it as a beacon. It’s part of the ideal of what West Oakland should be.”