The best time to visit Swan’s Marketplace is early on a sunny Friday afternoon. The Old Oakland Farmers’ Market will be in full swing, and 9th and Washington streets will be swarmed with shoppers, sellers and office workers taking a long lunch break. This usually quiet swath of downtown Oakland will teem with a vibrancy unknown since the construction of the 880 and 980 interstates.
Of course, this energy is only part of the reason to aim for Friday afternoons. Another is that the often-unending line at Cosecha will be mercifully shorter as many visitors will be distracted by the Roti Roti food cart and the roasted nuts tent. Many may scoff at the prices for a taste of the Cosecha tacos. Indeed, $4.00 to $5.00 is quite a steep charge for a single tortilla plus filling, but the quality of the ingredients and composition of each bite is why people are willing to pay it.
Friday’s special shrimp tacos are a prime example. Two shatteringly crisp fried wild shrimp intermingle atop a stately pile of cabbage slaw with a drizzle of brilliantly orange chipotle crema and a sliver of jalapeňo balancing on top. The single warm, slightly sweet house-made tortilla underneath is thick enough to support the fillings without coming close to ripping. There is no need for a double-layer here. This taco is a sight to behold, but a challenge to eat. The gigantic shrimp seem to require an un-hinged jaw with which to attack the taco in a reasonable bite. Tear it apart and eat it piece by piece, instead.
If the taco prices or eating challenges are still too high for comfort, take solace in a bowl of pozole. Or order a bowl of pozole to eat alongside the tacos (or a quesadilla, if you must). Either way, get the pozole. A mildly spicy rendition of the classic Mexican stew, Cosecha’s pozole holds in balance bright lime juice, earthy hominy, grassy green chiles, and comforting chicken. It requires a huge exercise in restraint not to slurp down the entire bowl immediately upon its arrival at the table.
Cosecha was the first of the new wave of restaurants to open up in the historic Swan’s Market building in Old Oakland, and its success seems to have had a domino effect on the entire space. (Breads of India, a stalwart since 2006, is still serving curry at 10th and Clay, but much of the recent activity is confined to the 9th and Washington corner.)
Swan’s Market, a prized shopping center from 1917 until the late 1960s, was in disrepair until the late 1990s, when East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation was granted permission to overhaul the space. The building has since been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and his home to non-profit offices, a children’s museum, a barbershop, and a few retailers, in addition to the restaurants and food vendors on offer. But the building’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years, and its status as a gourmet destination comes as recently as spring 2012 when Friday night pop-ups attracted small vendors like PieTisserie and Little Shop Artisan Box to the scene.
For satisfying a soul-warming Caribbean itch, Miss Ollie’s is now open for a quick lunch or longer dinner. While the corner restaurant seemed to struggle a bit upon first opening, it has now hit its stride, with glowing recent reviews. “Green plate” specials are the stars here — fried chicken with secret Jamaican seasoning; curried goat, lamb, and oxtails served with greens and rice; and fish blaff stew add unique Caribbean punch and warm spice to generally familiar ingredients. Miss Ollie’s also includes less familiar items like ackee with salt fish and pholourie fritters with dipping sauces, but the funky bright flavors hold true throughout the menu.
Fried lamb patties lack a crisp crust, but the resulting slightly chewy texture is pleasantly dumpling-like. The lamb mixture inside has overtures of cinnamon, but still retains its faint gamey essence. A dollop of house-made hot sauce adds any heat needed. Pickles are perhaps overripe with allspice, but hold the perfect snappy-tender texture. A generous bowl of rice and peas (red beans to the uninitiated) and rice will nicely round out a meal should you feel extra peckish. And, unlike Cosecha, the prices (nothing more than $11 at lunch) are wallet-friendly.
Across the way from Miss Ollie’s sits the most recent Swan’s acquisition, the first East Bay outpost of San Francisco’s Rosamunde Sausage Grill. Rosamunde opened in the Haight district in 1998 next to the legendary Toronado beer bar, and the shrine to encased meats has since enjoyed success as close as the Mission district and as far away as Williamsburg, Brooklyn. At their Swan’s location, Rosamunde offers many of their popular San Francisco sausage options like the Mission Street (knockwurst wrapped in bacon, natch) and chicken habanero as well as a few options from their next-door neighbor, Taylor’s Sausage. Their sausages vary in size; for the best bet at a snappy casing and moist interior, stick with the larger sausages.
During a busy lunch rush, the thin wild boar was on the dry side and was no match for the bright and snappy sauerkraut. The beer sausage fared much better, retaining its juiciness and spice, distinct even when slathered with Dijon mustard. And don’t forget an outstanding dill pickle. The monstrous specimen comes sliced to order, and is the perfect shared snack while waiting for the main event.
907 Washington St., Oakland
Monday-Wednesday 11am-6pm; Thursday and Friday 11am-3:30pm and 5pm-9:30pm; Saturday 10:30am-2:30pm and 5pm to 9:30pm. Coffee Service Monday-Saturday 9am-11am.
901 Washington St., Oakland
Tuesday-Thursday 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:00pm-9:30pm; Friday and Saturday 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:00pm-10:30pm
Rosamunde Sausage Grill
911 Washington St., Oakland
Sunday-Tuesday 11am-10pm; Wednesday-Saturday 11am-11pm
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.