Understory, a worker-run restaurant and bar, is as righteous as it is delicious

The worker-forward restaurant offers a rotating menu of hard-to-find foods.

A selection of drinks from Understory: Pandan cold brew, boozy boba offerings (ginger lemon rum spritzer, watermelon gin and juice and a hibiscus margarita) and Hong Kong style milk tea. Credit: Jenabi Pareja.

Understory, a new bar and restaurant in Old Oakland, seeks to honor the cuisines of various communities through its food, with Moroccan, Filipino and (vegan) Mexican menus. Florencio Esquivel, one of the cooks and worker-leaders at Understory, said the restaurant strives to “reimagine a food landscape that is more equitable and more just for everyone involved.” Some of the chefs involved are immigrants, and many are queer. Every menu is vegan-friendly and includes one sliding scale (starting at $0) dish.

Understory
528 8th St. (near Clay Street), Oakland

Understory’s cooks and worker-leaders — Esquivel, Jenabi Pareja, Nino Serrano and Lily Fahsi-Haskell — all have previous experience working as chefs or cooks and as activists. Esquivel ran the popular pop-up Hella Vegan Eats, while Pareja and Serrano both worked at Reem’s in Oakland. Fahsi-Haskell was a former campaign director at Critical Resistance, an Oakland-headquartered nonprofit focused on ending the prison-industrial complex. The restaurant was developed by the 8th Street Collective, which, in addition to the leaders mentioned above, also includes Diana Wu of Oakland Bloom, a nonprofit focusing on empowering immigrant, refugee and chefs of color. The space also serves as a commissary kitchen for other food businesses and organizations.

The staffs of Oakland Bloom and Understory. Left to right: Sean Chow, Lily Haskell, Nino Serrano, Florencio Esquivel, Jenabi Pareja and Diana Wu. Credit: Papo Ricosuave.

Cooking and restaurant work is a pathway for many immigrant communities and working-class people, but workplace conditions often fail the workers on many levels, from low pay, harassment and dangerous conditions to human trafficking and exploitation. The goal of worker-led Understory is to honor its worker-leaders by giving them a voice in the decision-making power—ultimately, upending the top-down power structure within restaurants and corporate-owned chains. The collective’s values also include “uplifting communities of color, building economic sustainability, creating space to build community that affirms disability justice principles, fighting gentrification and recognizing our role in it, supporting environmentally and racially just food systems, taking actions to disrupt state violence” and “practicing honesty and critical reflection.”  

It’s an experiment of sorts, since not many full-fledged restaurant/bars operate as a collective or cooperative. The group is not a full cooperative yet, but hopes to become one, and also hopes to add more cooks and members down the line. The cuisines and dishes Understory features are also uncommon in the Bay Area. Right now, the menu rotates every three weeks, based on the backgrounds of the cooks: Filipino, Moroccan, and Mexican. Each member helps with all cuisines, sharing the labor and allowing the different cuisines to shine. “We welcome and invite folks to try food that is unapologetically authentic to us,” Pareja says. 

While Understory has a beautiful dining room, that area is currently closed for indoor dining for COVID-19 safety reasons (they plan to allow limited indoor dining in the coming weeks). Instead, the collective’s founding members and some volunteers built their own outdoor parklet, serving sit-down diners right on 8th Street. But if it weren’t for the pandemic, this restaurant might not exist at all: When restaurants shut down in 2020, many workers were suddenly left unemployed. One of those unemployed workers was Pareja, who was employed as a chef at a tech startup cafeteria; and when all of the workers were told to work from home, Pareja was laid off. “The folks who were hurt the most during the pandemic were the workers,” Pareja says, which is why he turned his attention to activism and his work with Understory. So now “we’re trying to flip the script of how workers are treated in restaurant spaces,” an issue that was “illuminated during the pandemic,” Esquivel says.

Understory’s space, a block from Swan’s Marketplace, also serves as an incubator kitchen for nonprofit Oakland Bloom, which runs Open Test Kitchen, a chef training program. The extra benefit of this is that on (most) Sundays, an Oakland Bloom chef pops up at the location as part of a joint collaboration. For example, one recent Sunday featured a Bosnian street food menu, including cevapi, pita stuffed with veal and beef sausage, roasted pepper sauce and onions and cabbage salad. There was also an Impossible Burger vegan cevapi, to serve the restaurant’s commitment to plant-based alternatives. (The current Oakland Bloom members are from Hong Kong, Eritrea, the Karen State and Bosnia). 

Planting Justice, an Oakland-based nonprofit, also operates its “Electric Smoothie Lab Apothecary” out of the same kitchen, and Mak-‘amham/Cafe Ohlone is also using the location for its take-home Ohlone chef’s boxes on every third Sunday. Pareja says Understory recognizes that a permanent location with a spacious kitchen is hard to come by, which is why it is happy to share. “Having a brick-and-mortar in the community is such a privilege,” Pareja says.

Understory’s goals regarding how labor is distributed are exciting, but so are its dishes and cuisines. For example, there’s its Filipino menu. The sinigang sa santol, a vegan and gluten-free soup, was the sliding scale item one one day I visited. The soup was tangy, made of tamarind, cottonfruit, okra, taro, long beans, tomato and water spinach. The tapsilog’s fermented and marinated beef had depth in flavor, and atchara (pickled vegetables) balanced the richness of the beef. The silog dishes are available as a brunch special on Saturdays for $12.

Understory’s bar menu includes a few cocktail drinks; a recent brunchtime included mango, strawberry mint, and hibiscus mimosas. There are also non-alcoholic and refreshing seasonal drinks such as watermelon basil agua fresca. Desserts are whimsical — an ube egg pie, made with heavy cream, grated ube, and eggs, had the perfect custard consistency and subtle ube flavor. Understory’s version of halo-halo has also made an appearance on the menu. 

Dishes from Understory’s Moroccan menu: vegan tagine, popcorn cauliflower, and roz bil hleeb (orange blossom and almond sweet rice dessert). Credit: Momo Chang

The Moroccan menu included many unfamiliar-to-me dishes, but each one I tried was delicious. For $6, the grilled artichoke appetizer is a shareable and healthy starter that feels like you’re treating yourself to something fancy; it comes with a lemon herb aioli for dipping. Another shareable is the vegan popcorn cauliflower ($6), battered and deep fried pieces topped with spicy harissa sauce. Finally, I tried the vegan tagine ($12), full of vegetables and flavor, including quince, delicata squash, lentils, and collard greens and topped with slices of roasted sweet potato, a dish that reminds diners that vegetables can be as gratifying to eat as meat.

I didn’t get to try the vegan Mexican menu. Until it comes back in rotation, I’ll be daydreaming about the roasted sweet potato tacos that come with black beans, avocado, cabbage, and a mole poblano sauce in a homemade corn tortilla, and the oyster and enoki mushroom-based pozole. And I’ll definitely be back for Understory’s and Oakland Bloom’s Sunday pop-ups.

Understory is open Thursdays, 4-8 p.m., Fridays 12-2 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. and Saturdays 11 a.m.-4 p.m. for takeout, delivery or outdoor dining. Check Understory and Oakland Bloom‘s Instagram accounts for Sunday pop-up menus and hours.