Appearances aren’t everything. Take The Black Bean, for example. Housed in a former Chinese restaurant on Atwood Street in Oakland, it’s the epitome of barely renovated. The long bar that is the major visual focus for the main room lacks any stock or lighting. The cooler of 20 oz. sodas on the left of the bar seems completely out of place, as does the water cooler and plastic cups for self-serve. There’s a little side room of tables. The bathrooms are in the basement. Even some vibrant paintings on the wall don’t quite make up for the restaurant’s lack of atmosphere. It feels like a take-out spot.
And it is, certainly. The price range for appetizers, sandwiches, salads, and entrees are on par with other takeout options, and in a neighborhood like Oakland, a restaurant could make a considerable sum on pick up orders alone. Still, for a place still putting the operation together – for example, as of my visit, their liquor license hadn’t come through yet, thus the empty bar – there’s a kind of low-key charm in the unfinished details.
When I came in, The Black Bean was empty. The friendly girl at the bar gave me two menus, told me to sit anywhere, and that I needed to order at the bar when I was ready. Pretty straightforward, no fuss, no frills.
I started off with a basic of Cuban cuisine, Yuca Frita, or Casava root, cut into steak-fry chunks and lightly seasoned. The last time I had fried yuca was at Chicken Latino, where it offered a neutral counterpart to my spicy veggie burrito. The Black Bean variation packed a ton of flavor into each starchy yuca fry. The seasoning was salty and a little spicy, but it was balanced nicely by the mild insides of the thick cut chunks.
Jackie was feeling the Lenten pull of meatlessness on her conscience, so she went for The Black Bean Salad, an iceberg salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and black beans, doused heavily in the house dressing. The dressing was delicious – creamy like Ranch, but lighter and slightly sweeter – and the veggies were surprisingly fresh and crisp. But the salad, especially as coated as it was in the dressing, needed a bit more construction to resemble something other than a pile of ingredients. A little more effort applied to putting it together would have helped the immediate appeal of the dish.
I can’t resist Cuban pulled pork, so I ordered the Havana Wrap, a tortilla wrapped around said pork, accompanied by an immense layer of rice and beans. The wrap is lightly pressed, to give the tortilla a little crunch, but for the most part, it remained pliable and easy to handle. I loved that the rice and beans were as mild as they were – too many restaurants make the mistake of over seasoning their rice and beans – but I was a little disappointed by the pork. It was perfectly tender, but not terribly juicy. The slices of maduros, or sweet fried plantains, added a necessary bump to the flavor. A little hot sauce also brightened things up considerably, but it would be nice if the restaurant offered something more distinctive than Frank’s Red Hot, made freely available on every table next to the ketchup.
We finished our meal by splitting a cream cheese and guava empanada. Whatever our misgivings on the rest of the meal might have been, there was no mistaking this as anything but an excellent idea. The cheese was smooth and warm, mixing easily with the chunky, gooey guava. It was sweet enough for a dessert option, but mild enough to not overwhelm, and I wish we had ordered a second one for the road.
Taking out or dining in, I recommend trying out The Black Bean in Oakland. What the inside lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in a menu heavy on the traditional Cuban elements made palatable to all diners. There are attractive veggie options, tantalizing meat-heavy dishes, and a great list of appetizers which could justify a visit in of themselves. Our meal wasn’t perfect – many of the things we wanted to try were either out of stock or not available yet – but it made an impression when so many restaurants in the crowded college area fail to. Next time you’re hungry on Atwood, skip the overcrowded usual choices and give The Black Bean a try.