Noe Valley Voice November 2000

Are We There Yet?

By Janis Cooke Newman

Steve and Mae Wong are posing with a cow's foot. Steve is grinning. Mae has no fewer than 25 pens clipped to the top of her apron. The cow's foot has a hoof. My 5-year-old son, Alex, stands in front of the Wongs' meat case, eyeing an entire pig's head.

"Kids come here on field trips all the way from Bakersfield," Steve says. He points to a tray filled to overflowing with pigs' snouts. "How else are they going to learn about these things?"

Steve and Mae Wong are the owners of Jack's Meats, one of the shops in downtown Oakland's historic Housewives Market. The sign above the counter at Jack's advertises "African Foods," and in addition to the cow's foot, there are plenty of exotic items: kola nuts and cassava starch, something called fuffu flour, and African yams the size and shape of Fred Flintstone's club.

The ethnic markets of downtown Oakland are a culinary version of cultural diversity. Within a three-block area, kids (and their parents) can get a literal taste of global cultures, without the jet lag. And the Housewives Market is a good place to start. The market is a collection of food shops housed in an airy building, with painted rams' heads and fish along the top. Inside, it's more like the open-air markets of Mexico and Central America than Safeway.

Back at Jack's, Steve Wong and my husband are discussing pork chops, while Alex watches a man separate a huge slab of ribs with a chisel. I wander into Gomez Produce, where bins of incendiary habañero chilis and ping-pong-ball-sized Mexican limes make me dream of salsa-covered snapper and margaritas. But in the next aisle, I come upon fresh okra, and my mouth starts watering for gumbo.

Across the way at Taylor's Sausage, I find homemade andouille and spicy Cajun sausage that would be perfect in jambalaya. I'm about to buy some when I spot their delicious rice-filled boudin blanc sausage.

"What do you think about fish steamed with black beans and ginger?" My husband shows me a sea bass that's so fresh, it looks as if it's winking at us.

"I want these!" Alex steams up the glass in front of a soldierly row of cooked crayfish.

Over at Allan's Ham & Bacon, big glass jars of roux have me contemplating gumbo again. Although on second thought, the Maryland Old Bay seasoning would be perfect for the dungeness crab back at the fish store.

After an hour or so, we leave the Housewives Market with the makings of African, Mexican, Chinese, and Cajun meals.

Our next stop is Ratto's International Market, which has been in downtown Oakland for 103 years. On the wall inside is a black-and-white photograph of G.B. Ratto, the store's founder, standing beside a horse-drawn carriage. Behind the counter, is Elena Viron, G.B. Ratto's great-great-granddaughter, standing beside several varieties of hummus.

Alex is already poking around the boxes of bulk pasta, picking out his favorite shape, radiatore, which resemble the scribbles of his early artwork. I check out the cheeses, which include everything from Humbolt County goat to Bulgarian feta.

Among the bins of dried beans, Alex and I find flagolet and shiny black Beluga lentils, scarlet runners, and speckled calypso beans he thinks look like little dinosaur eggs. In the spice aisle, we discover Indian saffron and a jar full of hibiscus flowers, Parisian paté spice, and crystallized violet petals I want to buy just to keep in a bowl. On the bottom shelf, Alex points out jars that are filled with spices called mahlab and green zahter. I tell him they are the names of Middle Eastern superheroes.

"Try this chestnut flour." Elena hands me a bag of butter-yellow flour, and I can already taste the nut-flavored biscotti I once ate in Italy.

We buy anchovy-stuffed olives and marinated herring, comfort food for my Jewish/Italian husband. I cannot leave without a piece of the dried salt cod called bacaloa that my grandmother would soak overnight in milk and turn into salad with pepperoncini and cauliflower.

"Do we have to look at any more food?" Alex says, as we stuff the groceries in the car. He is affecting the look of someone who is being severely tortured.

Fortunately, the Museum of Children's Art is nearby, tucked away in the courtyard behind the Housewives Market. Known locally as MOCHA (an appropriately food-related name), the museum offers drop-in classes and hands-on workshops. We climb upstairs to a bright white space where kids' paintings and sculptures hang on every wall. Then we head down to the museum shop, which is filled with paints and crayons and modeling clay -- pretty much anything a parent might need to reward a child for a morning spent looking at food.

"I'm hungry," Alex says, clutching a new box of colored pencils.

"We've got a car full of food."

"Yeah, but I'm hungry now."

I know what he means, so we take him down the block to Toutatis, a Breton-style crepe house.

While my husband and I eat galettes (savory crepes made with organic buckwheat flour), Alex looks through the restaurant's French comic books. He likes the famous Gauls, Asterix and Obélix. I'm partial to a lantern-jawed hero named Ric Hochet.

In an effort to make our experience as authentically Breton as possible, my husband and I are compelled to drink many glasses of sydre (the French version of hard cider).

Strolling around the neighborhood after lunch, Alex tugs on my sleeve. "What are we having for dinner?"

"What about Moroccan tagine?" I say.

"Or seared ahi with wasabi?" asks my husband.

"How about hot dogs?" Alex suggests.

Getting There: By car, take the Bay Bridge to 580, and then 980 toward Downtown Oakland. Exit 12th Street, left on 7th Street, and left on Washington Street. By BART, take the Richmond or Pittsburg train to the 12th Street Station, which brings you to 11th Street and Broadway. Washington Street is one block west of Broadway.

Within the Housewives Market, Jack's Meats is located at 907 Washington St. at 9th Street. It's open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Ratto's is across the street at 821 Washington St., between 8th and 9th. It's open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturdays, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA) can be found at 538 9th St., between Washington and Clay. In addition to longer courses, the museum offers a drop-in art program for kids Tuesday through Friday from 3:30 to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. The fee is $3 per child. Call 510-465-8770 for more information.

Toutatis Crepe House is at 719 Washington St. at 7th Street. Galettes run $2.75 to $6.50, and the restaurant also has a wonderful selection of dessert crepes. Toutatis is open Monday through Saturday for lunch from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., and for dinner from 6 until 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights). Sunday brunch hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner hours 6 to 9 p.m. Toutatis does not take credit cards.

Recipes: If you want to find out how to prepare those ham hocks or dried morels you picked up in downtown Oakland, check out the recipe search option at

Are We There Yet? is a Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please email Janis Cooke Newman at or the Noe Valley Voice at