I haven't met anyone yet who doesn't love Miss Ollie's. And I mean, love. A random poll in my living room brought hands to hearts and lots of cooing, as if I'd placed a puppy in the center of the room. It's more than the food that makes this kind of thing happen -- there's an abstract soulfulness to Miss Ollie's that people like to try and pin down, but end up flocking there instead like moths to an oil lamp on a hot Caribbean night. The food is unequivocally good, and the vibe is intoxicatingly jovial. It's bright and warm, a Technicolor dreamscape of turquoise tin, bright peppers, and vintage barber ads. Oakland's jolly oasis. Somehow, it makes you feel familiar without being anything like the home you grew up in.
Part of that is the chef at the helm, Sarah Kirnon, a gentle but commanding force of nature, who's often the one delivering mounds of plantains to your table, and often the one you hear about when you talk to people who've eaten there. Impressions are variations on "she's just, like, the coolest." And really, she is. The kind of woman that, upon meeting for just a minute, convinces you that you'd be invincible if she had been your mother.
And eating here is easy. The menu is short, and the things you've never heard of are usually Jamaican fruits or Haitian slaws or some kind of Caribbean greens that are probably crunchy or sweet or pickled and satiating in a happy, primal way. It's a right of passage through Miss Ollie's to try the fried chicken. As someone who never orders fried chicken, because the grease usually leaves me feeling like I'm in a futile Sisyphean battle to climb out of a vat of melted butter, this is my kind of fried chicken. It's so very tender, skillet-fried in rice oil, sealing in the juiciness and keeping greasiness to a minimum. The chickens are Halal -- raised and humanely "drained" under Muslim law. Among the reasons are that it prolongs the chicken's shelf life to a few days. There is another secret. Kirnon stuffs a mix that includes marjoram, oregano, thyme, allspice, nutmeg, and vinegar -- which she calls, finger-quoting the air, "seasoning" -- under the skin. The allspice rounds it out, the vinegar adds an addictive kick. Plus there's a side of carrot slaw with big, golden raisins, and a standard potato salad.
If it's on the menu, get the saltfish and ackee. Ackee is a sweet, silky apple-like fruit Kirnon imports from Jamaica, and the salfish is a salted, pulled cod. The dish is freckled with scotch bonnets and a whopping helping of fried plantains. It's sweet and salty in the right proportions, but how spicy it is seems to vary depending on the day. Other honorable mentions include the slow cooked pork, a sweet and meaty bowl with red beans and disks of fried plantains.
You'll want to try the "Time for Soca" cocktail too, a jazzy mix of thyme-infused pineapple and rum, warmed up with cinnamon. Happily, Linden St. Brewery is doing a swell job with Kirnon's father's ginger beer recipe. It's warm, spicy, and not too sweet. Get it straight up or as a shandy, which I'll be going back for this afternoon. Desserts change, but if the blueberry pie is any indicator, you're in for some down home, comfy goodness. Then again, that's what you're always going to get here.