It's Friday night, and I'm back at Uncle Dougie's. The New York-style hero sandwich shop on 17th Street in Oakland is filling up fast with hungry people ready to pit their appetite against an all-you-can-eat-for-$12 dinner. We filled our plates with truck stop-style Italian food and pulled up a seat at one of the half-dozen tables for six.
The owner, Doug Leong, was in the back wearing a white tank top and bluejeans. His wife, his daughter and his business partner's wife stood behind the counter dishing out garlic bread, lasagna, spaghetti, sausage, meatloaf, and, of course, chicken and eggplant Parmesan. Salad was served on the side, and the soda is self-serve from 2-liter bottles. Dessert -- flan -- came in little Dixie-size cups. Usually his menu is pretty simple: hero sandwiches and little else. Now he plans to make the $12 dinner a twice-monthly event, which means the next one is Feb. 11.
You can see why it's popular even though the food is no frills and a little less than hot enough just by looking around. It's like being with a big Italian family -- the one you always imagine would be laughing and drinking wine and demanding that you, "mangia, mangia!" The fact that very few people at Uncle Dougie's appear to be Italian, or that except for people sitting at the same table, few people know each other, does little to diminish this flight of the imagination.
Leong takes a break to inhale a few bites of food then makes the rounds of the tables, stopping to chat with friends and strangers. He has slipped on a green T-shirt with an image of New York (his hometown as anyone who hears the accent can tell) printed on the front. The crowd begins to thin out although most people linger, stretching out the dinner until it ends at 8 p.m. In a couple hours Leong will head over to The Layover lounge to sell sandwiches until he runs out. That might be in an hour or it might be 1 a.m. That's OK, he said. He likes to stay busy. He said it helps him sleep.
We walked over to the Spice Monkey, half a block away on Franklin Street. Owner Kanitha Matoury handed out samples of a salad of kelp, carrots, cilantro and bean sprouts in sesame oil. She said she was trying to decide whether the salad should go on the menu.
I didn't know this but during one of the early Oscar Grant protests in 2009, Matoury, her chef, her wait staff and a restaurant full of customers were trapped inside while crowds swarmed down nearby streets. So the chef made "riot soup," and Matoury began pouring wine for everyone. Her husband, Guy Karmi, and fellow merchants worked late into the night to help board up neighboring businesses.
Matoury, a political refugee from Cambodia, served in the U.S. Air Force. Karmi is Israeli and served in the Armed Forces. That's a team that you don't find in every city but seems natural in a place like Oakland, which the U.S. Census counters say is the most diverse in the nation. Their little girl was born the next year. Friday night she turned 1, still too little to blow out the single candle on her birthday cupcake. But it was a moment that made everyone in the whole room smile.
Make way for a few new bars in downtown Oakland.
But the parking lot between the Fox Theater and the Uptown Apartments will remain empty for just a little while longer. The money to install a temporary, rotating sculpture garden -- instead of the original plan to put in a parking lot -- is available in the form of a $200,000 National Endowment for the Arts matching grant. The matching money from the city would come from Central District Redevelopment funds earmarked for public art projects. Look for the item on a Community and Economic Development meeting coming your way in February. From there it goes to the City Council.
And if you want more art, check out the Oakland Museum's "Oakland Standard" launch party beginning 8 p.m. Friday. Experimental art, dancing, food and booze until 1 a.m. For more details, go to www.museumca.org.