The sign outside The Kebabery is unusual, mostly making use of negative space. It’s effectively empty, a see-through, rounded trapezoid with two fluorescent tubes and hot-pink sides. When the sun shines through it, it creates an effect on the street similar to the map-room scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones and Sallah discover the Nazis are digging in the wrong place for the Ark of the Covenant.
Heavy stuff, that. But whereas the Indiana Jones series is full of lazy Orientalist tropes and Welsh actors playing Arabs, the Kebabery manages to be highly enjoyable without offensively stomping over any cultural antecedents. In the former Salsipuedes space at the corner of Market and 42nd streets in Oakland’s Longfellow, the team behind Camino has set up a very simple operation, fast-casual in structure and stripped-down in nature. At the Kebabery, you can only order a few things, all of which are available to-go. And it’s hard to resist the add-ons, so don’t. (It’s also a no-tipping establishment, with the gratuity folded into the prices.)
There are three kebab options — chicken, lamb, and mushroom — and four salads to go with them (beets, pickles, a carrot salad, and sauerkraut). If you get the $15 kebab plate, you get one kebab and two salads, plus yogurt, spicy pickled chilies, and herbs, and a choice between homemade grilled flatbread or mashed red lentils. If you get a $12 kebab sandwich, it’s one kebab and one salad, plus the same yogurt, spicy pickled chilies, and herbs on the flatbread — as well as pickles. Other than that, there’s a soup-of-the-day, shoestring fries, and a single dessert (pudding). That’s it. Compared to Salsipuedes’ fun and flavorful but arguably unfocused Cal-Mex-by-way-of-Japan concept, ease of comprehension seems to be a guiding principle here.
And the kebabs are awesome, up and down. The king trumpet mushrooms, which look a bit like big goldfish crackers on a skewer or a string of mastodon teeth a hunter-gatherer would wear, were my favorite. There’s not a trace of rubberiness, and for as much as I love lamb cooked every which way, when grilled, it’s always going to be a bit crumblier than a perfectly presented shroom. The highly acidic yogurt is, unsurprisingly, the ideal complement to the highly spiced meat, and the clutch of herbs — mostly mint, dill, and parsley — keeps its head above water. (Side note: Lately, I find myself falling in love with humble parsley to an extent I never saw coming.)
But just as the mushrooms were the best kebab, the salads give the meats a run for their money, too. The turnip pickles are great, and so are the beets, but the clean, lightly vinegary shredded carrot salad is studded with black and white sesame seeds and the sauerkraut has a similarly fresh vibe. The soup — chick pea on the day I tried it, $6 — was definitely not some afterthought or destination for veggies that had lost their comeliness. It was thick and umami-rich.
The fries were the weak point, though. Shoestring fries are tough, since their size makes them saturate with oil and cool off quickly. If you don’t eat this $5 heap fast enough, it’s likely to go mushy on you. Apart from that, what’s missing? Falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, and everything of that ilk. Owners Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain have said they specifically chose not to make them because the Kebabery isn’t explicitly a Middle Eastern restaurant, but I can’t help feeling that that’s an arbitrary line in the sand — especially since there are tasty mashed red lentils that leave the flatbread begging for other dipping buddies. At the same time, the other way kebabs are typically eaten is as monster-sized street food in Western Europe, and while I would disagree with any claim that you’re not getting what you pay for here, these are hardly post-club gut-busters.
I have to give the Kebabery credit on the drinks, though. A hibiscus punch ($3) wasn’t the least bit sugary and had that quality that a good iced tea has, which is that the act of drinking of it seems to trigger your thirst for it. The beers are Fort Point Villager IPA and Ol’ Republic Dead Canary Blonde Lager — available on draft and, better yet, in cans to-go — but the house red is more than respectable. There’s a half-bottle of sparkling rosé for $24, and that’s something I crave even more than parsley.
The Kebabery’s white-tile-clad interior could use a little love; it’s not so much that it’s bad or ugly as that it doesn’t look lived-in yet. But the atmosphere is great. There are some eateries where, as soon as you walk in, you can sense that the staff has a good time and that while they’re probably all going to go get a beer together after their shift, they’re not counting the minutes until they clock out. On one visit, everybody behind the counter downed a shot of pickle juice, and a friend and I joined in. It was almost as pink as the exterior sign, and closer to kombucha than to pure vinegar, nourishing but not searing. You’re digging in the right place.
The Kebabery, 4201 Market St., Oakland, 510-922-1601 orthekebabery.com