As someone who loves food, loves Oakland, and loves inspiring local retail, I am ashamed to admit that I had not stepped foot into Oaktown Spice Shop before last week. As I have visited local restaurants and bakers over the past months, the shop’s name has been mentioned time and time again as the go-to spot for spices to bring amazing flavor to our town’s taste buds. Perhaps the idea of a shop dedicated to spices intimidated me. While I know it’s an artful combination of spices and herbs that make me pause during a meal to wonder how a flavor is achieved, I am still daunted by experimentation in my own kitchen, and cautious of the expense that a well stocked spice rack can bring. My visit to Oaktown Spice Shop has changed that. With surprisingly reasonable prices, a staff ready to help and guide your choices, and a website loaded with recipe ideas, Oaktown Spice Shop is a local gem that will be added to my shopping list.
Oaktown Spice Shop is the creation of husband and wife team John Beaver and Erica Perez. Bringing John’s years of experience in a Milwaukee-based spice shop out to the Bay Area, the couple opened the doors in late 2011. What began as a small storefront a few street numbers down, the “new and improved” version of Oaktown Spice Shop is about to celebrate its one year mark at 546 Grand Avenue. A larger space with room to roam; the shop welcomes community to gather, often through hosted classes and workshops. The store is filled with enticing aroma along with warmth and charm found in dark wood shelving, wine barrels, and a vintage collection of spice containers, scales, maps and more that I now envy.
As I wandered and became curious about the difference between Saigon and Ceylon Cinnamon, and thought about how I could use pink peppercorns, I realized that I was in a place where an invitation to learn more about how to use spices was open, and intimidation can be checked at the door. John guided me through BBQ blends that weren’t too spicy and shared a tip on basting grilled chicken with a cider vinegar & butter reduction. Erica and I chatted about our lemon and fig trees and traded ideas on what to do with our crops.
With a growing presence among our local food scene and a name that topped a list published online by Food & Wine Magazine as one of the “World’s Best Spice Shops”, I expected premium prices. If anything I would say that the price I saw listed on many common spices was comparable to, if not less, than what I would pay at a local grocery store. Most spices are offered in a few pre-measured selections, and I was pleased to see I could opt for a 1/2 cup bag versus a 1/2 cup jar to save a bit of cost. While you will see plenty of rare or premium spices that may come with a higher price tag, for those of us who rotate through jars of oregano and cinnamon on a pretty regular basis, Oaktown Spice Shop is a cost effective alternative. Therefore, it is easy to support a local business while learning much more about spices and how to use them than I would standing alone in the aisle of a grocery chain. When I saw the huge jar of fat vanilla beans, I thought of the sad little thing I had cut out of a vacuum sealed wrapper while making ice cream last week, and was disappointed I hadn’t thought to come here first.
I ended my visit to Oaktown Spice Shop with bags of Persian Lime Curry Rub, St. Basil’s Rib and Chop Rub, and Mexican Adobo, along with a jar of Maldon Sea Salt, which I sprinkle on everything. A return trip is already in order since I plan to experiment with lavender in my baking adventures. I have no doubt I will find something else to take home; it’s hard not to be inspired to step outside the comfort zone of my standard recipe rotation when the sights and scents of Oaktown Spice Shop await. I invite you to be inspired too.
Oaktown Spice Shop is located at 546 Grand Avenue Oakland, CA 94610
Monday – Friday 10:00am-7:00pm
Saturday – Sunday 10:00am-5:00pm
Please visit www.oaktownspiceshop.com for lots more information, including their online store which is a great option for those of you outside the East Bay. They have a great recipe index as well, which can be found here.
All photos by Adrienne Schell