For their new Oakland pan-African soul food restaurant The Bussdown, chef-owners Solomon Johnson and Mike Woods shop local markets for the freshest ingredients, make every sauce from scratch and break down whole chickens using every single part of the bird — from the rendered-down fat to the bones to make chicken stock.
The level of detail that Johnson and Woods devote to the food they craft isn’t surprising given their culinary pedigree — they met while working at high-end catering company Paula Le Duc and rubbed elbows in the kitchen at Tribune Tavern, where Woods was chef du cuisine just before the pandemic hit. They also have past experience at Copper Spoon, The Wolf, Gather, alaMar, Sobre Mesa among other East Bay dining destinations, and for the past few years, Johnson ran his own catering company called Omni World Kitchen prepping meals for tech workers, professional athletes and rappers.
What is a bit more uncommon is The Bussdown — a takeout and delivery-only restaurant operating in a ghost kitchen at Oakland Food Hall (formerly known as Jingletown Eats) — is making such high-touch fare solely for takeout customers, namely those who use third-party apps like Doordash and Grubhub. But even that isn’t that surprising. In the days of pandemic dining, the concept of “takeout food” has really been turned on its head. Sure, you can still get a subpar pizza that tastes like puffy cardboard covered in cheese, but you can also order dishes from Michelin-starred restaurants delivered right to your door.
“We give our food a lot of care. Just because it’s to-go doesn’t mean it’s to-go type food,” Johnson said. “It’s food that deserves plates.”
Johnson and Woods came up with the concept for The Bussdown in November 2020. They were both underemployed due to the pandemic. At the time, Johnson’s catering company was barely scraping by after having to refund about $15,000 for events that were canceled. A microfinance loan and private catering gigs for small groups of up to 10 people were keeping him afloat. Woods didn’t have a full-time chef job anymore, but in October, he temporarily took over the kitchen at Sobre Mesa, Nelson German’s new Afro-Latino cocktail lounge. It was German who encouraged the two chefs to consider a ghost kitchen for their upcoming project.
“Chef Nelson was the one who put the bug in me and Mike’s ear,” Johnson said, “He said [a ghost kitchen] space could be beneficial to keep busy and to make a fair amount of money.”
Johnson and Woods were interested in collaborating on a menu that spoke to who they are. Both are Black chefs, with Johnson hailing from Maryland with family roots in Jamaica; Woods is an Oakland-native who grew up in the Brookfield neighborhood, but he’s also been influenced by the bold flavors he’s tasted on travels to the Caribbean, New Orleans and elsewhere.
“We sat down one day and we decided we wanted to make food that reminded of us who we are and where we came from,” Johnson explained. “It’s important for us to create food that expressed the African diaspora, not just through the eyes of Black people, but brown people as well.” The Bussdown dabbles in and weaves together flavors from across cultures. Southern fried chicken, mac and cheese and smoked brandied yams, can be ordered along with Jamaican jerk chicken, beef patties and fried plantains.
One of The Bussdown’s most popular dishes is its Smoked Sofrito Seafood featuring shrimp covered in a charred vegetable sofrito. The dish comes with a mixture of Sea Island red peas and Carolina Gold rice, along with Bussdown staples: fried plantains, charred citrus, grilled fruit, house pickles and two condiments, a tangy Jerk BBQ sauce and kijani kibichi, a gingery, bright green sauce reminiscent in texture and appearance to mint chutney.
“Our food is supposed to remind you of being on vacation, being on the beach somewhere with a Margarita,” Johnson explained.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to get your Margarita or other alcoholic drink elsewhere, as The Bussdown can’t serve booze out of Oakland Food Hall, but it does make a rotating variety of lemonades — in flavors like strawberry, basil, watermelon and brown sugar — with housemade syrups and preserves.
While The Bussdown’s fare would definitely look fabulous on fine china, the delivery-only format means takeout containers will have to do. Only in its second month, the restaurant has promise, with room to grow. Some dishes, for instance, fare better on the journey home than others. We loved the perfectly cooked sofrito shrimp, sweet brandied yams, cheesy Gangsta mac and bright and acidic pickles, but our chicken patty, while tasty, steamed in the plastic takeout box and was soggier than we’d have liked.
One of the biggest issues that ghost kitchen restaurant operators in particular have is finding their audience, and while Johnson and Woods are glad for the recent mention as a “must-try new restaurant” by the San Francisco Chronicle, they’ve already tapped into a hungry community over social media and word of mouth.
“The Bussdown is really active on social media, the word is starting to get out and there are more eyes on what we’re doing,” said Johnson, who since the pandemic has gone all-in on creating a brand online. He felt selling wares online was “the safest way to make a dollar” in the days of COVID-19. He made his own line of merch, including hoodies and dad hats embroidered with the word “Swoop” in an appropriately swoopy cursive font. To his “tiny but mighty” following, he was Chef Swoop, with Swoop being an acronym for “Special Way of Opening Palates,” or “Special Way of Obtaining Power.” Johnson has also created a spice blend with San Francisco-based Spice Tribe that’s coming out soon, and his next season of merch will launch in spring.
For now, he and Woods are the sole employees at The Bussdown, which means they do just about everything themselves. If things take off, a brick-and-mortar restaurant could be on the horizon or possibly opening other locations in other CloudKitchens facilities in other cities. But for now, Johnson said they’re concentrating on “cultivating what we can with the community.” Given the work it takes to do all aspects of the restaurant, the two are grateful to have the other as a partner.
“We wouldn’t have done it without each other,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone else.”
The Bussdown is open from 2-10 p.m., Monday through Saturday for pickup at Oakland Food Hall or delivery via UberEats, ChowNow, Grubhub and Doordash. Dishes price from $6-8 for appetizers, $21-$30 for entrees.