By Dave Newhouse, Oakland Tribune columnist
Dan Levi enjoys Brown Sugar Kitchen so much that he drives 250 miles from San Luis Obispo to West Oakland to have breakfast there every other weekend.
Well, he doesn't drive straight through. He stops first in San Jose to pick up his lady friend, Amber Thames, so they can dine together at Brown Sugar Kitchen.
It's always breakfast, and Dan and Amber show up at 2534 Mandela Parkway by 10 a.m. on Sundays to beat the crowd. But one day, they must try lunch, because there is no finer breakfast-lunch diner in Oakland or the East Bay.
Amber discovered Brown Sugar Kitchen last May after seeing the diner profiled on television. She checked out Tanya Holland's creative cuisine immediately.
"It's extremely good food, and I'm a picky eater," Amber said Wednesday. "I love soul food, but she does it in a healthy way. I love the veggie egg scramble, with the best potatoes in the Bay Area — a real potato that's not full of grease.
"The biscuits are also amazing, and she has homemade jam, which is to die for."
West Oakland became a dining destination two years ago when Holland opened Brown Sugar Kitchen. Like Dan Levi, folks who appreciate quality food come from all over, and Los Angeles is farther away than San Luis Obispo.
"A prestigious food writer from Gourmet magazine wrote that it was worth coming 400 miles from Los Angeles for our waffles," said Phil Surkis, Holland's husband.
I've been sampling Holland's breakfasts and lunches for months. The cornmeal waffle with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup is, indeed, amazing. My wife loves the poached eggs, and I prefer the egg and bacon sandwich on a wheat roll. The pulled pork sandwich and the smoked chicken & shrimp gumbo are lunchtime winners.
Holland, 44, is receiving rave reviews for a onetime engineering student at the University of Virginia. That's where the food light clicked on after she cooked for schoolmates who were existing on macaroni and cheese. Her parents had taught her as a child in Rochester, N.Y., how to cook in diversified ways.
"I always wanted to do something creative," she said Tuesday.
So she switched from engineering to advertising, and after graduation went to New York but continued looking for a future sign. After becoming office manager for a catering company, she realized her life's path.
Eventually, she ended up in France at a cooking school in Burgundy. She stayed 15 months, living off her Visa card and becoming versed on the "mother sauces," as evidenced by the thickener in her gumbo.
Back in the U.S., she trained at various restaurants, including Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in New York City. And she landed one of the early cooking shows on the Food Network, which lasted 2½ years. Then, needing a new direction, she relocated to Oakland, where her parents, Annette and Hollis Holland, had met, and where Tanya wrote a cooking book.
When the Island Cafe became available, she bought the diner — after marrying Surkis the year before. They live in West Oakland. Surkis, 42, handles workers' compensation claims for UC Berkeley and assists his wife at the diner, even choosing its background music.
The biggest compliment from diners?
“‘These are the best waffles I've ever tasted,' " Holland said. "People also are amazed by the diversity of the crowd. They're like, 'The staff is great, the vibe is great.' "
Surkis said West Oaklanders have told him, “‘Thank you for being here.' It's community love."
Holland will expand her diner by 20 seats this spring with an outdoor eating area. And she's hoping to open a dinner-only bistro in Jack London Square by summer. Can't wait to taste her sweet-potato frites.
Dan and Amber will be by Brown Sugar Kitchen again today. Can't stay away.
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