La Borinquena, in Oakland, Pepito's, in Richmond, and Belmar and La Palma, in San Francisco, each self-identifies as a "Mexicatessen." (The hyphen hops around, and sometimes is absent altogether.) It's a meme that I've seen replicated only in the Bay Area, without affectation.
Mexicatessens San Francisco Bay Area (From an August 2011 visit)
Literally "basket" tacos, these are more tellingly called tacos al vapor, since they are "steamed," or tacos sudados, since their texture is consequently "sweaty." Long hours in sweltering conditions allow the taco fillings to soak the tortillas, adding a glistening appeal, but also might be a concern for certain health authorities, especially if the holding temperature is less than ideal. Perhaps that's why I've never seen such a sign in New York.
"Tacos de canasta" Seen on Fruitvale Ave. near International Blvd., Oakland (From an August 2011 visit)
If Mexican for Mexican's sake doesn't suffice, this sandwich joint also serves Hawaiian, Swiss, and German styles, and name-checks Poland and Cuba, too. Since none of these outliers has a discernible presence in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, this seems to be an expansionist play for jaded palates, as at many pizzerias. One or all of these tortas might be tasty; I can't speak from personal experience.
La Torta Loca 3149 International Blvd. (34th-35th Aves.), Oakland 510-532-7105 (From an August 2011 visit)
This tamal Oaxaquena ($2) is freighted with dark-meat chicken; here, my fork has exposed a single fat chunk, though it's hard to see against the backdrop of chile-tinted masa. John Birdsall, a food writer for the East Bay Express whose writings steered me to good eats in Oakland and points north, previously noted the curtido, the condiment scattered atop my tamal. This spicy slaw, characteristic not of Mexico but of Central America, is a marker for a new wave of immigrants in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, notes Birdsall.
Tamales Mexicanos Casa Mia Fruitvale Ave. at International Blvd., Oakland Mornings after 7:00 a.m. (From an August 2011 visit)
Though this street vendor sets up in the early morning, not far from the Fruitvale BART, it's not purely with breakfast in mind. Pre-made tortas were wrapped to go, and takeaway, I now believe, is also the intent for champurrado (about a pint, $1.50), the chocolate version of the cornmeal-based drinks called atoles. I started on mine immediately, despite the server's caution, but had to give it a rest; here it's served very, very hot.
Champurrado cart Fruitvale Ave. between East 16th and East 17th Sts., Oakland (From an August 2011 visit)
No knock on the grocer — Specialty Foods is well-stocked with both Caribbean and African foodstuffs, the latter labeled with uncommon clarity — but my maltas came up short. The Hatuey (12 fl. oz., $1.35) had a fuller, rounder flavor than the Pony (10 fl. oz., 99 cents), but both these nonalcoholic barley-malt beverages were corn-syrup sweet. I'd had a different impression of Hatuey, but it must have been conflated with my memory of one autumn afternoon on Miami Beach.
Specialty Foods 535 8th St. (Clay-Washington Sts.), Oakland 510-452-3918 www.SpecialtyFoodsInc.com Closed Sunday (From an August 2011 visit)
The halawy, introduced to California from Iraq, is amber, soft, and sweet — quite sweet — in literal accord with its Arabic name. The name of the black abada, the story goes, is a portmanteau of "Abby" and "Dana"; in 1936 Dana Sniff reportedly discovered this cultivar growing wild in a California riverbed. It's possible that the color weighs on the flavor, but these chewy ripe dates reminded me of licorice ($2.50 each per pound).
The spongy flatbread called enjera, or injera, is a staple of East African cuisine, as both a platform for stews and an edible utensil. When served on the side, enjera is often flat or gently folded, but I've seen it rolled, too. That presentation may have helped inspire the restaurant's African-Mexican culinary mashup, which I noted with amusement but was too stuffed to try myself: the enjerrito.
Café Eritrea d'Afrique 4069 Telegraph Ave. (41st-42nd Sts.), Oakland 510-547-4520 (From an August 2011 visit)