It was the 2018 Northern California wildfires that first killed Chris Parks’s North Oakland wine and cocktail bar Bar 41. The ash-filled air that fall prompted many Bay Area residents to hunker down indoors and purchase their first N95 masks, and they were a devastating blow to bars like Parks’ that depended on outdoor patio seating — the smoke and an unusually rainy winter season led to a prolonged drop in business that the bar never recovered from. By April 2019, Bar 41 had closed for good.
So there’s some sense of irony, Parks says, that outdoor dining — in the midst of another wildfire season, and one that coincides with a pandemic that has crushed the local bar industry — has proved to be a salvation of sorts for Blake’s Grillery, a Southern-inspired taco pop-up that Parks has been running with his business partner, Mario Camargo, for the past two months. Now, instead of operating their own restaurant, Parks and Camargo are providing a uniquely in-demand service with their roving taco stand: For a small handful of East Bay watering holes, the duo supplies the “bona fide meals” that bars are currently required to offer in order to open for outdoor drinking even if they don’t have kitchens of their own.
Those types of partnerships are, of course, increasingly common. But Blake’s Grillery has cultivated a following for the hybridized tacos Camargo, the chef, is making, which incorporate soul food and barbecue elements into Mexican recipes: smoked carnitas, spicy habanero potatoes, and quesabirria tacos made with beef cheeks and roasted bone marrow. Call it “Mexican barbecue,” to borrow a page from MexiQ, another emergent Oakland pop-up that Camargo describes as a kindred spirit.
“When COVID hit, we both were unemployed; we both were sitting there staring out the window wondering what to do,” Parks tells Eater SF.
Parks had recently returned to the Bay Area after a stint in SoCal. Camargo had been trying to cobble together enough catering business to make ends meet — business, of course, that dried up during the pandemic. But once bars with patios in the East Bay started to reopen for outdoor drinking — if they served food as well — Parks saw an opportunity: “This could actually be gangbusters,” he recalls thinking at the time.
So he and Camargo decided to team up and revive Blake’s Grillery, Camargo’s old pop-up catering company. Parks posted an inquiry on a local bartenders’ Facebook group, and there was an immediate flood of interest. The duo started off with a single pop-up at the Oakland dive bar Heart & Dagger Saloon, near Lake Merritt, and things took off from there. They now also have regular gigs at the Avenue, in Temescal, and Runway Spirits on the Alameda waterfront.
Camargo had named Blake’s after his nine-year-old son — a way for him to bring his cooking career full circle, the chef says, since he learned most everything he knew about food from previous generations: his father and his grandparents on both sides of the family. The tacos are prepared through the lens of that background: Camargo’s father’s side of the family is Mexican; his mother’s side is African-American from Georgia. He grew up learning how to cook the cuisines of both cultures. “My grandfather on my mother’s side would toss oxtails and okra in a big pot. He taught me how to make a roux that would take a good two or three hours just to darken it,” Camargo recalls. “He was tossing in a bunch of things I thought were nasty at the time, and he’d make it taste delicious.”
Those Southern slow-cooking and barbecue techniques find their way into many of the dishes on the Blake’s Grillery menu. For one of the tacos, Camargo “smoke-braises” carnitas, which is braising the pork inside a big offset smoker so that it takes on a hint of smoke before he shreds the meat, then fries it just before serving. The dry rub, which has 24 spices in it, skews a little bit toward Southern-style barbecue flavors, Camargo says. He cooks his chicken tinga on the grill instead of doing it as a stew, as would be more traditional, and incorporates sweeter, spicier flavors that lean more toward the American Southwest.
And yes, Blake’s Grillery has jumped onto the quesabirria trend as well, but with a version of the crispy, cheesy tacos that features slow-cooked beef cheeks and incorporates roasted bone marrow into the consomme — elements that point more toward Camargo’s Southern influences. To make his take on birria, the chef braises the beef cheeks overnight, not unlike what a Southern cook might do with a pot of oxtails, Camargo says. He also does a “cheese fried taco” that features crispy tortillas; lots of melted, caramelized cheese; and a creamy, garlicky “Town Sauce.”
As happy as Parks and Camargo are to have found steady work and a growing customer base, during the pandemic, they also can’t help but be aware of how tenuous it all is. Already, Parks says, they’re looking ahead to the cooler weather of the fall and winter, when they hope to be able to land some more catering jobs to make up for the likely downturn in demand for outdoor dining. Eventually, they’d like to turn Blake’s Grillery into a little counter-service restaurant — in part because they know that their pop-up services might not be as immediately needed once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
“We literally take it one week at a time, one month at a time — trying to hustle every day,” Camargo says. “We hope that if we become expendable, maybe we built a following and a brand that isn’t as expendable.”
Blake’s Grillery pops up regularly on Mondays and Thursdays at Heart & Dagger Saloon (504 Lake Park Avenue, Oakland), Wednesdays and Saturday at the Avenue (4822 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland), and Fridays at Runway Spirits (2505 Monarch Street, Alameda). Check Instagram for updates.