East Bay Bite of the Week: Teena Johnson's Fish Sandwich
You might have to eat it on a curb, flanked by pigeons and gum wads, but Teena Johnson's fish sandwich could be the best in the East Bay. Johnson runs a tiny joint in uptown Oakland called Catered to You, and honed her catering chops running a kitchen for a golf course for a number of years. Disillusioned with the corporate environment, Johnson split away and launched her own spot about five years ago. Soon after, her fish sandwich caught fire and started picking up fans by the dozens.
Molly Gore Teena Johnson's fish sandwich towers high
Catered to You is a hair larger than a shoebox, holding only a small commercial stove, a soda fridge, and the cook herself. She'll take your order, and then five others from a group of teens with special requests, all while dredging chicken tenders and tossing potatoes in the fryer. She wears her years in the kitchen as an inhuman calm, under a shower of finicky orders from a lunch crowd thick with questions.
Johnson's fish sandwich is locally, quietly famous, and makes itself known on a small vinyl banner flapping outside the door. It came about when customers -- being fans of a certain Muslim market's fish sandwich -- began requesting the same from Johnson. Gladly, she obliged, but in her own special way. The sandwich, holding three stacked pieces of fried Basa dredged in cornmeal and seasoned flour, feels three stories high in your hand. At first, beyond the novelty of its size, it seems like nothing special. Two bites in, and you'll change your mind.
The fish are cloudy soft, laced with a "special sauce"--a pedestrian mix of ketchup, hot sauce, and mustard--and sit on a few wedges of standard fare lettuce, tomato, and a bun barely swiped with mayo. The fish sandwich is special in large part because it is, quite literally, all fish. Married with the toothsome grit of a cornmeal crust, it's a textural feat. And then, the fries. They are, in Johnson's words, "very, very special." The most she'll say when you try to glean her secrets is that she has "seasoned" the food. That's all. When it comes to the fries, that means a hot kick of paprika, cayenne, and an indiscernable mix of something warm and lively. They are, indeed, special.
The sandwich is dramatic, and it's hard not to make a scene eating it by the sheer act of trying to fit it in your mouth. Sitting on the curb, holding it before my face, three men stopped in their tracks and hollered to alert me that I was, in the event I didn't know, eating a "big-ass sandwich." Half a block later, they turned to come back and get their own. I had doubts about finishing even half of it, but then it was gone. When Johnson asked me how it was, I said, "big."
"That's what everyone says. But did you finish it?" she asked.
"They always do."
Catered to You sits at 1711 Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. For more info, visit the website.