How Temescal Transformed from a Small Creek to a Multicultural Neighborhood

James Lee
Klay Thompson mural by Illuminaries on 43rd and Telegraph. (Photo by Albert Poon)

Unless you’re familiar with the Oakland neighborhood, the word “temescal” probably doesn’t ring a bell. That’s because it’s derived from the ancient Nahuatl language of the Aztec people.

Roughly translated, it means “sweat house.” The descriptor is thought to have come from the Mexican settlers’ characterization of dome-shaped structures built by the native Ohlone people in the region. While its name may not have been a huge selling point, its location certainly was: In 1842, Vicente Peralta, son of  a well-known Spanish rancher Luis Maria Peralta inherited the area and favored it due to its proximity to a waterway that would later be known as Temescal Creek. 

Pyeong Chang Tofu House (top-left), Temescal Works, coworking space billboard (bottom-left), Cholita Linda street-side (right). (Photo by Albert Poon)

The Temescal region grew from a small settlement to a large village, and eventually the area was annexed by the city of Oakland just before the next century in exchange for increased police protection and public school access. For the first half of the twentieth century, this North Oakland neighborhood was a thriving Italian commercial district known for canneries and packing plants. In the Sixties and Seventies, a new urban development project, including freeway constructions, managed to culvert the creek out of sight; by the 1990s, immigrants from Korea flocked to the area, slowly creating a mini Koreatown. 

Temescal’s exact boundaries are often up for debate, but they roughly extend from 40th Street north to 51st Street, and from MLK Jr. east to Broadway. Along its main artery, the lengthy Telegraph Avenue, many small businesses like restaurants, have found success: there are influences from Korean, Chinese, Burmese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Eritrean and Ethiopian immigrant communities.

Crimson’s brick exterior entrance (left), 48th and Telegraph street signs (top-right), Curbside Creamery (bottom-right). (Photo by Albert Poon)

Restaurateur Tony Kim remembers what the Temescal neighborhood was like when he first opened his restaurant, Pyeong Chang Tofu House, in the early aughts. 

“Back in the day, Oakland was sparsely populated,” he recalled. “When we took a look at the map, we hoped that sooner or later, San Francisco would be overpopulated and people would start to live in Oakland.”

Pyeong Chang Tofu House was one of the first Korean restaurants in the area to specialize in one type of food: soondubu, or tofu soup. “We wanted to show that Korean barbecue isn’t the only food that Koreans eat,” Kim added. 

“We wanted to show that Korean barbecue isn’t the only food that Koreans eat”

Tony Kim

Temescal Alley off of 49th. (Photo by Albert Poon)

Today, alongside an arts center, a long-standing library, and a row of specialty shops in Temescal Alley, you’ll find a wide assortment of mom-and-pop dining establishments in the neighborhood, from pizza parlors to pho houses. Below is a list of some of our current favorite Temescal restaurants.

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The list of restaurants highlighted in the story. Order delivery or grab pick-up from any of the places near you.


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