When growing up in California, one grew up with Mexican food, it was a given. I’ve been a fan of chiles rellenos since grammar school.
Mexican restaurants were a fixture on every block, usually found right next to one of those Chinese Take-out joints that served bright red sweet-and-sour-sauced everything. That Mexican food was itself a thing of processed cheeses, semi-stale chips and canned jalapenos. But that was then.
In the past five years Oakland has seen an explosion of spectacular Mexican restaurants. The Oaxacan (Wa-ha-kan) inspired food served at Calavera, an expansive restaurant and agave bar found in the Hive, an arts complex on Broadway, is yet another jewel in the crown. If you don’t know the basics of Oaxacan food, it’s comprised of beautifully seasoned stewed meats, multitudes of moles, and lovely stringy quesillo cheeses, all coming together to form the heart of various dishes, each one a celebration of flavor.
The interior of the restaurant is thoughtful and expressive, one wall is framed with an expansive shelf of various tequilas, agaves and mescals, another stuccoed subtly with skulls that harken thoughts to celebrations of the Mexican Day of the Dead, each of which serves to frame the open kitchen, which forms the beating heart of the space, just opposite the door. The vaulted ceilings bounce the sound around a bit, but on our visit it was not overly loud, as we had no trouble hearing our conversation while enjoying our meal.
Trusting the Locals
We started with cocktails and guacamole, because that’s what you do, right? Calavera offers an optional side of chapulines, (smoked, slightly spicy grasshoppers) to compliment the guacamole. For the cocktails, I had the Princess de la Maracuya, a delightful concoction of mezcal and orange that is balanced out with a bit of passion fruit. The gently sweet, smoky result was really satisfying.
Hubs had the Puerto Escondido, which tasted a bit like a Pina Colada. When ordering the guacamole, hubs was initially apprehensive about trying the grasshoppers, so I passed. Our waitress kindly brought us a sampler on the house a few moments after the guac arrived, and he changed his tune. I tried them first, and when I didn’t go any particular unnerving shade of green, he dived in. Surprisingly, we enjoyed them thoroughly. The crunch they add to the texture of creamy guacamole is a welcome addition, and they were chock full of flavor. When experiencing an unfamiliar cuisine, it is always a good idea to trust the “locals.” We ate all our bugs, feeling as world-traveled as Anthony Bourdain!
We wanted to try as many dishes as possible, so we opted to share everything. Next up, we tried the Ceviche de Atún Estilo José and the Caldo Tlalpeño. The first was a blissful rendition, whose excellent balance of fat and acids melted in the mouth while remaining bright and satisfying on the palate. The soup was excellent as well, the complex blend of smoky chicken and vegetables clearly Mexico’s answer to chicken soup for the soul. Once we had devoured these between us, we moved on to our mains.
We never pass on fresh tacos, so ordered two of the nights menu offerings, the Tinga de Pollo Estilo Hidalgo and the Cochinita Piril. Each was that perfect blend of flavor and texture that make a taco one of the best street foods in the world. Simple, delicious and satisfying. What could be more enjoyable than a wrapper of delicious pounded corn bundled over stewed meat dripping with its own
juices and savoring every bite? The added touch of those glorious pickled onions just sends it all over the edge into bliss.
We finished our savory courses off with a beautiful platter of Puerco Con Frijol. It appeared as a glorious pile of tender braised pork, surrounded by black beans and fresh salsa, with more of those delectable purple corn tortillas to wrap it all up in. One of the things that is so lovely about food that is intended to be eaten casually, is the mix and match variety of tiny toppings meant to be randomly mingled into each wrap. The assortment makes each bite a different experience, the balance of ingredients changing with the whim of whatever the fork is able to capture during its initial construction. It’s fun, it’s fanciful and most importantly, it’s delicious.
Cactus Heaven with a Sweet Finish
I am a huge fan of small batch tequilas, so over the course of the meal, I’d decided it wouldn’t be right not to avail myself of a few of their vast selection of agaves. After a quick consult with the bartender & staff, I began with a Siembra Valles-Joven, which had a full-bodied mouthfeel somewhat unusual in a young tequila. The Siembra has a bit of minerality to it, presenting as somewhat earthy in taste and hearty in its flavors. I’m not one to pass up a good opportunity to try something new, so I also sampled a Corzo Reo. Although also a blanco, the Corzo was the polar opposite of the Siembra, crisp on the palate, with loud citrus notes playing against an almost cucumber finish. Both were delightful, although I believe I preferred the latter, as the agave itself played out in a crisper, more youthfully expressive fashion.
We ordered a dessert that was a take on another of my favorites, Tres Leches. The dish itself composed in a deconstructed fashion, with each of the familiar flavor components again presented in a manner that allowed within each bite some variation on the whole. Every mouthful a creamy bit of heaven. Delightful.
If you would like to visit Oaxaca and don’t have the time, check out Calavera, in Oakland’s Hive complex. In addition to the dining, you can peek in at the artistry going on in the neighborhood. We’ve come a long way from the Mexican food of my childhood.
Calavera – Mexican Kitchen & Agave Bar
Oakland, CA 510.338.3273