Calavera Mexican Kitchen and Agave Bar

Puerca Con Frijol

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 … Continue reading

NIDO Kitchen & Bar: Nestling in at Abuela’s Table

Ceviche

Aguachile Verde de Pescado

When I set out to dine at a new restaurant, particularly one in Oakland, I’m always looking for that restaurant’s point of view. What is the experience intended for the diner? What’s my takeaway other than a satisfied appetite? In the case of Nido, it’s the easy comfort of dining in your grandmother’s kitchen.

Nido’s interior is what I can only describe as “inviting industrial.” The ceiling and walls are color-blocked with various shades of gray and bear the texture of rough-hewn cement, the starkness of these surfaces thoughtfully broken up with brightly-colored frescoes celebrating the spirit of Mexican culture. Birdcage chandeliers dot the ceiling, casually offset with delicate strings of golden bulbs that break up the space above its guests like sstars in the evening sky. It is an eclectic and inviting interior, one that appears to have been arranged with the random abandon of a bird feathering her nest. Yet the sense of deliberate thought for detail comes through loud and clear. The space is successfully organic, and the vibe it creates enhances beautifully the experience of dining within its walls.

We’ve been to Nido several times now, each meal more rewarding than the last. On this most recent visit, we began with cocktails, the mixologist at Nido being a master craftsman. Nothing is quite as delightful as beginning the weekend with a salute to the accomplishments of the past week, and a perfectly mixed cocktail is a great way to salute anything. The Vuelve a la Vida, with its smoky mescal base, accented with blood orange and absinthe, was subtly complex and rewardingly delicious. My companions had the Isla de Sangre and Tres Rojas. A sip of the Isla de Sangre revealed it to be herbacious, not too sweet, allowing the flavor of the aged rum to be highlighted on the palate. The Tres Rojas by contrast, was deliberately on the sweet side, the pomegranate and hibiscus taking center stage with every sip. Depending on your preference, all three drinks served up a great balance of flavors.

Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo

Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo

We began our meal with a selection of the appetizers. One has to try the guacamole and chips in any Mexican restaurant, and Nido’s take on the classic was spot on. The Aguachile Verde de Pescado arrived right behind the guac & chips, and was as pretty as it was delicious. I’ve developed an obsession with all forms of ceviche, but the bright flavor-forward taste of the Mexican version, if done well, always resounds. Ceviche is a simple dish, but one that must be executed perfectly to succeed, as it fails if it isn’t balanced. At Nido, every bite of citrus-bathed fish was appropriately tender, it’s soft, briny texture countered beautifully with the addition of watermelon radish and shredded carrot to keep each mouthful appropriately toothsome. Finished with a nice kick of the roasted serrano chile at the back of the throat, the lasting impression is one that any seafood lover will enjoy.

These tasty appetite-whetting bites led us nicely into the Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo. If you’ve never experienced a good Pozole then it’s time you did. In my grandfather’s kitchen, the equivalent would have been a peasant minestrone, but in Abuela’s kitchen, it’s a Pozole. In Nido’s offering, each hearty, melt-in-your-mouth spoonful of chicken, steeped in flavorful golden brown broth, is laced with the same level of love in the preparation as the peasant minestrone my grandfather would serve me as a child. “Cooking with love” has become such an over-used term in culinary circles, and is such an obvious “go-to” phrase, but it resounds in a well-done bowl of soup nonetheless. Soup is the food that reminds us of mothers bearing gently warmed bowls of chicken-broth to a sickbed, or piping hot cups of tomato goodness to the kitchen table to greet us when we’re still rosy-cheeked from a day of outdoor chill. It simply is love in a bowl. If that ingredient is missing, it fails. Fortunately for the patrons of Nido, somebody in the kitchen loves you. A lot.

We followed the Pozole with a trio of soft-shelled taco selections: the Barbacoa de Res a mouth-watering little flavor bomb of slow-braised beef and peppers; the Puerco Adobado chock full of tender pork meat with the bright, refreshing balance added by citrus-y fruit salsa; and the Muslito de Pollo Asado a blend of glazed and grilled chicken, topped with a bit of the delectable fruit salsa mentioned above. Each one had that blissful marriage of meat and acid, that takes full advantage of the naturally rich characteristics of the meat protein, successfully offset by either the acid in the peppers or the tang of chopped fresh fruit.

The last dish was the Ollita de Pobre, another standout dish with peasant origins. Have you ever wondered why so many of our best current dishes came from the humble tables of our past? Because when you have simple ingredients, and often very few of them, the cook must be creative to make it palatable. When a cook in that environment stumbles upon a rewarding dish that can be recreated on a meager budget, that cook remembers the recipe. This dish clearly originated in the mind of a clever cook making magic in a pot with rice, beans and meat. A little pico de gallo and the right spices, and you’ve made yourself some magic. Here it’s served in a happy little blue pot. One knows when you pop that lid, you’re in for some good grub.

Puerco Adobado - Muslito de Pollo Asado - Barbacoa de Res

Puerco Adobado – Muslito de Pollo Asado – Barbacoa de Res

Somehow, over centuries the best dishes held, and these have been passed on in various cultures to bring us the flavor combinations we rave about in this age of accessibility. You no longer have to know someone with a Mexican Abuela to taste the dishes of a different culture’s family table. In this case, you can head to Nido and taste them for yourself. So grab a friend, break some bread and make a memory of your own. Mangia!

Nido Kitchen & Bar
444 Oak Street
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 444-6436
http://www.nidooakland.com

FONDA SOLANA FLASHBACK – Cinderella’s Mexican Feast & the Fairytale Ending

Not much left for the photo
of this Tequila laced concoction

It’s been almost two years, and I still salivate over the duck tacos.  The menu at Fonda Solana in Berkeley is a fascinating blend of elevated latin flavors, all served simply in shared-plates style.   They call it Mexican food, but it is so much more than that.

The occasion of my visit to Fonda (it seems they have all but dropped the Solana) was my daughter’s reunion with both her long-time paramour (now recently acquired husband) and the West Coast.  She’d missed the flavors of California and was needing a bit of reminding.  Dining out at Fonda Solana was just the ticket.  So we made our reservations and six of us headed there for drinks and delights.

Posole? Chicken soup?
Whatever they called it, it was delicious

What she didn’t know, but the rest of us did, was that next month, during her much-anticipated return to California, the boy would ask the girl to marry him. Their story was one of timing, and it was finally right.  Patience and commitment had brought this particular fairy-tale full circle.

But back to the food.  We ordered well, and soon found ourselves sated with the magnificent libations offered at this establishment.  As the courses came, we ooh-ed and ahhh-ed at the lovely presentations and blissfully developed flavors.  At the time I went the restaurant was one of the K-12 group that includes Lalimes and T-Rex (the latter having recently undergone a change in ownership).  To date, I have found a delightfully reliable uniformity of excellence in all restaurant establishments bearing the K-12 stamp.  Each one was worth a visit, many have seen return trips by this diner on the hunt for a food adventure.

The remarkably decadent
duck taco

Among my favorites of the menu we sampled included delightful empanadas drizzled in creme fraiche, hot fried cheese sticks full of oozy goodness while being light and airy as a creampuff, and a heavenly duck taco that incorporated pomegranate into the seasoning.  The duck taco was a revelation in flavors, but everything else was likewise delicious.

It was a magnificent way to relaunch my eldest child back into her native state and its myriad cuisines.  Mexican is something she felt she could never get in New York City, at least not to her California standards.  I can’t imagine NYC doesn’t have any good Mexican food, but on a budget perhaps extremely hard to find.  We reconnected over shared secrets and delicious food.  These are precious memories, which is I suppose why the surface now, on the almost two month anniversary of her nuptials with the lovely young man in the scene.

We talk often of food being love, and yes it is.  It can conjure love, secure love, bind love and remind us of times when we were loved.  It reminds of those who prepared it, the people we shared it with.  Our senses are so moved by the aromas, and the tastes can transport us to moments long gone but that will never be forgotten.  It is a meme I repeat, because it is like breathing.  Food and fond memories. The fabric of life.

Fonda Solana is a great meal if you like Mexican flavors, but don’t expect platters of heavy beans and rice.  The food here is delicate, though the flavors pack a whallop.  Pay it a visit and check it out, make a memory of your own.

Mexican “Wedding” cookies anyone?

Fonda Solana
1501 Solano Avenue
Albany, CA
510-559-9006
http://www.fondasolana.com