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
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.
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.
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
We’ve all been exposed to regional foods over the course of our lives, but let’s face it, the food available to us in the past wasn’t anything to write home about. Growing up, Chinese food was bright red sweet and sour chicken, greasy noodles overloaded with soy sauce, and fortune cookies. Italian was Bertolli’s “all you could eat” spaghetti, a mushy, tomato-laden expression of food from my Grandfather’s homeland. Mexican food was most often represented by pre-fab taco shells stuffed to the brim with packaged spices and inexpensive ground chuck. The fifties and sixties brought us a variety of cultures, but our simplistic palates and fast food expectations kept restaurants from preparing dishes that accurately illustrated the food of their native cultures. Instead we got an almost cartoon-like iteration of these foods from across the globe. We were a people who wanted what we knew, and we wanted it fast. If one wanted to experience any real form of global cuisine, one had to travel.
The past several decades have seen these sub-par ethnic foods all but vanish. Though they can be found, they are now the rarity, rather than the norm. I am thrilled that Oakland boasts some really bad ass representations of authentic, uncluttered, and uncompromised, ethnic delights. Personally, I’m always on the hunt for a new one. It’s my new thing. My entire staff helps me hunt down and identify these new dining experiences. Several months ago, my paralegal suggested we try a new Peruvian Restaurant that had just opened a few blocks from my office. I’ve had measured success finding good Peruvian, and my expectations were, quite honestly, very low.
We hit them early on, when they’d just opened. There were a few bumps, a component here or there, but wow. Just wow. The flavors were unique and everything was just, well startlingly delicious. The Chef, Patricia Rios, had really hit on something good. We let the Peruvian Paralegal (did I mention he’s from Peru?) order his favorites, and he took us through the menu masterfully. Since that first visit, we have returned often, as there is just only so long a person can do without this food.
Let me start at the beginning, with the ceviche. Peruvian Ceviche is a bit different from the standard Mexican fare you might be used to. It’s bathed in acidic “milk” rather than just the citrus cure that is more common to Latin fare from North America. Both are effective, but the Peruvian version is definitely different. The pictured version is a whitefish, but Chef Rios does a beautiful olive & calamari ceviche that’s absolute bliss as well.
Next up, the tasty “amuse” of yucca balls. We’ve had these every time we’ve been, and they really set the palate up nicely for a Latin meal. Bursting with flavor, these tiny, cruncy mouthfuls are a huge hit with our little group of diners.
Peruvian food feautures a lot of beautiful seafood. We happen to love seafood– it is a big favorite in our little band of adventurous diners. She does a particularly luscious giant shrimp atop a beautiful potato mixture (I’m not remembering the Spanish for the dish, I apologize, will try to add later) and the end result is a tangy, delicious blend of creamy starch and toothsome crustacean. Patricia really knows how to cook seafood: her shrimp are always perfectly cooked and bursting with the moist briny flavor of the sea. The sauce is a creamy drizzle of local spices which I personally find absolutely delightful. There is something familiar, yet unknown about her combinations of flavor that keep me returning over and over.
Generally we have two or three appetizers, and one or two of the bigger dishes, all shared between four people. We like to try something new that she’s come up with, in addition to our stand by favorites. Among those favorites are the large seafood combo (as you can see, chock full of mussels, shrimp, and all manner of delectable seafood) served atop rice, somewhat reminiscent of paella, and the Llomo Saltado.
We are absolutely mad for the Llomo. This is a Peruvian take on “Shaken Beef” though its name translates more accurately to “Jumping Beef,” the origins of the dish are traceable when eating these beautifully seasoned, moist and flavorful chunks of beef with a vaguely Asian twist. The meat is nestled on a platter of piping hot fries, and all of the components have been blanketed with a light beef gravy. The salty fries meld perfectly with the lovely tang of the meat sauce. I can’t accurately describe how mind-blowingly tasty this dish is, but it is something we have gone back for again and again.
Patricia Rios is a passionate and imaginative Chef, who is continually reinventing her food in order to give her patrons a new dining experience on each visit. The combination of new treats and old favorites keeps Tambo from ever getting too static, though she’s smart enough to maintain enough of her customer’s favorites on the regular menu, to keep us all coming back to re-experience this stunning new cuisine in its many incarnations.
Tambo Peruvian is an outstanding addition to the East Bay Food Scene, and my suggestion is that you check it out for yourself. Break some bread and make a few memories of your own!