The story: Calavera is the new, grand restaurant in the buzzing new Uptown development known as The Hive. The restaurant is like a love poem to the regional cuisine of Mexico brought to life by restaurateurs Chris Pastena (Lungomare), Jessica Sackler and Miguel Iglesias (both of Coqueta and Oyamel).
Why I went: One of the early notes about the restaurant, which spotlights the cuisine of the Oaxacan region, talked about the fried bugs that are served on the menu. Known as chapulines, they’re imported from Oaxaca, and the novelty made me want to dip my feet into trying more Mexican cuisine, even though it’s not a cuisine I often crave. Knowing I would need support to try the bugs, I recruited my regular food-loving dining partners, Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging, Christina of East Bay Dish, and Brenda of Bites and Bourbon. It had been awhile since I’d seen these ladies so we drank and ate and chatted the night through.
The vibe: The spacious, sparkling restaurant is festive with Oaxacan folk art and decorations commemorating the Day of the Dead (we had dined in late October). The large bar, which has an extensive list of mezcal and tequilas, is bustling and impressive. Everyone seemed happy to be dining there, so it really had a party atmosphere.
The menu: The regular menu is a robust one with a wide selection of starters, ceviches, salads, tacos, large plates, and vegetable sides. The chapulines are featured as an added element to the house guacamole verde ($9 + $3 for the bugs), and on the night we went there was a special Day of the Dead menu with additional items that also featured the chapulines in a taco with white onion petals, mezcal, and mole verde ($6 each). We also tried other tacos, including the wild mushrooms ($4 each) and veal sweetbreads ($5 each). So what about the bugs? We actually ordered it with the guacamole de la serpiente enplumada ($17), which is gaucamole verde with house smoked trout, trout caviar, and nixtamal totopos. The chapulines came separately and were so small, I could hardly tell they were insects. You could have told me they were chocolate shavings and I would have believed you. I think because they were so small, I barely noticed any odd taste when mixed with the guacamole. Many of the plates were beautiful (even a side of cauliflower that was multicolored) but not all were packed with flavor.
The booze: Along with the list of mezcal and tequilas, there’s an interesting list of specialty cocktails. I had to try the “salt air” ($12), which is a margarita made with Milagro blanco, Luxardo Triplum, lime, and an Oaxacan salt air foam that really had a salty taste. There’s a Mexican twist to classic cocktails, such as the “Truffled” Zapotec Old Fashioned ($13) made with rum, Vago elote mezcal, miel de huitlacoco, and an Oaxacan chocolate mole bitters. And yes, there are cervezas (beer).
My favorite dish: I loved the smoke flavor of the guacamole de la serpiente enplumada, and everyone at the table loved the fresh blue corn chips that we kept asking for more. How I wished there were more of the guacamole verde on the plate, but everything mixed with the trout roe made this a pimped out guac plate.
The last bite: While I liked the variety of options on the menu, I don’t know if I left getting a real sense of Oaxacan cuisine. The flavors didn’t seem prominent enough to be memorable. Still, the restaurant is beautiful, and despite a staff that sometimes seems overwhelmed, it’s a festive place in a hopping new Uptown home.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Calavera, Mexican Kitchen and Agave Bar, 2337 Broadway (near Grand), Oakland. PH: 510.338.3273. Open weekdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. Friday); Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. calaveraoakland.com
Check out Sandy’s take on our meal on her blog, Foodhoe’s Foraging.
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