“Needs more grasshoppers.”
That’s not a phrase I often hear from my husband. But when in Oaxaca — or in this case, eating its cuisine in Oakland — do as the Oaxacans do, right?
So we dutifully sprinkled them on our tacos. But that’s not right. Calavera Mexican Kitchen and Agave Bar
has so many things going for it that to narrow it down to just the grasshoppers wouldn’t be fair.
With its high ceilings, exposed brick and stunning bar, the space — designed by Arcsine — is truly gorgeous. I can’t remember another Oakland restaurant having quite the same wow-factor upon first walking in. There’s also a large patio.
The cocktails are sublime. Some of them include “salt air" instead of a salted rim. El Bulli’s chef Ferran Adrià came up with the idea and taught it to Chef José Andrés, who taught it to Michael Iglesias, a partner at Calavera. And my husband thought the sandia (watermelon) margarita may just be the finest cocktail he’s ever had.
While Calavera has about 300 bottles of fine tequilas and mezcals, the team hopes to amass the most “thoughtful” agave collection in the Bay Area (and to see that figure rise to 400.) Given that Iglesias and his business partner Jessica Sackler are both sommeliers, the wine list is worthy of note, as well, especially since so many Mexican restaurants stop at cocktails and beer.
And then there’s the food.
Both Iglesias and Sackler spent some years working at Oyamel, a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C. owned by Andrés (their third partner is Chris Pastena, who already has an excellent track record in Oakland, as he owns Chop Bar and Lungomare).
While there, they met an up-and-coming Mexican chef, Christian Irabien, who’s now in the kitchen at Calavera.
“It was important to us that we had a chef who understood how to do Mexican cuisine rooted in tradition, but had finesse and imagination, so it’s authentic food but is presented in a beautiful, thoughtful and modern way,” Iglesias said.
Given that “everything starts with a tortilla in Mexican cuisine," Calavera does its own nixtamalization — the act of soaking corn in a solution of water and mineral lime, then grinding it to make masa. It's an 18-hour process, and there is one woman in the kitchen whose sole job is to make tortillas on the wood-fired comal
While there are so many dishes to recommend at Calavera, a sampling of the tacos give an excellent representation of what Irabien can do.
Calabacitas, with young summer squashes, white corn, epazote crema, and queso fresco, were light and summery, and the cochinita pibil (baby pig, Mayan axiote rub, and sour orange marinade) was savory goodness. Mollejas de ternera con pitayas en escabeche (masa-crusted veal sweetbreads, avocado, red onion escabeche, and dragonfruit) tickled our taste buds with the interplay of crunch and cool fruit. The pollo en mole poblano (grilled organic chicken, mole, and crispy rice) has 35 ingredients in its mole; need I say more?
Calavera hopes to be both an amazing neighborhood restaurant where you can stop in for a cocktail and a few tacos, or you can go large and get the tasting menu for a special occasion. I’m guessing they’ll be just that.
Calavera Mexican Kitchen and Agave Bar
, 2337 Broadway, Oakland, 510-338-3273.