There was a time when dishes stuck their proper names at the end to convey refinement and class — Steak Diane, Lobster Newburg, Peach Melba. Now, to whet people's appetites, you just throw around a lot of unpronounceable words. I'm in no way complaining, and I don't mean this in Seinfeld-esque, what's-the-deal-with-X? exasperation. People are opening up, and that's good. I'm glad nobody told Gasia Mikaelian she had to change her name to Gabby Michaels if she wanted to be on TV, and I'm glad people are excited about huitlacoche (corn fungus) and huachinango asado (grilled red snapper)!
Once considered the essence of simplicity, Mexican food is becoming totally destabilized as a category and splintering into fantastic sub-cuisines. (Put another way, formerly unheard-of dishes are becoming accessible across Northern California; in their native regions, of course, they were there all along.) At the same time, the mezcal revolution threatens to make silver tequilas taboo. Calavera, which shares a fat footprint in Uptown Oakland's Hive with the equally new Drake's Dealership, is fully invested in these cultural shifts.
Not only is it one of the largest restaurants to open in Oakland in some time, it's also got a serious pedigree. Chef Christian Irabien (a native of Chihuahua state who came up through D.C.'s Oyamel) oversees a kitchen that executes all its own nixtamalization, the traditional, time-consuming process of making masa for tortillas via an alkaline solution. Michael Iglesias and Jessica Sackler (fellow Oyamel alums who also spent time at Coqueta) handle spirits and wines, respectively, while remaining partner Chris Pastena also owns Chop Bar and Lungomare.
It's not just impressive on paper. Let's start with the tacos, which are magical. (But first, a pre-buttal: Blessed are the cheap tacos al vapor in taquerias that aren't designed by Arcsine Architecture. They're as awesome as margaritas by the pitcher, but they ain't everything.) Calavera's tacos go for between $3.50 and $5 a pop, which could leave a mark, but all four of them are worth trying. While the cochinita pibil tacos (baby pig, Mayan axiote rub, sour orange marmalade, and spicy xni pec salsa) are magnificent, it's the mollejas de ternera con pitayas en escabeche (that is, lamb sweetbreads) that really win. I love them to a degree that's almost embarrassing, the way I love ring-tailed lemurs or the theme to The People's Court.
The less immediately accessible dishes were mostly a string of hits. A plate of octopus ceviche cooked in its own ink was a little gluey, but lightened by lime, cantaloupe, and honeydew. Queso flameado con huitlacoche was decidedly not some Ro-Tel-and-Velveeta Tex-Mex situation, but a gooey mozzarella served in a cast-iron skillet. (It's listed on the menu as "Chihuahua cheese," which sort of makes it sound like it's made from dog milk, but I highly recommend it.)
Plated whole and flopped upside-down around the grilled vegetables, the huachinango asado (snapper) could have been mistaken for zucchini. It was very bony, but delicate and perfectly balanced. If there was a weak link, it was the chile relleno, nicely spicy but almost too sweet, and with a mealy texture that didn't sit well with me. Curiously, it's the most widely available elsewhere, which means that the more adventurous you are at Calavera, the more fun you will probably have.
A word on the drinks. I'm glad there are 300 mezcals, but whenever I'm confronted with a three-ring binder that's got pages and pages of one type of spirit, I shut down and peruse the cocktail list instead. I don't think I paid a price for it, though, because the watermelon margarita with "salt air" — a concept straight from the gray matter of El Bulli's Ferran Adrià — is just remarkable. Although Calavera doesn't go as far as Aatxe by creating an entire gin-and-tonic menu, here the plain old G&T still becomes a totally different beast through the use of a house-made "mezcal gin." Similarly, the use of mezcal — and Oaxacan chocolate-mole bitters, and huitlacoche soaked in honey to make a tincture — transubstantiates the old-fashioned into a licorice-accented wonder.
At the intersection of cultural authenticity and hipster-baiting affectation, Calavera is full of alebrijes (hand-carved wood animal totems) and employs a full-time tortillera to make all that masa. And although still firmly inside the exposed-brick-cave-of-postindustrial-wonders phylum, it might have the most dazzling interior of any Oakland restaurant to open this year. The bar is art directed within an inch of its life, with crossword puzzle shelving and a ladder so high that reaching the uppermost mezcals would put a bartender's outstretched hand about 30 feet above the floor. As much as I love outdoor seating, out there you're basically in a parking lot, so inside is probably better.
Lastly, while I don't often comment about service, I want to commend Calavera for doing something that that should be standard practice everywhere that emphasizes shared dishes, which is periodically swapping out diners' own plates so people don't have to eat everything in the residual sauce of the courses that came before. Calavera's servers did such a conscientious job with it that I'm going to assume it's drilled into the staff. If so, good on them.
All in all, Calavera is a well-thought-out project at the vanguard of high-end, regionally inspired Mexican cuisine, light years from the Velvet Cantinas of the world. (Note: I adore Velvet Cantina.) Its ambition and execution are such that what we now call "Mexican restaurants" will be considered "pan-Mexican restaurants" in a few years' time. And who knows: Calavera, proudly Oaxacan to the core, might get quite a bit of the credit.