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Best Mexican 

Oakland's divine Doña Tomás opens a nifty taqueria in Berkeley

Wednesday, Sep 17 2003
Susan, a friend who'd moved up to the Bay Area from Los Angeles around the same time I did, couldn't stop raving about a Mexican restaurant on Telegraph Avenue. "I swear," she said, "it's the best Mexican food I've ever had."

Secure in the memory of the food I'd eaten in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, and half a dozen cities in Mexico itself, I discounted her praise. "She lived on the Westside," I thought. "She hasn't eaten around in East L.A. like I have." I remembered the extraordinary antojitos available to all at popular prices at La Super Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara, food so delicious that it could sometimes tempt me to make the 180-mile round trip for lunch. I mused on the many paeans to pork and the changes wrought on ceviche at L.A.'s Border Grill, home of those Too Hot Tamales, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, worshippers at the shrine of Mexican cooking. (I still haven't forgiven the new Border Grill for eliminating the brunch served at the original location, which included one of my favorite morning dishes of all time, poached eggs slipped into a spicy tomato-chile broth topped with avocado and sprinkled with queso. Yum.) I reminisced about the one perfect lunch I had at Carnitas Uruapan, across from the racetrack in Tijuana: piles of carnitas, tortillas, radishes, and grilled spring onions slapped down onto a piece of paper on a splintery old wooden table -- "which in retrospect," as M.F.K. Fisher once wrote, "has acquired all the nostalgic beauty that I myself attribute to a truffled pâté I ate too many years ago during the Foire Gastronomique in Dijon." How could anything compete with these memories?

To sum it up: I ignored her. And then Susan, who had never cooked for me before in L.A., invited me over for a miraculous dinner -- in her high-ceilinged, Victorian dining room in Alameda -- of juicy pork loin, spiced and fruited couscous redolent of cardamom, and smoky grilled asparagus -- not to forget one of the best Mojitos I had ever drunk. I regarded her with a new respect, and immediately added Doña Tomás, Susan's favorite Mexican restaurant, to my list of "places to try."

Which turns out to be fairly soon, on a sultry evening when I invite Stan and Sam out for dinner, taking pity on the temporary bachelor guys because Suzanne (Stan's wife, Sam's mom) is off in the South of France (enduring even sultrier temperatures). Sam begs off to practice with his rock group, Captain Bringdown & the Buzzkillers, but Stan agrees. Doña Tomás is in a well-kept but fairly nondescript building on Telegraph in Oakland; its calmly chic interior, rough-hewn but exquisitely calibrated, comes as something of a surprise, as does the charming flower-lined patio where we're led.

I've made the mistake of skipping lunch in favor of a big chocolate peppermint milkshake, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but has left me logy. I mention to Stan that I'd just as soon dine lightly, but somehow we end up with three starters: a beautiful ensalada de melón, perfect for the mood I'm in, chunks of ripe melon tossed with torn mint and lime juice and decorated with squiggles of crema; the ceviche of the day, which is tuna, avocado, juicy red tomato, diced red onion, chiles, cilantro, floods of lime juice, and some tomatillo salsa -- equally refreshing; and the sopes de camarón al mojo de ajo, crisp corny little masa cakes topped with black beans and shrimp shining with butter, sautéed with garlic.

For a girl who thought she wasn't hungry, I'm really putting it away, helped along by an amazing "Low Rider" (cointreau, brandy, and lime), a drink embarrassing to order but delightful to quaff.

Still, I'm worried about doing justice to the carnitas I couldn't resist ordering. I shouldn't have worried: The heap of pork (Niman Ranch), still juicy and nicely redolent of oregano, disappears as I roll some of it up with radishes and grilled scallions into tortillas, and eat some on its own. That Tijuana afternoon was uniquely pleasurable, but this plate is memorable, too. I'm also impressed with Stan's sophisticated pescado Veracruzano, tender halibut cheeks sautéed with tomato, capers, onions, garlic, and olives. But the best thing we taste, in a very good meal, is the cloudlike budín de elote, the corn-and-zucchini pudding ("Sometimes we make it with scallions," our server says, alluringly) that comes with the fish. I can't stop eating it.

One of our desserts isn't particularly good, a rather soggy fruit crumble, but the mint ice cream sundae sprinkled with crunchy Scharffen Berger chocolate nibs is delightful. I walk away from Doña Tomás eager to return -- which I do within the week, again with Stan, and joined by Sam. We'd glided in with such ease the first time that I foolishly didn't make a reservation, and tonight the place is packed: We're parked at the bar in one of the inside dining rooms. I'm soothed by a superb cocktail, the Doña Colada, a blended wonder of rum, coconut, and lime.

Soon enough we're led to a table in a tiny shed at the back of the patio. I think the three of us order less than the two of us did last time, but we get plenty to eat, including a rich, spicy chicken soup (sopa de lima) packed with chicken that I would beg for on my sickbed, tasty salmon tacos topped with fresh mango salsa, and delicate quesadillas stuffed with local fresh ricotta, epazote (a pungent herb), and chipotle and topped with avocado salsa -- plus a side order of the miraculous corn pudding. I'm in love with the place, and I think I owe Susan a meal. I'm only sad that Doña Tomás doesn't serve lunch -- or Sunday brunch, on that lovely patio.

But then Stan calls with exciting news: He's just had Saturday brunch at Tacubaya, a taqueria that the Doña Tomás folks have recently opened on Fourth Street in Berkeley. He and his pals arrived too late for the regular breakfast menu, so they had wonderful bowls of menudo, the spicy, chile-infused pork broth filled with tender chunks of tripe and big kernels of hominy, with cilantro and lime juice.

In a weekday filled with errands and shopping, I squeeze in a too-quick lunch at Tacubaya with my father. We order at the counter and wait at one of the small wooden tables for our food while we admire the lofty space, with hot color-blocked walls in the style of architect Luis Barragán (whose own house is in Tacubaya, Mexico). It's as chic as Doña Tomás, but with a more modern, stark feel. We get tiny, freshly made tacos -- de asada, beef dabbed with salsa roja; de lengua, velvety tongue with tomatillo salsa; and al pastor, pork marinated in adobo with avocado salsa -- and a treat, a crisp little taco filled with shredded chicken and cheese, which is delivered to us by accident in lieu of the pork and left as a gift. We're surprised to see Suzanne, fresh off the plane from France, and Peter wandering in for lunch, and trade tastes of our tacos for bites of their torta al pastor, a modest-size sandwich filled with Tacubaya's excellent pork, and a good pork tamale in red sauce. "Everything was first-rate," I say to my dad, "though the portions are smaller and prices higher than at the Mission taquerias." "They don't use Niman Ranch meat or organic chicken," he points out.

He also thinks that I should have paid for my friends' lunch, since I benefited from what they ordered. Maybe that's why I take each of them for a meal there in the following week. On Wednesday, Peter is pleased to learn that Tacubaya's now serving breakfast all day on Saturday and Sunday, especially after we enjoy our terrific chorizo with eggs and eggs revueltos, softly scrambled with chiles, tomatoes, green onion, and sweet nopales cactus paddles. There are six people busy in the open kitchen (one lady is making fresh tortillas), but the lone cashier is struggling to take orders and make coffee (the special organic Mexican blend is dripped to order for each customer). At lunch a day later Suzanne and I share a delicate fried fish taco with shredded cabbage, napped with a mild chile aioli; a special crunchy, piggy, satisfying chicharrón taco; a big bowl of a robust, deeply flavored sopa de tortilla and another of frijoles con todo, a layer of sliced avocado atop whole pinto beans in a sneakily spicy broth with chiles, diced tomato, onions, and a lovely surprise of melted Oaxacan cheese lurking in its depths. It's another dish that I can't stop eating. I'm admiring the massive, witty, wrought-iron chandeliers above us, lit with old-fashioned-looking bulbs, when it suddenly hits me: If I slipped a couple of poached eggs into this bowl, that vanished Border Grill brunch dish would be back -- better than ever. I'm getting an order of frijoles con todo to go.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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