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Salsipuedes: Get Here If You Can 

Wednesday, Sep 9 2015
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The slender menu icon for Salsipuedes is something of a Rorschach inkblot. It's a shark, that much is clear, but whether it's speared on an enormous fish hook or gnawing the end of a big S is up to the diner to decide. The restaurant, in Oakland's Longfellow neighborhood, one block east of the Emeryville border, is similarly ambiguous: Is it a Mexican restaurant with Japanese accents, or a California restaurant with Mexican and Japanese overtones? The name is no help, either. Salsipuedes translates to "leave if you can" or "get out if you can," and could refer to having fun in the Baja California sun or hightailing it out of town, Old West-style.

Whatever the case, Salsipuedes is part of what seems to be the trend of the year: an explosion of possibilities in Mexican cooking, from Californios to Calavera to Richie Nakano's Mexican pop-ups at Wing Wings, to the high-end mezcal that seems to be available everywhere. Nixtamalization may not be a household word, but it's trending that way.

On the whole, Salsipuedes is sharp and well thought-out, withoutclobbering everybody over the noggin with formally dazzling kitchen wizardry. If there's one big issue, it's how, like a power pop album on which every song's bridge goes really quiet, most of the dishes resolved into the same slow-burning heat (even when using different peppers). The dishes that didn't have this issue tended to be oversalted.

Starting off, the corn nuts with seaweed salt ($3.50) were as hard as nuggets of quartz — or as hard as whoever's grandma's candy dish they came served on — but oddly compelling as the salt gave way to sweet. (They stayed on the table through the entire meal, and my dining buddies and I kept coming back to them with sheepish giggles.) The almost obligatory shishito peppers with salt plum ($7) had the char that everyone's come to expect, but with an additional, unmistakable tang. They were a little salty, but the grilled peaches brought a nice contrast.

The tiradito (or black cod with yuzu ponzu and serrano peppers, $18) was somewhere between a ceviche and a sashimi. Gooey and slightly limey from the yuzu, it looked like a plate of brains with a sprig of frisee on top, but it was delicious, a study in that slow-building heat.

Another plate of roasted corn ($12) cleverly came served over nixtamal nieves — which is to say, a scoop of maize ice cream. That probably strikes people as falling squarely on the gimmick-dare spectrum, but corn in a salted dairy form can be as glorious as on a hot, buttered cob. I've made it myself, although I'd never had it as anything but dessert, and here it had a nice, subtle spice appropriate for the small plates section (although that menu heading is only implied). This was a beautiful, smartly executed dish, the best use of the back-end heat that was to become increasingly familiar.

Beef tongue ($15), sliced like avocado chunks and served on a nopal (here called a "cactus paddle") with green salsa and seaweed, was where the combination of Mexico and Japan veered in a wholly unforeseen direction. It tasted like a much juicier corned beef, and came with a smear of opulence in the form of uni paste. It ain't the prettiest thing I ever did see, but it sure was good.

As the latest in a long string of terrific octopus dishes I've had all spring and summer — I know it's not everyone's favorite, but everyone should try it — there was an octopus melt bao. It was another slow-burner, although the addition of chicharrones was a smart move, and the bao were spot on, barely thicker than tortillas. Sometimes, experiments feel so logical in hindsight that you can hardly believe they were experiments.

The drowned fried chicken torta with wakame kimchi ($13) was wet and messy, like a New Jersey meatball hero with katsu instead of marinara. It's enjoyable, and the kitchen was attentive enough to slice it into thirds, but it's a case of the idea being more interesting than the final product. (You can, however, get the torta as part of Salsipuedes' Tuesday-only "burger & fries" special, with tempura sea beans as the fries.)

One minor disappointment was that the grilled eggplant and tomatoes (with olive oil and pistachio, $10) featured cherry tomatoes. I concede that this is a personal preference, but cherry tomatoes (those squelchy little balls that explode in the mouth) are a completely different animal and should always be labeled as such. The eggplant bits, for their part, were similarly tiny and had a lovely density, but it was a little hard to see how this dish fits into the overall scheme. And while the pork steak ($21) was another oversalted dish, the strips were as fatty as they were juicy, and served on a chunky sourgrass chimichurri that tasted a little more like basil than the parsley-cilantro combination from which most chimichurris are made. Along with the beef tongue, it was the only non-chicken, non-seafood meat dish, and together, they anchored the meal.

Salsipuedes is a collaboration between some Oakland power players: Jay Porter (The Half Orange), Bradford Taylor (Ordinaire) and Luis Abundis (Nieves Cinco de Mayo), along with Marcus Krauss (formerly of The Restaurant at Meadowood). Plus, the iron is certainly hot for an affordable, inventive restaurant like this. Once its roots reach the water table and Salsipuedes really gets going, its team should have a crowd favorite on its hands. Especially because it had the good sense to go a little crazy without calling anything "loco."

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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