Welcome to the Cheers of Fruitvale. La Mexicana has been on International Boulevard for seventy years, and the current owner started as a waitress over twenty years ago. Come here for big portions of simple homefare.
Chef Dominica Rice makes some of the best Mexican food in the Bay Area with top quality local ingredients. I asked Rice, who once worked at Chez Panisse, about growing up in L.A., opening her first restaurant, and what it means to be cooking Mexican food with local and organic ingredients.
Opened in 2011 by the team of A Cote restaurant, Rumbo al Sur offers a tapas-style menu of dishes and wine from Mexico and South America, and cocktails made with fresh juices and Latin American spirits. I sat down with the head chef to ask him about Rumbo al Sur’s menu, and how he thinks Latin American cuisine is making its mark on the culinary scene in Oakland and beyond.
At 5:28 as I was waiting in line for Comal to open, a Cal student amused by the long line outside of the restaurant asked the woman behind me what the deal was. She kept her eyes on her phone, paused for a minute like she wasn’t going to answer, and said “It’s amazing food,” made another dramatic pause (eyes still on the phone and totally expressionless) and followed with, “absolutely amazing.” Here are my thoughts on this interaction: If someone asks you about food that you think is amazing, but you don’t lift your eyes or break a smile to talk about it, then you’re either a. an asshole with terrible social skills or b. lying. I’m leaning towards the former in regards to this lady, but I also know that the food at Comal is not amazing. It’s probably amazing if you’ve never had a good fish taco or chicharrones in your life (which frankly, would make me kind of an asshole too). What is absolutely amazing at Comal— and as I say this I’m looking at you with a giant smile, cheekbones a flush, arms in the air, eyes wide open with excitement, and voice elevated— are the drinks.
Comal is a newly opened restaurant in downtown Berkeley serving Oaxacan-inspired fare. It’s modern and warm, with hanging teal lights over the bar, copper mesh fixtures over the wooden booths, rustic and steel touches everywhere, and an open kitchen. I would come here just to look at the place. There’s a patio and beer garden in back, and a bar up front where a mouth-watering cocktail menu designed for tequila and mezcal lovers awaits.
The Palomaesque, made with Mezcal, Cocchi Americano, grapefruit, lime, honey, salt, soda, was the best mezcal drink I’ve ever had. The Comal Swizzler, with falernum, pineapple, passion fruit, lime, crushed ice, and cascade hops tincturea, mixed with a choice of tequila, mezcal or sotol was a tropical experience, not precious and still making me smile like the first time I discovered fresh coconut. The Jack Satan, with tres agaves reposado, hibiscus syrup, lime, and a homemade infierno tincture made of spices and chiles, was bright purple, served up, rimmed with salt and true to its name, devilishly good. Also on the cocktail menu is Agua Fresca con Carne, a choice of agua fresca with rum or tequila, a cocktail that kept my sister and I afloat when we ended up spending two nights in the port of Veracruz, where it was a good 100 degrees and all we could muster up the strength to do was walk to the corner and buy a giant cup of agua fresca and a bottle of havana club. My adventures in being a bad American have finally been made classy.
The staff here is frighteningly friendly. I imagine that they huddle before opening, look at the hungry crowd in line outside the tall heavy doors, and then look at each other, one of their cheerleaders exclaiming, “we will not be frazzled!” and they clink glasses and take down a shot of mezcal.
I don’t like to write negative reviews so I wont dwell on the food, but I will tell you that I was disappointed with the fish tacos, the mole, and the chicharrones. However, my second time dining, when I was with a group of four, we ordered the $49 bone-in ribeye steak (22 oz) with bok choy, black beans, green rice, fresh tortillas, and three different salsas. The steak was flavored well, juicy and tender— just a little fatty. The tortillas were fresh and the bok choy was surprising. With enough for two tacos each, we felt like it was a satisfying deal (they also have two other large sharing dishes meant for 2-3 people). Not necessarily the best steak I’ve ever had, but a great way to soak up our drinks. Conclusion? Start with drinks, snack on some yucca fries, if you’re hungry get the steak, and with your warmest smile tell your waiter that you’d just love it if they had churros on the dessert menu (I’m starting a campaign, so thanks).
Got the travel bug? Comal
Open for dinner, Main dishes range $9-$14