When the press started pouring in for Calavera, this new Oaxaca restaurant in Uptown Oakland's Hive Complex, a fancy shmancy new co-working/eating/exercise fun land, everyone was talking about the grasshoppers. That, and the salt air.
I've never eaten grasshoppers, so I can't really be anti-bug or anything, but I dunno, I got kind of tired of hearing the same story over and over again: "Hey guys, look! I ate a bug! It was crunchy and didn't taste terrible! Good for me! Hooray! Yay! Bugs!" Et cetera.
The salt air thing was more confusing. Every story mentioned this concept, but no one actually explained what the fuck it is. All I knew is that there are cocktails at Calavera and some of them have salt air on them. Somehow. I was picturing some kind of smoke sphere like they have at Alinea, but, like, on top of a margarita.
The responsible journalists covering the opening also, of course, spoke about how cool it was to go to a seriously Oaxacan restaurant and also how much mezcal the restaurant stocked behind its elaborately designed bar. Okay, yes, good.
As I've said before, I am a proponent of pretty much any restaurant that opens in the East Bay that isn't trying to serve some kind of twist on Cal-Ital food, so I was pretty much ready to go to Calavera since before it opened. Bugs or no bugs.
I went for dinner last Tuesday with a couple of friends who work in the wine industry. They are very good drinkers and also obviously enthusiastic eaters, so we ended up ordering enough food for at least 6 people. (Also, in a move that was good for my latter-week productivity, we didn't drink nearly as much as the last time I ate with them — that evening was three bottles deep before 6 p.m.)
There was queso flameado con huitlacoche — molten cheese studded with morsels of a special kind of fungus that grows on corn. It is often likened to truffles, but really just tastes like mild shiitake mushrooms. The dish came with truly excellent tortillas, which are made with house-made masa.* While I would probably pay someone to keep these tortillas coming to my mouth every five minutes for the rest of my life, they really weren't the best vehicle for eating said molten cheese. I felt like a huge messy doof trying to scoop cheese blobs onto the soft tortillas. Cheese dip needs chips. Full stop.
Another dish I wanted chips for was the ceviche costeno (halibut, avocado, salsa Mexicana, and toasted hominy a.k.a. basically delicious corn nuts). The ceviche itself was fine, but not particularly memorable. And why don't more restaurants serve ceviche with chips? It is so good with chips.
Calavera has a four-deep taco section on its menu. Said tacos are super fucking expensive, ranging from $3.50 for vegetarian calabacitas to $5 for a tortilla filled with veal sweetbreads. Now, in general, I don't mind spending extra cash for street-style food made with super high-quality ingredients. I know what that shit costs, so yes, whatever, pass it on to the customer. But I wasn't particularly impressed with our cochinita pibil tacos. The shredded pork was dry and didn't have much of its signature sour orange tang. Later in the week, I got to eat my favorite taco around: carnitas from El Autlense. It was definitely a superior bite. Also that taco was $1.50.
Far, far (far) better than the taco was the birria de chivo, which roughly translates to super fucking delicious braised goat in a magical goat sauce. (Take a look at all that goodness in the photo up top.) There were roasted tomatoes, chiles, chocolate, and mezcal soaked cherries in there too. The birria also came with a stack of tortillas, which were (finally) an ideal vessel for stuffing the meat into my mouth.
We also ate the chile relleno (a little too sweet and mushy, but the summer squash on the side was tasty), nopales with a spicy salsa (a fine, flavorful rendition, with no slime in sight), and a forgettable grilled onion dish. Really those last three dishes were all pretty unnecessary. Calavera is surprisingly generous with its portion-sizes; we probably only got through about half of the food on the table.
Oh shit, you're also probably wondering about salt air.
I'm not an asshole, so I'll actually explain what it is. The server described the salt air as an "espuma" (translation: foam) of salt and magic (translation: probably agar) that sits on top of the drink to function like a salt rim but with more style. It looks like a super loose meringue and tastes like, well, salt. I actually quite enjoyed it in the end. I had the basic "salt air" cocktail, which was a mezcal margarita, served up and topped generously with the foam. Turns out, "salt air" is a very smooth integrated way to incorporate salt into the drink. I dug it.
Calavera also serves a watermelon version that's way prettier but I was kinda meh on it. I think I just prefer my margaritas in their simple, citrus-y form. My friend Tess also tried a crazy mezcal-manzanilla sherry-epazote-blackberry-crushed ice situation that was pretty much just an alcoholic smoothie. Aaaand of course there is plenty of straight up mezcal to drink; they'll serve it with orange slices and worm salt if you ask.
So the other thing I should mention is that Calavera just opened a few weeks ago and they are insanely fucking busy. There's a huge amount of information for servers to learn and explain, and the restaurant's style of dining lends itself to long, casual dinners. The servers haven't totally gotten it yet. We had to ask for clean plates and silverware, dishes came out haphazardly, and the check was crazy slow to show up. Obviously these are all issues indicative of such an ambitious restaurant. Patience goes a long way towards enjoying yourself in these early days. At the same time, we would have been happier if our cocktails had come out with expediency.
And maybe gotten some gratis grasshoppers, but, you know, a girl can only dream.
*For those who are curious about what goes into making masa from scratch, take a look at this story from Lucky Peach. You've got to alkalize corn (Calavera uses Anson Mills, which is pretty much the best corn you can buy stateside), grind it in a very specific way, and a bunch of other shit. It is in no way simple or easy, so anyone who does it as well as they're doing it at Calavera deserves mad props.