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By Anna Roth
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By Max A. Cherney
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By Alex Hochman
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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."
Oakland, CA 94609
Sopa de lima $5.95
Ensalada de melón $6.75
Pescado Veracruzano $15.25
Budín de elote $3.75
Eggs revueltos $7.25
Frijoles con todo $5.50
Doña Tomás, 5004 Telegraph (at 49th Street), Oakland, (510) 450-0522. Open Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: noisy inside, moderate on patio.
Tacubaya, 1788 Fourth St. (at Delaware), Berkeley, (510) 525-5160. Open for breakfast Monday through Friday from 8 to 11 a.m. and for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: moderately difficult. Noise level: moderate.
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.
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