Calavera Changes Chefs But Keeps Its Character

Sophina Uong is out, and Gustavo Romero is in -- and Calavera is still excellent.

(A.K. Carroll)

Less than a year after taking the helm of the kitchen at Calavera, Chef Sophina Uong (formerly of Pican and Revival, two-time winner of the Lamb Jam, and champ of Chopped Grill Masters, Season 3) has left for greener and less pretentious pastures at Mestiza Taqueria, a multi-cultural street-food spot set to open in SoMa later this month. In her stead is Chef Gustavo Romero, a native of Mexico who comes to Calavera from Marin Restaurant in Minneapolis. Romero has also seen some facetime on Food Network, having made an appearance on Chef Wanted in 2013.

The offerings at the industrial-chic eatery — think exposed brick and high ceilings — continue to be beautifully-plated and moderately pricey modern riffs on traditional Mexican dishes, but lack the kick-in-the-mouth spiciness indicative of Uong’s hand.

A new breakfast menu, served weekends from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., features an indulgently sweet tres leches French toast, huevos rancheros, and chilaquiles rojos con pollo. Several notable new entrees and beverages appear on the dinner menu as well, including a refreshing pomegranate margarita, which is topped with Calavera’s frothy “salted-air,” and a mezcal mai tai finished with a tres leches espuma that is reminiscent of holiday nutmeg and nearly as thick as meringue.

Mezcal gin — a spirit still relatively uncommon on standard bar shelves — is the key ingredient of Calavera’s mix-and-match gin and tonics, which include a citrusy orange and herb variation. Half of the fun of these G&T’s is the potpourri of flowers, herbs, and peels that float through the drink (the other half is the mezcal gin). Calavera’s bar features some 100 tequilas and mezcals for the true agave connoisseur, but the cocktails are just so dreadfully showy that it’s hard to order anything else.

Though Calavera’s notorious chapulines received no small number of mentions in the restaurant’s first year, the crispy roasted grasshoppers have taken a bit of a back seat and did not even get a mention on the most recent menu.

My last dining experience started with the vuela a la vida, a cool ceviche of prawns, scallops, and pineapple-tomato salsa, which was as much salad as it was seafood and made for a light start to a meal. The chilled Dungeness crab of the coctel de cangrejo, on the other hand, lacked a necessary hint of acidity and was weighed down by a heavy herb and Serrano remoulade. Steamed little neck clams got a flavor boost from crumbles of chorizo verde and were served in a garlic wine sauce that begged for more crostini. The restaurant prides itself on its house-made nixtamal tortillas, which are prepared using several varieties of heirloom corn. Though they lacked the light crispy consistency of your typical tortilla, they served as a substantial salty sheath for crunchy fried shrimp and crispy pork belly tacos. I finished the meal with a creamy mango sorbet and two churro-esque donuts served with warm Oaxacan chocolate.

I was disappointed that not one of the dishes I tasted sent me reaching for my water or asking for another margarita. For me, that’s a part of what it means to enjoy Mexican food. It’s possible that Chef Romero’s cooking has been tempered by the soft palates of Minnesotans. Still, what I did try was consistently good. I may just need to wait for the opening of Mestiza to satisfy my craving for a good food-induced sweat.

Calavera, 2337 Broadway, Oakland, 510-388-3273, calaveraoakland.com

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