If I had infinite dollars and no other duties, I would probably eat two dinners a night until I died, happily, face-down in a plate at age 43. (Tragically, I write about a lot of art shit.) I eat out plenty, but it is challenging to find time to return to places to see how they develop. Seasons change, menus shift, and the only constant is staff turnover. People ask me where I eat most frequently, and my answer is always the same: Tú Lan. It’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s right by the office. For dinner, though, I’m eternally chasing after the new.
Compared to people who make iPhones for a living, this is not a bad problem to have. But it can become an issue when one well-regarded chef replaces another, and the roster of dishes changes accordingly, yet my perspective remains frozen in amber, as if the joint became fossilized six weeks after the grand opening.
For the first time since I sat in this chair, I’ve gone back somewhere: Calavera in Uptown Oakland. Sophina Uong — who came from Revival Bar and Kitchen in Berkeley, and Oakland’s Picán before that — has been in the kitchen a little less than six months, replacing opening chef Cristian Irabien after he moved to Cala in Hayes Valley, and everyone told me she was tearing it up. I was also a judge at the Lamb Jam this summer, which Uong won for the third time running, this time for her spicy, imaginative lamb shoulder pave with eggplant-date lutenitsa, sumac pickled corn, and cherry bomb harissa. (There was no small amount of consternation on the nine-member panel over our failure to get a majority vote on the first ballot, or at least before the wine ran out, but Uong was always in the lead.)
In any case, I liked Calavera a lot when I last ate there exactly a year ago, when it was open only for dinner (and when places like Firebrand Artisan Breads had yet to open up in The Hive, the live-work-eat space of which Calavera is a part). I loved the huitlacoche, the made-in-house tortillas, the fact that servers swap out dirty plates once you’ve served yourself a couple of sauce-heavy shared dishes, and the mezcal — and it still has Jonathan’s gin-and-tonic, one of the best G&Ts I’ve ever tasted.
And I remembered the guacamole, but I didn’t remember it being so generous: Normally, you’ll run out of it before you run out of chips, but not here. (At $10, it’s pricey guac, but the chips were replenished quickly and without asking.) The smoky nopales in the quesadillas prehispanico con chapulines ($15) were neither scorched nor slimy, and the grasshoppers (chapulines) sourced from Oaxaca were satisfyingly crunchy and earthy-sweet, a pretty spiffy add-on as biblical plagues go. I would have liked to see something more creative than ordinary salsa and sour cream on the side, but that’s comparatively minor.
The only disappointment was the pulpo, which, on the octopus dishes, was the opposite of a frutti di mare. It was cold, as well as chewy and larded up with things that sounded great (peanuts, grilled pineapple) but got buried in the mix. And the pineapples were barely grilled. Then there was an avocado mousse that added nothing and tasted like thin gruel after that gloriously chunky guacamole. I don’t know if the kitchen went that route because it’s more elegant-sounding or possibly more photogenic, but that sort of mentality is getting more and more common.
The esquites (corn salad, $9) was nice and sweet, and rather spicy owing to the gypsy peppers and chile pequin, which made it a perfect accompaniment to the flat iron steak ($29). Calavera has always had a reputation for being costly — which made the wage-theft accusations from earlier this year all the more upsetting — and any time I see an entree at that exact price point, I can’t help but sniff and probe it for any obvious ways in which the original vision might have been adulterated to keep things under the $30 mark without the restaurant taking a hit. But this wood-fired, flat iron steak was practically exquisite, fatty and lacking any of the characteristic toughness of the cut. With charred onion soubise and cumin, plus peppers underneath the meat that have practically become liquified, it’s both conservative — being good old beef and all — and a bit courageous, as I don’t know quite how to contextualize it in Mexican cuisine. For dessert, stay safer and get the churrodonas ($8), which are like doughy hyper-churros that come with chocolate and passion fruit dipping sauces. Don’t even consider the alternatives when you have something that good to order.
Calavera pushed the boundaries of Mexican cuisine from the start. While it’s easy to see how Uong was chosen for her current role — her career arc has included at least one stop in the land of whole-animal butchery, which her current home is well equipped for — it’s cool to see a Cambodian-American woman leading a Mexican restaurant, which further erodes distinctions between artificial categories. Having debuted right as we reached peak mezcal, it’s possible that Calavera could continue to evolve into something completely unhindered by expectations.
Calavera Mexican Kitchen & Agave Bar
2337 Broadway, Oakland
510-338-3273 or calaveraoakland.com
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Fri, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.; Sat, 10 a.m. – 11 p.m.; Sun, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.