Dinner at Calavera in Oakland

by foodhoe on November 3, 2015

2337 Broadway, Oakland | 510.338.3273 | website
Open Sun-Thurs 5:30 to 10 pm | Fri-Sat 5:30 to 11 pm


My friend Ben who writes Focus:Snap:Eat sent an email that he needed someone to help him eat bugs…  I’m always up to try something new, as is Christina of East Bay Dish and Brenda from Bites & Bourbon, and so we had dinner at Calavera Mexican Kitchen and Agave Bar.  It’s in the Hive Oakland complex, a new shopping, gathering, working and living space in Uptown that presents yet another cool destination in Oakland to hang out at.  The restaurant is in a renovated building that was designed by Julia Morgan with  high ceilings and dramatic flair, featuring sleek architectural elements to display Mexican folk art, alebrijes, and the namesake calavera (day of the dead sugar skulls).  It had a very festive atmosphere that I liked hanging out in.


Because we visited in late October, the restaurant was also celebrating Day of the Dead with a special menu and alters festooned with marigolds, whose petals are thought to bring out the dead souls to feast on the offerings laid on the table or headstone.


Calavera is a joint project of partners Michael Iglesias, Jessica Sackler and Chris Pastena, owner of Oakland’s Chop Bar and Lungomare. They share a connection with Oyamel, a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C. owned by José Andrés, where executive chef Christian Irabien also worked.  The eclectic menu features dishes inspired by the regional cuisine of Mexico, combined with the rebel spirit of Oakland.  The bar features over 300 bottles of tequila and mescals, and with two sommeliers involved in the project they aim to prove that wine can be paired with Mexican cuisine.


Ben ordered the Salt Air Margarita ($12) which is topped with a frothy, Oaxacan salt foam, a molecular gastronomy feat involving salty foam that the team learned while working with José Andrés.  He totally cracks me up when he pronounces Oaxacan wok-see-can… and we practice saying it wa-ha-can.


We were intrigued by the description of Guacamole of the feathered serpent ($17), a plate of guacamole, smoked Mt. Lassen trout, trout roe, and housemade tortilla chips.  Now, I really have to tell you that these chips are sublime!  Making them is a two day process, the kitchen soaks the corn in a solution of water and lime and then grinds it to make masa which is then formed into tortillas in a hand press. They also have a dedicated tortilla cook, who cooks the tortillas on the wood-fired comal (griddle).  The chips are robust and crunchy, flavorful and addictive on their own, they are magical when topped with guacamole, smoked trout and trout roe!


Of course we had to try the chapulines (fried grasshoppers), which have been consumed in Oaxaca since prehispanic times.  They were served separately in a little cup, and were so small that they looked like sea monkeys or brine shrimp.  I actually was relieved they were so tiny and not big crunchy things…  After being thoroughly cleaned and washed, they are toasted on a comal (clay cooking surface) with garlic, lime juice and salt and have a savory, earthy flavor, a little chewy like dried shrimp, but salty and of the earth.


We loved the idea of masa crusted veal sweetbreads ($5 each), but the delicate sweetbreads were overwhelmed by the other flavors and could have been breaded and fried anything.  But since I loved fried foods, this taco still spoke to me, the crisplyy fried batter, creamy slices of avocado, pickled chiles and fruit on those amazing tortillas!


The tacos made with sauteed wild mushrooms, guacamole, salsa verde cocida ($4 ea) were hefty and robust, the pickled onions added bursts of flavor.  


We got a couple of dishes that we had talked about ordering, but none of us remember officially ordering…  The Tacos de Chapulines, ($6) was one of these dishes, especially after we had just been sprinkling the tiny grasshoppers over the guacamole appetizer.  The taco was strewn with white onion petals, Oaxacan chapulines, mezcal, mole verde ($6).   It looked like fried onions but was more like savory dried and salted meat…


We moved onto the  Ceviche de Atún Estilo José, meaty chunks of line caught yellow fin tuna lightly bathed with maggi-lime marinade, toasted crispy amaranth, and pecans ($14).  People love their Maggi sauce, you have to read this post from Dylan who explores the wide variety found in the world, many are from Mexico.  Maggi is not shoyu (soy sauce), but it is similar.  The flavors of maggi and lime are very much like ponzu, but more reserved. We asked for some tortilla chips  because they are the perfect vehicle to scoop up ceviche, and were surprised the dish did not include them.


Another dish came that we didn’t remember ordering, the local halibut crudo, with avocado slices, salsa Mexicana, toasted hominy ($13).  It wasn’t as tasty as the other ceviche, but the fish was fresh and delicious on its own.


From the special Day of the Dead menu, Broken Arrow Ranch venison heart, pickled cactus, pasilla de Oaxacan, mole de pepita ($16).  I had the juicy Peruvian Anticuchos in mind, but this was a cold dish with pickled nopales, and the meat was chewy and rubbery… not what I was hoping for, but we got more chips!


Ben ordered Roasted cauliflower ($9), salsa placera, shallots, which tasted a bit burnt rather than roasted


We gobbled up our entree, braised pork shank ($24), black bean espuma, salsa verde, which was served with four handmade Anson Mills nixtamal tortillas.  The meat was flavorful and tender, the salsa was bright and spicy, it was all so good rolled up in the handmade tortilla that we had to request another order of tortillas.


We were too full to consider dessert, but I decided to try the Molten Oaxaca drinking chocolate, toasted coconut milk, chocolate espuma, Oaxacan sea salt ($7).  It was bitter, salty, thick and foamy, I think it would have been better with a shot of mescal!


I got a dish to go for Mr. K, who was home and hungry.  I asked our server for something that would travel well, and she suggested the chicken with mole sauce, which was sweet and rather bland, and considering the price of $28, a bit pricey for what it was… and it did not include the amazing tortillas!


The food was delicious – truly a feast for the senses, the setting was magical and we had a lovely time exploring the menu and catching up.  You should gorge on the delicious appetizers, tacos and intriguing cocktails, but be aware that the entrees are a bit pricy and watch out for being charged for extra chips or tortillas… I’m excited to report that they are serving brunch with my favorite dish, chilaquiles, so I’m definitely coming back!

Calavera Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben @Focus:Snap:Eat November 3, 2015 at 1:14 pm

Haha, thanks for trying the bugs with me, although it wasn’t as “Survivor”-esque as I thought it might be. I don’t remember eating the ceviches! It must have been that salt foam margarita! Although I thought service was a bit scrambled and food was creative but not taste-explosions, the $50 per person seems pretty reasonable for all we ate. Remember, it includes tax, tip and alcohol! So that seems like a smart amount to spend for a night out. 🙂


foodhoe November 3, 2015 at 2:59 pm

That’s funny that you don’t remember the ceviche, but those dishes were not that memorable… I had a fun time with you all and can’t wait to go back for their brunch and chilaquiles


Rosa November 4, 2015 at 2:37 am

Great food! Everything looks really appetising.




grace November 5, 2015 at 7:28 am

you are much, much braver than i, but i’m impressed by the beautiful presentation of each dish! i could go for the drink, at least. 🙂


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