2337 Broadway, Oakland | 510.338.3273 | website
I am lucky to have friends with connections because I got to tag along when Brenda who writes Bites & Bourbon was invited to dine as a guest of the house at Calavera in Oakland last month. We went to check out the changes in the menu since Chef Sophina Uong (@girlslantee) took over the kitchen last March, just 6 months after the restaurant opened. They aim to provide the very best Mexican region-inspired cuisine combined with the rebel spirit of Oakland and we were so excited to sample Chef Sophina’s unique spin on this. The restaurant is very festive and upbeat, airy because of the high ceilings and is full of brightly colored Oaxacan folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures (alebrijes) collected from the team’s travels, as well as many skulls or calavera, the restaurant’s namesake and a photo montage of Oaxacan agave fields behind the bar.
Chef Sophina Uong grew up in Long Beach, CA and has worked in many notable Bay Area restaurants in the last 25 years, both in the front of the house and in the kitchen at Lulu’s, Zare, Citizen Cake, Absinthe Brasserie in SF. She was the opening chef-partner at 900 Grayson, worked at Maritime East in Berkeley, Waterbar in San Francisco then was executive chef at Oakland’s Picán where she attracted a following for her eclectic cooking style and dedication to supporting small, organic, local farms; and most recently at Revival Kitchen + Bar in Berkeley. She frequently participates in competitions like the Lamb Jam and Cochon 555 Heritage Fire, and is actually going to be on tomorrow night’s episode of Chopped (that’s Tuesday July 12)! The restaurant is proudly going to host a viewing party too btw…
Our server came by with menus but told us that Chef Sophina had already planned a tasting menu for us, so we just sat back and enjoyed our cocktails, a margarita that is called the Salt Air ($13) because it is topped with a frothy Oaxacan salt foam, a molecular gastronomy feat that the team learned while working with José Andrés. A very modern drink made with Milagro blanco, luxardo triplum and lime served in an old fashioned coupe glass that is the perfect vehicle as it holds a thick layer of that lip smacking foamy salt air.
We went completely gaga over the Shrimp Coctel, tender shrimp all creamy and cool mixed with corn, pineapple, gypsy peppers, coconut milk, a little habanero kick and then it was topped with crisp shrimp shell chicharrones. What?! We swooned over the delicious decadence…
Next was Costillos de Puerco Asado: grilled pork ribs marinated with a flavorful dry rub of cascabel chili, chili negro and pilconcillo (a type of unrefined cane sugar) topped with insanely addictive housemade cucumber escabeche made with sherry vinegar and fish sauce. Yes, a bit of Asian flavors mixed in with Oaxaca! The ribs were so tender and finger licking good and we couldn’t stop eating the brightly flavorful pickles. We appreciated the the heated steamed hand towels they gave us to wipe off our sticky fingers.
Our server brought us a cocktail called the Corazon ($12), made with Pueblo Viejo Blanco tequila, lime, cilantro and toasted coriander, and cooled by a sphere of hibiscus ice. They also gave us a spicy citrus Margarita ($12) with a rim of spicy guajillo agave worm salt, an entertaining thing as neither of us usually drinks the hard stuff…
Esquites are the off-the-cob version of elotes—grilled Mexican street corn slathered with creamy, cheesy, lime-scented, chili-flecked sauce. Made with Brentwood corn, ghost peppers, crema epazote, queso fresco made by the Salazar family who have been making it for 30 years, dusted with chile pequin.
The next dish was a small, but spicy one, I bit into one of the roasted shishito peppers which felt like I just lit a match on my tongue! Crisp roasted fingerling potatoes with succulent flakes of Smoked Mt. Lassen trout, tiny tomatoes, orbs of trout roe, chili piquin, padron pepper, in a mole made with pasilla from Oaxaca.
We absolutely loved the Chili Relleno ($17), their version wasn’t battered and fried, just gypsy peppers filled with chihuahua cheese and cochinita pibil, axiote rubbed pork shoulder marinated with sour orange and wrapped in banana leaves and pit roasted in house and simmered in a vibrant red salsa infused with habanero and serrano peppers. Spicy but not too much and just rich enough with the crema and micro cilantro.
After the salt air margarita, this was our next favorite cocktail, the Princess de la Maricuyá, a tri-level extravaganza made with Mezcal, orange, Fresno, passion fruit, topped with ginger espuma, garnished with a laurel leaf and edible flower ($13). It had a thick creamy texture and bright tropical flavors, and before I knew it, it was gone. They also gave us a Puerto Escondido, a thoroughly modern pina colada made with smoky mezcal with Demerera rum and a house-made toasted coconut cream.
The drinks were followed by a beautiful platter of tender Monterey squid with spiced garbanzos, drizzled with wondrously crispy bits of rice and dusted with an amazing dehydrated shallot powder which gave so much oomph to the dish.
We were served an interesting pre-dessert dish of fried plantains drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, sprinkled with sesame seeds and topped with micro cilantro.
And then tender and custardy churros that were like deep fried souffles dusted with cinnamon sugar that were absurdly delicious dunked into the sweet and intoxicatingly fragrant passionfruit sauce or Oaxacan hot chocolate if that’s your thing.
My sincere thanks to Calavera and chef Sophina for a wonderful meal (and of course, to Brenda for bringing me along)! I was sad that we did not have a single chip or tortilla which had been a sort of obsession for me on previous visits, but we loved the flavors of the dishes that we sampled and no chips means less carbs… You can read about my previous dinner at Calavera here and brunch here. Yes, I’m coming back for more salt air foam margaritas and to sample the vivid flavors of Chef Sophina’s cuisine.