When I was younger, one of my favorite movie scenes came from Beauty and the Beast and involved Belle rejoicing in her newfound library by swinging excitedly on a ladder from shelf to shelf, picking up novel after novel. When I walked into Oakland's Calavera last week, I instantly felt that same rush of excitement when I saw the bartenders swinging from shelf to shelf via an old, wooden ladder. But instead of books, expert hands reached for tequila—shelf after shelf of tequila.
A labor of love from partners Chris Pastena (Lungomare), Jessica Sackler (Coqueta) and Miguel Iglesias (Coqueta), Calavera whips up strictly Oaxacan fare in Uptown's new mixed-use center The Hive (which also houses Drake's gigantic new beer garden).
The Salt Air (left) is a must-order, a margarita dolloped with Oaxacan salt foam rather than the more-traditional salt rim. On the right, fresh chapulinas (grasshoppers) are served with guacamole and chips.
Chef Christian Irabien's family-style menu brings Mexico's bold and traditional cooking methods to the forefront, using a custom-designed wood-burning grill and plancha. For instance: the tortillas are made using heirloom corn from Anson Mills that the Calavera team turns into masa each day. A dedicated tortillera is on hand, forming each tortilla by hand before cooking it on the plancha.
To start, order the Salt Air. A margarita dolloped with salt foam rather than a salt rim, the flavors and textures melt together perfectly for a unique cocktail that will have you signaling for another the moment your cup runneth dry. If you're an adventurous eater, I recommend adding chapulines to your order of chips and guac. A Mexican delicacy, the grasshoppers are hand-foraged from an agave plantation in Oaxaca, cleansed, sun-dried, toasted with chiles and lime, and sent directly to Calavera, where they add a welcome crunch throughout the menu.
The bar, which is managed by Michael Iglesias, boasts over 150 bottles of mezcals and tequilas, many of which are hard to find.
Other superb dishes included an octopus ceviche made from super-fresh, locally caught fish that were sliced thinly, marinated to order, and absolutely amazing and a birria (chile-chocolate braised goat, roasted tomato broth, mezcal preserved cherries) that had me speechless for a good 20 minutes (a side effect or trying to put too much into my mouth at once). But here's the real reason I plan to head back to Calavera in the very near future, and already make reservations for my birthday: the cochinita pibil taco. This taco has haunted me for the past week. Made with baby pig, mayan axiote rub, sour orange marinade, and xni pec, it is the stuff dreams are made from. Just remember to add a side of nopales.
Not the baby pig, but another equally good taco option made with masa crusted veal sweetbreads, avocado, Fresno escabeche, dragon fruit.
For dessert, opt for the arroz con leche. You won't regret it. And then go ahead and ask for another cocktail, with almost 400 different kinds of tequila and mezcal on the menu, no one is judging.
// Cavalvera is located at 2337 Broadway, Oakland. Make your reservations at calaveraoakland.com