Californians have long been aficionados of flavors from south of the border. But there's much more to Mexican food than tacos, tequila and guac.
Oaxaca, the mecca of Mexican culture known for its culinary artistry and handcrafted mezcal, is on the tip of every foodie wanderluster's tongue these days. (Culture vultures, too, will find much to love: UNESCO recognizes Oaxaca as a piece of Intangible Cultural Heritage.) The region's gastro-cultural treasures—think memelas, tlayudas, enmoladas and molé—have been making a splash on Bay Area menus of late. If you have hankering for heirloom tortillas or you're craving the smoky satisfaction of a well-crafted mezcal, look no farther than these local kitchens.
The East Bay sister of Octavio Diaz's Agave restaurant and tequila bar in Healdsburg, Agave Uptown opened in Oakland's Kapor Center for Social Impact in 2016. You'll find authentic inspiration in every detail of the modern space, from the Zapotec patterns on the tiled bathroom walls to the heavy hand-blown glasses that Diaz orders directly from Oaxacan artisans.
Approachable and easy to navigate, the menu also promises a real taste of Mexico's region du jour, with Oaxacan dishes you may not find elsewhere locally. Eat your research with an open-faced tlayuda, a thin, crispy disc of handmade masa topped with black beans, cabbage, Oaxacan quesillo, and avocado; seasoned tasajo (thinly sliced grilled beef); and tasty molotes, basically fried triangles of masa stuffed with chorizo and potato. The chicken enmoladas, grilled molcajete, and cecina pork may also catch your eye, but the star of the menu is Diaz's five-day molé, a sauce of some 20 ingredients, many of which are sourced directly from Oaxaca.
"Oaxaca is its own little world of flavors within Mexico, where the farming and cooking techniques of our ancestors are still preserved with a lot of pride," Diaz says. "Agave Uptown brings original recipes from three generations, and molé negro is our main weapon." said Diaz. (The dish easily clinched a spot on 7x7's Big Eat Oakland in 2017.)
There's no Oaxacan meal without mezcal, and the creative cocktails here range from smoky and sweet to more spirit-forward. The drinks are also named for regional cultural icons, including Monte Alban (the ancient pyramids), Miguel Cabrera (an 18th century painter), and Los Niños Triquis (the indigenous youth basketball team that won the 2016 Copa Barcelona). You can also order your mezcal straight up. It is served with orange slices and sal de gusano (worm salt); the bartenders are happy to guide you through a few probes (samples) before you make a commitment. // 2135 Franklin St. (Oakland), agaveuptown.com
Opened in Oakland's Hive in 2015, the industrial-chic Calavera serves its guacamole with house-nixtamilized tortilla chips and chicatanas (flying ants) or chapulines (grasshoppers). Of course, these crunchy Mexican snacks aren't trendy—they have been eaten in Oaxaca for ages.
While Calavera crafts elevated plates inspired by various regions in Mexico, you'll find a heavy nod to Oaxaca in dishes including rustic tomato-pepper nopales (cactus); shrimp and octopus aguachiles (ceviche); adobe-marinated puerco al pastor (grilled pork chop); and an impressive array of original molé chile sauces, including a molé negro made with more than 30 ingredients.
"Our inspiration came from really spending time there and meeting people from the area," says owner Chris Pastena. "It's really the whole city—the vibe and the air and the energy. There's no better place to be high on mezcal, which is to be high on life."
Murals of mezcaleros grace the walls at Calavera and the shelves are decorated with playful alebrijes (imaginary animals). And of course there's plenty of mezcal and tequila to drink, with 130 varietals from which to choose. Neophytes would be wise to try the weekly rotating flights of three one-ounce pours to get the flavor and complexity, from smoky to fruity to vegetal, of various producers and regions. For those who can't take it straight, the bar crafts beautifully balanced and inventive mezcal cocktails. // 2337 Broadway (Oakland), calaveraoakland.com
A modern icon in the Berkeley food scene, Comal, a cavernous wood-fired dining space, has been serving elevated Mexican dishes since 2012. Having both worked in Oaxacan kitchens and taken culinary courses there, chef-partner Matt Gandin incorporates the city's gastronomic cues into his California menu.
Here you'll find some of the usual suspects—masa-encased empanadas; seasonal memelas (toasted masa cakes with a variety of toppings); and several different molés (amarillo, coloradito, and negro)—as well as a few interesting and inspired dishes; the tripe guisado, a stew of tripe, bacon, chiles, pork trotters and spices, has a cult following.
Gandin adapts Oaxacan recipes to use a combination of more readily available ingredients, which include mulatto, ancho and cascabel chiles, seeds, nuts, dried fruits, plantains, vegetables and spices that are individually fried or toasted before being blended and slowly simmered. "I like to think that if someone were transported from Oaxaca and dropped at the local farmer's market, that they might take a similar approach," he says.
Similar love is given to the mezcal, which is selected with a consideration for production and sustainability. An ample array of mezcals are served in one- and two-ounce pours, along with fresh fruit and sal de chicharrón (a blend of finely ground pork rind, chiles, and salt). // 2020 Shattuck Ave. (Berkeley), comalberkeley.com
A modern neighborhood watering hole with a few tricks up its sleeve (and behind its bar), Russian Hill's Mezcalito has been slinging mezcal flights and Oaxaca-inspired small plates since the fall of 2016.
It's true that dishes such as rock cod tacos, chorizo tostadas and decadent prime rib empanadas are more elevated than Oaxaca's truly authentic family recipes, but there's still a fair amount of fun in the way that each is executed. The queso fundido is a hearty hot dish of oozing Oaxacan cheese mixed with slow-cooked black beans and finished with a mist of mezcal, while the raw Miyagi oysters are topped with a smoked mignonette reminiscent of the mezcal you came here to taste.
You won't find rare chiles or roasted grasshoppers, but you'll likely find something to nosh on between sips of spirits of the agave variety. Select from some 75 bottles, including flavor-infused harvest mezcals and a lengthy list of wild and rare agaves. You'll find traditional smoky spirits made from giant espadin plants, as well as lesser-known varietals like tobala, madre cuixe, and palpate. Go for a flight of three. For the true mezcal maven, a locker program allows you to store personal bottles onsite. // 2323 Polk St. (SF), mezcalitosf.com