Calavera has opened with a flourish in Uptown Oakland, bringing a flavorful menu of Oaxacan-focused Mexican food and artistry along with it. The restaurant, which opened to the public over the weekend, is a labor of love from partners Chris Pastena (Lungomare), and Jessica Sackler (Coqueta, Oyamel) and Miguel Iglesias (Coqueta, Oyamel), located in new mixed-use development The Hive.
Chef Christian Irabien's menu is a colorful ode to the food and traditions of Mexico,focusing mostly on the Oaxacan region, though he is originally from Chihuahua, MX. The chef, who was previously at Jose Andres' Oyamel in Washington, DC, is bringing many traditional methods of cooking to the forefront, using a custom-designed wood-burning grill and plancha alongside ingredients like huitlacoche and chapulinas (grasshoppers). The tortillas are a particular point of pride, made using heirloom corn from Anson Mills that the Calavera team turns into masa each day through the process of nixtamlization (which involves soaking the corn in lime and grinding it into masa). A sedicated tortillera is on hand, forming each tortilla by hand before cooking it on the plancha. "We're one of the few going to these lengths," said Irabien. "But you can really taste the difference."
Along those lines, the menu includes many hard-to-duplicate details, such as the chapulinas that have been hand-foraged from an agave plantation in Oaxaca. The grasshoppers are cleansed, sun-dried, toasted with chiles and lime, and sent directly to Calavera, where they adorn the guacamole and appear throughout the menu. Other dishes include ceviches made from super-fresh, locally caught fish that are treated almost like sushi, sliced thinly and marinated to order, as well as Irabien's complex, 35 ingredient mole sauce. (Check out the full menu here.)
On the beverage side are more distinctive details, including an extensive wine list from wine director Jessica Sackler (something of an anomaly at many Mexican restaurants). Expect a large selection of rieslings (both dry and off-dry), as well as wines from Mexico, Europe and California. Additionally, there is a selection of wine made by Mexican-American producers from Sonoma and Napa, an oft-overlooked part of wine country's heritage. And in the cocktail zone, expect a series of boldly flavored drinks incorporating ingredients like passionfruit, ginger and chile as well as a selection of Oaxacan salts spiked with guajillo chiles, ground agave worms and chapulinas. The bar, which is managed by Michael Iglesias, also boasts over 150 bottles of mezcals and tequilas, many of which are hard to find.
The vibrant space was designed by Oakland architecture firm Arcsine, along with the team at Calavera. Inside the former industrial building, 18-foot ceilings feature a sculpture made by local Mexican-American welders from which hand-carved wooden hummingbirds hang, as well as hand-crafted light fixtures from artist Louise Mann. A leather-topped bar features traditional patterns, complementing colorful handmade tiles and wooden shelves designed to mimic the "cantina walls" found in Mexico. Colorful Oaxacan folk art sculptures, called alebrijes, are scattered throughout. And though the weather can't quite compete with Mexico, an outdoor patio strung with lights makes the most of sunnier, East Bay weather.
The restaurant is now open seven days per week for dinner, with the following hours: Monday - Thursday from 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday from 5:30 p.m.-11:00 p.m. and Sundays from 5:30 p.m.- 10:00 p.m. Lunch and breakfast will join the party in the next few months.