With no mid-week review, our local patriarch of food criticism was free to burn up all his best lines and fire metaphors on a sort-of update at Fenix, the (mostly) Mexican restaurant that "rises from the ashes" of the two-star TBD. After an 18-month closure, the Americana-meets-Wes Anderson vibe is gone, in favor of a colorful loteria theme that "feels like it belongs South of Market, but gives nods to Mexico" with a menu geared towards family-style dining.
While there aren’t any tacos to be found, chef-owner Mark Liberman’s menu is full of "personal twists" like guacamole topped with toasted rice for a "nutty flavor an texture" that Bauer enjoys, but will likely infuriate the same purists who couldn’t handle peas in their guac. While there are a couple "exceptional" starters like a squash blossom quesadilla or queso fundido, it’s the large plates and the "little tastes" that really stoke Bauer’s appetite. A pork shank arrives "rising above the cazuela," the grilled flank steak carne asada is "expertly charred" and the braised goat is "barely tamed by the smoky sauce. Where Lieberman and company go cold, however, are in some of the under-seasoned sides and the bland California brown rice that doesn’t get much flavor from the tomato sauce alone.
With no margaritas to be had here, Bauer remains sober enough to call the sangrias on the menu "very good." Which is more of less his assessment of the entire restaurant. Although Lieberman takes some liberties with the techniques, the food is far from boring. The verdict: Two and a half stars for Fenix, and a note that, "authenticity can be debated but in the end, good is good."
Over at the Weekly, Pete Kane dives headfirst into Bellota’s "wonderland of rich, salty goodness" where you’re almost certainly going to order too much food from the not-really-tapas, not-really-seafood menu. Contributing to this overconsumption is the "must-have" Mar y Montana - a five-tiered tower of cold meat and seafood that proudly announces your affinity for opulence to the rest of the room.
Elsewhere on the menu, Kane finds a nice combo of paella with the Pluma (pork shoulder, saffron, summer squash) and the Fideua — apparently a revved up take on Rice-a-Roni with shrimp, scallops and squid. Despite his usual skepticism of ingredients deemed "trendy," Mr. Kane is happy munching on edible flowers and purslane. A plate of three clam and sea urchin croquetas was "superb," even if they were "so rich that one might be all you need." But it was the Fabada stew with Asturian white beans, chorizo, pork belly and grilled octopus that was "one of the best things [he’s] eaten in months" — a "glorious blood sausage kimchi stew" that he enjoyed even more as leftovers.
With his belly full, Kane’s only gripe actually comes from upstairs, where Airbnb’s headquarters threaten to break up the intimate feel. And, more importantly, you have to walk through the "echoey" atrium to get to the bathroom. Overall: a glowing review for Bellota, which "has a few things going for it" other than just it’s proximity to a tech company.
Parekoy Lutong Pinoy
After hitting a classic last week, Luke Tsai is having a pork party at Parekoy Lutong Pinoy, "San Leandro’s newest Filipino restaurant." The place was born out of some "big, blowout" dinner parties between two families and blossomed into a real restaurant after 15 years. Now with cooks Arnold Minor and Julio Pacheco (the Parekoy, or "good buddies" from the name) in the kitchen, Tsai reports they’re turning out "some of the tastiest homestyle Filipino food that I’ve eaten. Bar none."
The family-style portions are generous, the menu is "expansive" and everything is cooked to order, unlike many of the East Bay’s steam-table Filipino joints. And these guys are apparently the kings of crispy pork belly, which factors into half a dozen or more dishes, and really shines in the pork sisig that’s not only dramatic on the table, but also drives Tsai to eat the leftovers cold and straight out of the container. The restaurant also makes "liberal use" of the deep-fryer for standout lumpia, chicharon bulaklak (a fried organ that comes from a pig’s small intestine) or the "crispy B" — another take on deep-friend pork belly served over a whole dee-fried eggplant. In fact, the only disappointment was a dish that wasn’t fried — the peanut-based oxtail stew that came out a little thin and bland. All told, Tsai has a big warm spot for the Filipino family vibe, and don’t forget the desserts.