Before he jetted off to Italy, Michael Bauer took a swing through the Eastern Mediterranean at Tawla, where our predictable, 30-year-long Chron food critic found the homey sort of sophistication that owner Azhar Hashem was aiming for with her first restaurant. While Bauer loves the interior, he had some mixed reactions on his early visits to the two-month-old restaurant. But by his third review meal, "Flavors blossomed, and [he] could sense the kitchen becoming more confident."
Apparently all that time Delfina alum Joseph Magidow spent learning a new cuisine in Hashem’s mother’s kitchen paid off. "His enthusiasm for the food," Bauer says, "is infectious," and he has an appreciation for the cuisine even while tweaking it for northern California. The main highlight was the whole leg of lamb for four "roasted to rosy perfection" and big enough for Bauer to turn the leftovers into sandwiches for days.
Of the restaurant’s pricing and no-tipping policy: Bauer notes it "seems expensive" to pay $15 for a salad, but even beyond the "great ingredients" he feels the prices work because Hashem is ahead of the curve on wages and employee profit sharing. It remains to be seen whether diners will care about details like that, however, and Bauer still gives the place a "$$$$" rating on price. The bill aside, it's a glowing, two and a half stars for the "revelatory and humanizing" Tawla.
El Buen Comer
The Weekly’s Pete Kane takes a moment during his review of El Buen Comer to dish about the impact of our beloved La Cocina and his own culinary excursion to Mexico City last year, where he failed to find homemade tortillas as good as the ones that restaurateur-matriarch Isabel Caudillo and her kids are churning out at her two-month-old restaurant on Mission Street. In fact, our alt-weekly critic has never had tortillas as good as Caudillo’s, ever.
Likewise, the chicken tinga sopes were "close to flawless" and the ensalada de nopal "lacked any trace of the sliminess that occasionally clings to nopales" — so it’s clear Caudillo has had plenty of time to hone her craft between La Cocina and her popular stand at the Noe Valley Farmer’s Market. But the real winner here is the eponymous "el buen comer," a $40 deal that is "a greatest-hits version of whatever Caudillo’s got that night" and "feels simultaneously like a steal and a treat." On his dinner trip, Kane’s treat included an "unimpeachable" milanesa de res and the "thrill" of an off-menu breaded steak. The verdict: Slightly more expensive than your standard Mission Street Latin American fare, but quite worth the price.
In the East Bay, the Express’ Luke Tsai goes hunting for the "Chinese burger" at Famous Bao, where proprietor and Cal-grad Francis Sun has started importing dishes from his native China to fill a hole in Berkeley’s food scene. Sun runs the kitchen with his father Jiankang Sun, who used to work at Z&Y Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown (a favorite of Michael Bauer and Cecilia Chang), so the menu is both Shaanxi- and Sichuan-inspired, and apparently draws a big crowd of international students.
The Shaanxi cuisine is the big draw here, Tsai says, and those rou jia mo Chinese burgers are a campus-adjacent steal at $3 apiece, despite being a little "too bready." The meaty fillings, however, are "uniformly excellent," with standouts like the red-cooked pork belly and shoulder, or the simply named "spicy beef" with "delightful gelatinous bits" and a strong star anise flavor. The verdict: an authentic Shaanxi steal, with no menu items more than $10. (Though sadly, no actual bao yet, due to some kitchen issues.)