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Nicola Parisi

Japanese and Mexican Drinking Cultures Converge at Oakland’s New ‘Izakaya Cantina’

Good Luck Gato, from chef Kyle Itani and the duo behind Low Bar, takes over the former Hopscotch space

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Dianne de Guzman is a deputy editor at Eater SF writing about Bay Area restaurant and bar trends, upcoming openings, and pop-ups.

The ending of a storied restaurant can be sad. But in the case of 11-year-old Oakland restaurant Hopscotch, which closed in June, the end of the road came with a new project on the horizon, one that aims to bring vitality back to the San Pablo Avenue space.

Good Luck Gato, a new project from Hopscotch chef Kyle Itani, opens on Thursday, September 14. Itani brought in two familiar faces on the project: Low Bar co-owners and Hopscotch alum, chef Matthew Meyer and partner Daniel Paez. Meyer served as Hopscotch sous chef for seven years, while Paez worked as a bartender there for four years before they opened Low Bar in 2020. When they began looking for a space for a new business, they asked Itani for his opinion on some possibilities; it coincided with the chef contemplating winding down his first restaurant. “I knew they were looking,” Itani says, “and I’m like, ‘Well, this could be a pretty low barrier to entry, just bring it over here’ and everything lined up — and it is great to get to work together again.”

Nicola Parisi
Nicola Parisi
Nicola Parisi

The restaurant and bar mixes Meyer’s Mexican background with the Japanese American food he cooked alongside Itani at Hopscotch. The food and drink menus feature elements of both cultures, forming a concept they describe as an “izakaya cantina,” a mix of casual Japanese and Mexican drinking establishments. “After being the sous chef at Hopscotch for so many years, I really fell in love with Japanese cuisine and really cut my teeth as a chef cooking it,” Meyer says. “Then once Kyle and I decided to collaborate on this new concept it was just kind of a natural connection that we felt between a food that we love and our respective heritages.”

The food will be a mix of small plates and larger house specials. From the raw bar, items like hamachi tartare tostada bring in cucumber, shiso, and jicama, topped with hazelnut salsa macha and a sanbaizu sauce typical of Japanese cucumber sunomono salad — except here made with prickly pear, prevalent in Mexico. Meyer points to the uni butter elote as a favorite. It features Brentwood corn boiled in dashi, then topped with uni butter, cotija cheese, Tapatio, and house-made furikake, resulting in a mix of flavors that Meyer calls “sweet and ocean-y.” The okonomiyaki baked potato stars a Russet topped with carnitas, tonkatsu sauce, and Kewpie mayo, then given a dose of scallions, kizami nori, and bonito flakes. Look for a black sesame Choco Taco topped with toasted pepitas and sesame seeds for dessert. “Some of these items are things that I cook for fun,” Meyer says adding that some of the dishes just didn’t fit on the Low Bar menu. “I’m excited because I get to cook this really fun style of food now, and make it fit into our concept.”

Nicola Parisi
Nicola Parisi

Paez created a list of cocktails that revisits Hopscotch’s hits. The Fistul of Pesos is his play on Hopscotch’s maple Old Fashioned, combining overproof rye with Mexican aged rum and an Ancho, Chipotle, and Morita-chile-infused maple syrup for a smoky, deep flavor that’s layered with bitters and a house-made mole tincture. The Emerald Zone is a savory cocktail that conjures the flavors of a sunomono salad with nori-infused tequila blanco, mezcal, and Suze. The booze gets balanced with cucumber juice, yuzu cordial, and lime, and topped with drops of sesame oil for an aromatic note. On the easier drinking side, there’s the classic beer and a shot combo, but at Good Luck Gato guests can choose between a Japanese beer and Mexican spirit pairing, or a Mexican lager and Japanese spirit, with rotating choices for both. The nonalcoholic drinks will get some special touches, such as the Amor Prohibido, a mix of hibiscus-jalapeno-ume shrub that once starred in a Low Bar cocktail, but is re-deployed here in soda water with lemon and bitters.

There will be a selection of beers from Dokkaebier and Hella Coastal, as well as a choice of red, white, and sparkling wines. There’s also a selection of sakes, such as the Maneki Wanko “Lucky Dog” sake packaged in a juice box. Paez is also a fan of Ozeki’s Ikezo Peach Sparkling Jelly sake, which requires guests to shake up the can to break up the jelly into drinkable bits. “It’s just delicious and silly and fun,” Paez says, “and that’s kind of where I wanted to keep a lot of the menu.”

Nicola Parisi

Paez credits the restaurant’s new interior design to Meyer. The walls of the former Hopscotch space have been lime-washed in a terracotta colorway, and the space is now decorated with cactuses and waving maneki-nekos. Amber vellum on the windows gives the dining area an amber glow when the light streams in. The look was based on the spaghetti Western movies Meyer grew up watching, a genre which he noted as being heavily influenced by Japanese movies like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo — fitting for Good Luck Gato. “There’s a sort of cultural bridge between the movies that I love,” Meyer says.

It’s a restaurant and bar the three co-owners call “joyful,” and “whimsical” and “fun”, although Meyer added one other descriptor: grateful. “We’re very, very grateful to be opening another restaurant in Oakland,” Meyer says, “I think everybody is becoming aware of navigating restaurants and small businesses in this post-COVID landscape and so we are very, very happy and honored to be able to continue to contribute to the super-diverse and amazing Oakland restaurant scene.”

Nicola Parisi
Nicola Parisi
Nicola Parisi
Nicola Parisi
Nicola Parisi
Nicola Parisi

Good Luck Gato (1915 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland) debuts Thursday, September 14 and will be open 5 to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

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