.Alma’s Got Soul

Oakland’s new Mexican cocina goes beyond tacos and burritos

Alma’s empanada dough is tender at the center and perfectly crisped around the edges. The chicken tinga ($4) is topped with shreds of iceberg lettuce, queso fresco crumbles, sour cream and salsa. The vegetarian option is made with potato and pasilla chiles (a plate of three is $12). Linda Bradford, Alma’s owner, said that they’re the best-selling item on the menu. “They’re made fresh every day because they’re so fragile,” she said.

Over the course of several months leading up to the July opening, she and her team kept refining their approach to cooking them. The biggest problem involved figuring out the timing. Not frying them for long enough left them underdone, but they came out greasy when fried for too long. In the end, the “R&D” process worked. The crunchy, fully cooked empanada we ate wasn’t at all oily.

Bradford takes a similar approach to tortillas and tamales, making the tortillas by hand every day. “We only serve a couple of tamales a day because they need to be fresh and perfect,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s not worth having them on the menu.” The kitchen is also responsible for making a house-made chorizo and soyrizo, and a dessert flan.

On the same block as Alma, Bradford also owns the adjacent businesses Bar Three Fifty-Five and Parlour. She joined Travis Dutton and Patrick Lynch to open Bar Three Fifty-Five in 2010. At the time, she described the neighborhood as “pretty bare.” But she believed in Oakland’s potential and moved ahead with the project. When the space next door became available in 2015, they decided to open Parlour, a restaurant serving “Cal-Italian” cuisine.

Parlour, Bradford said, was more of a craft than a construction project. “We used reclaimed wood,” she said, adding, “I really care about the environment.” Bradford graduated from college with a bachelor’s in architecture, but to build out Parlour—“a labor of love”—she obtained a contractor’s license. As well as composting at both restaurants, Alma is in the process of rolling out more vegan and vegetarian dishes.

Bradford’s inspiration for opening Alma came directly from working with her employees. Stating her general approach to running a business, she said, “If it weren’t for my employees, I wouldn’t have a restaurant—and if it weren’t for my employees, I wouldn’t have a restaurant.” Opening a third business after the pandemic wasn’t a daunting prospect for her. “I can say that no matter how strong your stomach is [for the restaurant industry], when you don’t have the right employees I don’t think you can do it.”

Enriqueta Ruiz collaborates with Bradford, playing an instrumental role at Alma. Ruiz manages Alma and also helped in the development of the menu recipes, including a mole sauce from her native state of Puebla in Mexico.

“I named it ‘Alma’ because it means soul,” Bradford said. “We’re trying to give the restaurant, and the community, some character.” When Parlour opened, downtown Oakland was a destination location. Since then, apartment buildings opened around the corner. “Now we have a little bit of a neighborhood here,” she said.

Quick to greet us when we arrived at Alma, Ruiz brought us our drinks immediately after we ordered them. Her presence helps to warm the as-yet-unfinished interior. With only a few awkwardly placed tables and a few stools for bar seating, the restaurant looks like an informal taqueria comparable to Gordo’s, my go-to weeknight burrito spot. Where it differs from Gordo’s is in the range and quality of the dishes.

The carnitas taco ($4) was filled with a tender, fatty pork confit, tomatillo salsa, pickled red onion and cilantro. Alma’s taco menu also features a beer-battered cod and a carne asada, as well as a version with mixed vegetables. It’s worth the effort, though, to order more substantial dishes. The dark mole sauce on the chicken enchiladas ($14) was smokey and nicely spiced. Served with warm tortillas to soak up a stewed tomato sauce, the chile relleno plate ($14) was the epitome of comfort food at its best.

Alma, 361 19th St., Oakland. Open Tues–Wed 11am to 3pm and 5–10pm; Thurs–Fri 11am to 3pm and 5pm–1am; Sat 10am to 3pm and 5–10pm. 510.607.7014. almabarcocina.com

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