Good Luck Gato’s dining room leads with the color red. It’s the color of the bar and the kitchen door that waitstaff walk through as they carry numerous plates to the hungry diners. The neutral walls are a complementary washed-out shade of adobe. If it weren’t for the black-and-white samurai film playing overhead throughout our dinner, the restaurant’s décor would suggest a culinary tour of the Southwest.
Self-described by co-owners Kyle Itani, Daniel Paez and Matthew Meyer as “Oakland’s first izakaya cantina,” it could probably be argued that Good Luck Gato is also one of America’s first izakaya cantinas—although Mexican sushi is now a thing. Located at the tail end of San Pablo Avenue, a few blocks west of the Fox Theater and the Paramount Theatre, absolutely no parking was available nearby when we arrived. Be prepared to walk a couple of blocks, or plan on taking a ride-hailing service.
Fusion is the easiest way to describe the food on Good Luck Gato’s menu. Another way to think about the mix of Japanese and Mexican elements is that it’s all really, really good. Kara’age ($14) appeared to be the most-ordered dish of the night, even if, in this case, fusion was essentially limited to a side of escabeche mayo. Every few minutes, a server brought out a plate piled high with pieces of buttermilk fried chicken. The portion was enormous. We nibbled at the plate until dessert and, even then, didn’t manage to finish it.
Like most izakayas, the concept at Good Luck Gato is to pair a series of small plates with drinks. The cocktail menu also infuses ingredients and liquors from both cultures. Lady Snowbird ($15) combines gin, nigori saké, lychee and citrus with a coconut-oat horchata.
My tart-but-pleasant, non-alcoholic Green Hill Zone ($8) included cucumber juice, yuzu, lime, soda water and an undetectable trace of sesame oil. Gato serves local beers by Dokkaebier and Hella Coastal; glasses, cans or boxes of saké; and wines from France, Spain and Mexico.
A trio of appetizers demonstrated the kitchen’s light-handed approach, as ostensibly disparate flavors melded rather than clashed. Potato, Oaxaca cheese, peppers and onion filled three golden croquettes ($9) to cut into and dip in a tonkatsu sauce and karashi mustard. The tri-tip tataki ($14) was sliced paper thin and served rarer—bright pink—than I tend to order. But draping it in a wasabi salsa verde and deep-fried strips of corn chips added spice and crunch to every bite.
A lot is going on in the miso Caesar wedge salad ($11), but not enough to drown out the little gem-lettuce leaves. They’re tossed in an egg-yolk dressing and coated with white miso, cotija cheese, boquerones and a crunchy tempura crisp. If I had the recipe for this salad, I’d eat it regularly for lunch.
The Mexican and Japanese ingredient combination made its biggest impression in the loaded baked potato ($12). The chef split open a russet potato and stuffed it until it was stacked and overflowing with carnitas, guajillo butter, tonkatsu sauce, kewpie mayo, scallions, kizami nori and bonito flakes. Again, this sounds like too many ingredients fighting each other for attention, but what stood out was the flavor of the carnitas.
They’re a callback to the memorable adobo barbecue ribs Chef Meyer serves at his and Paez’s other Oakland restaurant, Low Bar. Of course, the carnitas could have starred in tacos, but the point of Good Luck Gato is to expand upon the familiar. And, Meyer does serve his carnitas at Low Bar in the form of a sandwich with roasted yams and a cabbage slaw ($16).
Between a raspberry sorbet with candied jalapeños ($7) and a black sesame choco taco ($10), the sorbet didn’t stand a chance. Good Luck Gato has recreated the famous—currently discontinued—Choco Taco novelty. The waffle-shell cone is made with coconut, then dipped and coated in chocolate. Inside lies a healthy scoop of vanilla gelato topped with black sesame seeds and toasted pepitas. This recipe alone should justify a worldwide comeback for the dessert.
Good Luck Gato, 1915 San Pablo Ave., Oakland. Open Wed-Sun from 5-10pm. 510.788.6217. goodluckgato.com