Little Whims, Big Flavors

Tamarindo scores in downtown Oakland with Mexican alta cocina.

No chimichanga combo plate here: Tamarindo lines its trio of sopecitos, cornmeal cakes the size of votive candles, on a foot-long ceramic rectangle, the culinary equivalent of a blank white wall. One is topped with a fervidly spiced blend of chorizo and potatoes, the second with a tangle of dark-green roasted poblano chiles and a dollop of crema. A lone prawn curlicues up from its nest of shaved lettuce on the third.

Tamarindo, which just opened at 8th Street and Broadway in Old Oakland, calls itself an antojeria, or a restaurant specializing in antojitos, the snacks and street foods that most Anglos think of as the entire world of Mexican cuisine: tacos, quesadillas, tostadas, gorditas, tamales, and a thousand and one other delights. Indeed, the word means “little whim,” which best describes the role it plays in daily life. Walk the streets of Mexico City and you’ll pass businessmen milling around pushcarts, daintily scarfing mid-morning pork-jowl tacos. Old Indian women wait by the curb, their propylene-heated griddles warming a handful of blue-corn dumplings stuffed with cheese. Cookbook author Diana Kennedy calls Mexicans “the most persistent noshers in the world.”

A meal at Tamarindo means tiling your table with a half-dozen or more little whims whose names you may recognize from taco stands, only to realize you really don’t know them. This is the food you’d find in bistros in chic Distrito Federal neighborhoods such as Polanco or Condesa: at once delicate and soulful, reverent of tradition but internationally chic.

Chef and owner Gloria Dominguez even works her magic on flan, the sweet most of us can’t get far enough away from. Tamarindo’s flan de coco was good enough to erase the last dozen mediocrities I’ve suffered through — the custard as unctuous as a pat of butter, with a scattering of nutty toasted coconut and just enough caramel to trickle over the sides. Same with the other dessert on the menu: A pair of crepes, with their dainty folds and whipped-cream tufts, oozed golden cajeta, a sort of dulce de leche (caramelized cows’ milk) tempered by the subdued funk of goats’ milk.

Dominguez has been tracking North Americans’ interest in alta cocina mexicana for years. The Jalisco-born chef has owned Salsa, a taqueria in Antioch, since 1989. She started off making burritos and tacos, but as her business expanded she added more sophisticated fare. Then, when Fonda Solana opened on Solano Avenue, specializing in Mexican small plates, Dominguez realized, gosh, you can do that and be successful? She intensified her travels around her native country, picking up regional specialties from all over — Nayarit, Oaxaca, Puebla, Yucatan — and studying the food of culinary revolutionaries such as Patricia Quintana.

Dominguez called on her architect son, Alfonso, to turn an office space in Old Oakland into a restaurant. His fiancée, Johnelle Mancha, contributed art to the walls and Oliveto experience to the friendly service. Now the restaurant is as lovely as the food served inside: Higher than it is wide, with floor-to-ceiling windows across the front and exposed brick along the sides, Tamarindo seats a few dozen diners at chunky, blond-wood tables, all with a full view of the open kitchen. When the tables fill up — and Tamarindo is small, so they do — you may get shunted to the charmless side hall, next to the linen room and the bathroom. If you see that happening, make a play to move out front, which recent warm weather has turned into some of the best tables in the place.

Many of Dominguez’ antojitos are no bigger than a couple of bites. Dip just one of her empanaditas in its fruity tomatillo salsa, and the rest of the cornmeal half-moons stuffed with a mix of sour cream, chopped shrimp, and green onions may disappear before you’ve stopped inhaling. Same with the crispy tacos of prawns and roasted chiles, or the Oaxacan tamal stuffed with pork. The cooks make chunky, sweet tortillas the size of coasters (to order, no less) for classic tacos of tongue, grilled chicken, or roasted chiles. One of my favorite whims was the tostaditas de tinga poblana, miniature tostadas with shredded chicken and caramelized onions coated in a smoky, almost sweet chipotle sauce.

A few of the simplest dishes fell flat. Chunky guacamole served with totopos (corn chips) lacked enough lime and salt to reveal its flavors. And queso fundido, a casserole of melted Oaxacan string cheese topped with crumbled chorizo, seemed as if it should have a primal stoner appeal, but the cheese was bland and congealed.

On my first visit, it was hard to know how to make a full meal. It required a good eight or nine plates to satisfy four people, though the total price ended up being $30 per person with drinks and dessert. We complemented the antojitos with a bowl of frijoles charros, Northern-style pinto beans cooked with bacon, which came so close to the beans a Texas-born friend’s grandfather made that she alternated between oohing and sighing. We also filled out the menu with tortas. Tamarindo’s sandwiches, served on soft white rolls, are subtler than the griddled carb-bombs I love to get at taquerias — that is, unless you get the ahogada, a Jalisco specialty, in which case the cooks take a simple roast pork and refried-bean sandwich and drench it in a tear-inducing salsa of chiles de arbol.

My friends and I must not have been the only diners wondering over more substantial dishes, because a specials menu appeared on my second visit. It included a larger version of the spectacular chicken with tamarind mole that I’d tasted my first time out — molasses-y tamarind puree melding perfectly with the mild dried chiles — as well as steak, cochinita pibil (Yucatecan pit-roasted pork), and garlic shrimp.

The two entrées we tried that night lacked the whimsy and delight of the antojitos. A pounded, grilled steak was exactly the same tough, fibrous cut of beef you’ll get at any taqueria. The carnitas were certainly good — caramelized chunks of marinated pork shoulder that broke down into long shreds when you pressed into them with a knife — but not as thrilling as the carnitas I would crawl on hot tar to my favorite International Boulevard taco trucks to eat. Both large plates came with cheese-stuffed Anaheim chiles, a mound of salsa cruda, a few tortillas for rolling the meat in, and $14-$15 price tags. Clearly, the formula still needs tweaking, but I’m excited to see how Tamarindo will evolve.

Dominguez hopes to return to her home state some day for training in tequila lore, but just getting the restaurant open was a higher priority than filing for a full liquor license. Instead, she offers sangria, beer, a short wine list of Spanish and South American wines, and, of course, tamarindo. Like everything else she makes, the agua fresca was no syrupy concoction, but something lighter, cleaner, and altogether finer.

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