.Mesa Maguey celebrates mezcal and Mexico in Oakland

Tacos, tlayudas and memelas bless Broadway and 40th

East Bay residents are spoiled for taco choices. New restaurants such as Thomas Schnetz’s La Esquinita; Masa Tamales & Taqueria, with locations in El Cerrito and Richmond; and any number of roving taco trucks make inspired versions of tacos as well as many other Mexican dishes. This generation of taco chefs seems to use tantalizing magic formulas in lieu of humdrum recipes. Recently opened on Broadway and 40th in Oakland, Mesa Maguey is quickly establishing a place for itself among them.

In the front dining room and bar, the owners of Mesa Maguey replaced former tenant Copper Spoon’s blue booths with a set of smaller tables and chairs. The dropped ceiling creates an echo chamber in which the conversations of adjacent tables easily mingle together. With music added into the mix, the noise level escalates even with the front door open.

But the owners held onto the long line of comfortable blue-cushioned, sound-dampening benches in the back dining room. To further brighten up that space, they painted the walls the color of a freshly halved, under-ripened avocado. Large loteria-like paintings from a local artist—a rose-colored heart with fleshy ventricles, a mythical bird flying up towards a gossamer moon—have also shifted the cultural identity of the restaurant’s interior.

The Copper Spoon’s bar, decorated with white subway tiles, remains the same. And the high wooden shelves stacked with bottles of liquor also appear unchanged. But Mesa Maguey has rebranded it as an agave bar featuring flights of mezcal. For the June opening last month, it offered $10 cocktails made with hibiscus, tamarind or cucumber. In early July, the margarita special was made with watermelon and finished with a slice of lime. A non-alcoholic agua fresca was also made from hibiscus.

From 2pm to 6pm daily, Mesa Maguey’s Happy Hour menu provides a Bay Area rarity, a real meal deal. Without drinks, a table of two can order three filling entrées and a trio of salsas and chips ($4) for approximately $20 per person. Two beef barbacoa tacos, normally $12, land at $7 during Happy Hour. The beef, slowly cooked in a dried pepper adobo until tender, is simply adorned with pickled pink onions, cilantro and a green salsa. Thick, homemade corn tortillas served warm from the grill soak up the juice and sauce. Thin slices of a radish, a lime wedge and a small additional container of a second green salsa complete the plate.

Richmond’s Mi Casa Grill makes the most memorable plate of flautas I’ve ordered in the past couple of years, but Mesa Maguey’s proved nearly as good, at $9 on the Happy Hour menu or $13 during regular hours. What distinguishes both of their dishes from other restaurants is the cooks’ attention to detail. At Mesa Maguey the chef carefully arranges the plate with three crispy chicken or beef flautas lined up in a soldierly row. A shredded wedge of iceberg lettuce, dotted with micro greens, blankets them. This defensive line of greens prevents the Oaxacan sour cream, queso fresco and salsa verde from making this flautas party a soggy and sodden one.     

While tacos and flautas are familiar dishes at most Mexican restaurants, the owners of Mesa Maguey also make enmoladas, like enchiladas but in a mole sauce; tlayudas, akin to an open-faced taco—I once ate a giant one in the Mission that looked like a pizza; and memelas,  fried masa cakes with toppings. The restaurant describes these regionally specific dishes as “a vibrant celebration of Oaxaca’s rich culinary heritage.”

Costillas en salsa verde ($21) must be part of this heritage. A green sauce luxuriously coats each pork rib. Though the sauce offers a kick of spice, the stewed tomatillos add an extra delicious, sour, tangy note. The ribs are served with rice and a pool of black beans dusted with queso fresco. Costillas also come with paler, thin tortillas, not the ones used to make tacos. I’d pay extra for a side order of the thicker ones.

Mesa Maguey, open Mon 4–9pm, Tue-Thu 11am to 9pm, Fri-Sat 11am to 10:30pm, Sun 11am to 8pm. 4031 Broadway, Oakland. instagram.com/mesamaguey.

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