Neighborhoods in mid-gentrification offer a giddy range of food options. In Temescal you can start with a blistery-crusted, stinging-nettle pizza at Pizzaiolo, move on to a bowl of tofu soup at Pyung Chang Tofu House, and wind up at Asmara for a nightcap of headache-inducing Ethiopian honey wine. I say right on: Until Temescal’s newest wood-rotisserie trattoria rips out the Frialators at S&S Seafood, the neighborhood serves as a slightly queasy model of urban culinary density.
Last month Howard Schindler added to that density with a casual Mediterranean concept called Cafe Pippo. Pippo’s sister restaurant — attached via a back corridor — is La Calaca Loca, a taqueria that twisted up its first burrito especial eight months ago. Schindler’s Pippo/Calaca junction operates like a mini food court, but this isn’t like Sbarro sharing floor drains with Rubio’s at the mall. Pippo and La Calaca Loca act as two lobes of a chef’s brain.
That chef is Jack Schwartz, who grew up in Mexico City and cut his teeth on a cordon of fancy Rockridge bistros (Citron, À Côté) before becoming sous-chef at San Francisco’s 1550 Hyde. Now, just weeks after Cafe Pippo hoisted its menu board, Schwartz’ cooking surprises with the quality of its ingredients and with just how brightly the house-baked pastries shine.
La Calaca seems to have built a steady clientele of Temescal hipsters in camo cutoffs, families with toddlers, guys in tall tees, and smock-clad Children’s Hospital workers. It’s basically the Temescal version of Rockridge favorite Cactus, all Niman Ranch meats in a room niced up with a little decor. Calaca’s is strictly Day of the Dead. No surprise, since La Calaca Loca means “crazy skeleton.” The artistic centerpiece is a copper fountain, a simultaneously tequila-slugging, tequila-pissing skeleton by Oaklander Renaldo Ratto.
Ratto’s wasted mascot is apropos: Calaca’s crispy tacos are the same ones that have eased the hangover harsh of beer-plumped ex-frat guys since 2002 (Schindler owns popular Nick’s Crispy Tacos in San Francisco). They look like squat, open-toed moccasins, a soft corn tortilla cupping a fried one lined with plush, melty cheese. The guacamole on top doesn’t suck, and the fillings are even better. On a recent visit the taco carnitas weren’t the crispy bronze shards I was expecting, but something closer to a soft, shredded pork stew steeped in rich broth — I could have eaten a whole bowl of it. Chicken taco filling was just as good, a tender clump of white meat braised in delicate pasilla chile sauce.
The best thing about baja pescado, a soft taco filled with shredded cabbage and battered, deep-fried rockfish, was its sauce — a thin, garlicky, and super-tangy lime-spiked sour cream. But a carne asada burrito proved as dull as a microwave burger, a gluey flour tortilla packed with bland rice and even blander pinto beans. And the grilled, chopped meat, despite giving up a sharp whiff of black pepper, had the gray, husky taste of warmed-over roast beef. Good thing the two table salsas (a tomatillo laced with black pepper and a smoky rojo flecked with grilled tomato skin) rocked.
Okay, so the lesson here is to stick with the crispy tacos. And yet the most compelling thing about Calaca may be the most unlikely: the desserts. Six days a week, pastry chef Kathy Truitt cranks out desserts for Calaca, as well as breakfast pastries, cookies, focaccia, and desserts for Cafe Pippo. Dare to think it: Truitt is as much of a neighborhood treasure as Temescal’s beloved Alison Barakat, the blue-wigged pastry chef proprietor of Bakesale Betty just across Telegraph.
Truitt’s Calaca flan, for instance, is a near-perfect conjunction of the homey and the luxurious, with a texture as smooth and soft as butter. Her delicately sandy Mexican wedding cookies have a deep vanilla perfume and a thick cap of silky powdered sugar. And the plastic-wrapped nuggets labeled “coconut dessert” are rich, dank coconut snowballs suffused with the weedy, charred-barrel fragrance of good brandy.
Truitt contributes even more to the Pippo side — a bright, Mediterranean fantasy of spidery Murano glass chandeliers, awning-stripe banquettes, and air-brushed foam sculptures of beaming, trippy suns and moons by artist Wes Fredenburg. Except for muffins and croissants — which Truitt doesn’t make — her morning pastries alone are as bright as the surroundings.
The baker’s heavy, caramel-colored slabs of coffee cake have a moist crumb and a thick vein of oat-studded streusel. Her cinnamon buns make you believe in white bread again — the dense, elastic twists get a subtle lift from orange zest in their gooey ribbon of cinnamon and brown sugar. The raisin scones are like miniature Irish soda breads: craggy, faintly tangy from buttermilk, and with the fresh perfume of lemon peel.
Pippo’s panini start with sourdough from Sonoma’s Artisan Bakers slathered with olive oil: It crisps up like deep-fried toast and stays chewy. Fillings stand up to the awesome outsides, especially tuna salad, which gets a hit of tang from capers and pieces of green olive. Vinegary artichoke hearts and roasted peppers balance the saltiness in a stack of assorted salumi — tasty, even though the Niman Ranch cured meats tend toward the leathery.
Served with a little green salad, a half roasted free-range chicken had nicely crisp skin and flesh that was seasoned down to the bones. The birds marinate in garlic and rosemary, but a sprinkling with kosher salt and sweet, smoky pimenton (Spanish paprika) before they hit the oven gives them real character. And at $6.50, they’re one of the East Bay’s killer food bargains.
Pippo’s big slab of mac ‘n’ cheese had a hint of subtle refinement, a clutch of nicely firm penne coated with a graceful cheese sauce under a brittle brown crust. The sauce had a clean, new-dairy tang, thanks to a combination of fresh mozzarella and ricotta. But it was too big to finish, and the center was several degrees short of hot.
Vegetable lasagna was plenty hot, a bubbling gratin dish filled with loose layers of green and golden zucchini, scant noodle pieces, and lots of what seemed like equal parts béchamel and finely puréed tomato sauce. I like that Schwartz is reaching for something lighter and fresher than the gooey amalgam of lasagna cliché, but the terra-cotta-colored sauce I tasted lacked dimension.
Don’t let Cafe Pippo’s stumbles put you off: The cooking still shows plenty of talent to make it worth checking out. It may be too early to say whether Howard Schindler’s little food court can tempt the throng of Genova Deli sandwich seekers across the street, become a weeknight dinner destination, or be the newest takeout option for busy Rockridge moms. But thanks to Kathy Truitt, Temescal should soon see a whole new wave of blissed-out sugar freaks.