.Think Pink

La Esquinita is a new taqueria from Doña Tomás co-founder Thomas Schnetz

Barbieland isn’t the only notable source of pink this summer. Thomas Schnetz applies the color in one way or another in all of his restaurants. At Xolo in downtown Oakland, the awning out front is pink, along with some patio chairs. To replace Filippo’s Tuscan yellow walls, he boldly painted the exterior of his new taquería, La Esquinita, the same creamy, alluring pink. The color, Schnetz told me, is closely based on, and inspired by, the singular pink used by Mexican architect Luis Barragán. 

Schnetz, with his former partner Dona Savitsky, opened Flora and Xolo in downtown Oakland, Tacubaya on 4th Street in Berkeley and Doña Tomás in Temescal, years before that neighborhood became a premiere Oakland dining hot spot. At Doña Tomás, Savitsky ran the front-of-house operations while Schnetz ran the kitchen. After they decided to dissolve their partnership, Schnetz retained Xolo and Flora—which he subsequently sold to the new owner, who reincarnated the space as Palmetto.

La Esquinita is closer in spirit to Xolo than it is to Flora, with subtle variations on the menu. Where Xolo serves an al pastor vampiro taco ($4.75) with cheese crisped on a flat-top stove, La Esquinita offers a crispy beef taco with cheddar, lettuce, cucumber and tomato ($5.60). Schnetz has adapted a Veracruzano dish he served at Doña Tomás and turned it into a taco at La Esquinita. “It’s very Mediterranean,” he said. “It has tomatoes, capers and olives.” A Xolo surf ’n’ turf burrito with carne asada and sautéed shrimp ($13.25) didn’t make it across town. Instead, La Esquinita serves wet burritos, made with a guajillo salsa, cheese and crema (add $2.50 to the regular $15 burrito options).

On a recent visit to La Esquinita, I ordered a bowl of sopa de lima ($12) and three tacos—one al pastor with avocado salsa, white onions and cilantro ($5.25), a guajillo marinated chicken with cilantro, avocado, pickled onions and chipotle ($5.25), and a fried-shrimp topped with cabbage, an árbol aioli and lime ($5.60). Both the pork and chicken tacos achieved a perfect fusion of ingredients. They’re the kind of tacos that immediately made me want to return to the restaurant. The shrimp taco was fresh and light, but lacked the same depth of flavor when compared with the grilled and marinated meats. If I had a cold, I would order a hearty bowl of the sopa de lima to go, but the lime flavor and spice levels weren’t particularly prominent.    

Xolo didn’t fold during the pandemic—and neither did Schnetz’s excellent Sacramento taqueria La Venadita. He began his career as a builder before he became a chef. “I love the process of finding a new space, designing it and bringing it to life,” he said. Of course, COVID-19 caused him to pause before he considered opening another restaurant. But a couple of Schnetz’s longtime employees had discussed the idea of partnering with him. La Esquinita provided all three with the opportunity to do so. Juan Zarate Jr. runs the front of the house and Jorge Rosales runs the kitchen. At the beginning of Schnetz’s cooking career, Juan Jr.’s dad was his sous chef.

But Schnetz’s first impression of the space was that it was too tiny to work. When he went to bed that night, his designing mind got fired up and he couldn’t sleep. Schnetz called the next day and began to negotiate a lease. “The thing we’ve had to learn is: How to maneuver around such a small kitchen? How do you make that work?” he said. Filippo’s operated with the tables jammed together inside the approximately 800 square feet of space. Private conversations weren’t part of the dining experience. Schnetz removed all the tables, favoring instead two benches placed in front of both street-facing windows.

His first idea was to make La Esquinita a takeaway taqueria. But he heard from people in the neighborhood who loved sitting outside on the corner—la esquinita means “little corner.” In addition to the bench seating inside, several outside tables are lined up the street on Manila Avenue. “I love it,” Schnetz said. “It’s so nice and such a great feeling to sit outside with everyone walking around.”

La Esquinita, 5400 College Ave., Oakland. Open Tue–Sat, 11am to 8pm; Sun, 11am to 3pm. instagram.com/la_esquinita_oakland.

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition