The cantina comes first, the cocina second
The same essential set of ingredients at La Guerrera’s Kitchen doesn’t taste the same at Todos Cantina + Cocina. The two Oakland restaurants are just a few blocks away from each other, but their approaches to making Mexican food couldn’t be further apart.
Ofelia Barajas made tamales as a street vendor for 15 years before she was accepted into the Bay Area business incubator program, La Cocina. She and her daughter, Reyna Maldonado, started La Guerrera’s Kitchen near the Fruitvale BART station and have since moved to Washington Street in Old Oakland.
Todos is new to Uptown Oakland. Before opening, the owners released a press statement promising “locally sourced, elevated ingredients.” But in practice, these buzzwords are divorced from their original meaning. Located in an ultramodern, high-ceilinged building, the space conjures up a meeting place between SoHo art galleries and Brooklyn lofts.
Hand-painted murals on the walls attract the eye in a way that the food never does. At the entrance, a man painted in black unleashes a hurricane of elote from its own black cloud. Inside, a young woman, drawn nearly life-sized in black and white, carries her boombox on a blood red stain. Swallows or magpies encircle her.
In a nod to the hard sell, the first thing we were handed was an extensive drinks menu. Cantina comes before Cocina in Todos’ portentous subtitle. The server looked disappointed when each of us ordered an agua fresca ($4) instead of an expensive cocktail. They’re poured into giant glasses, larger even than pint glasses, and impossible to finish.
We tried the pale orange-coloured cantaloupe and the cucumber, which was my favorite because it wasn’t a flavorless mess. It landed in a strange, hard-to-identify but satisfying place, somewhere between sweet and savory.
The basket of flour tortilla chips ($3.95) is towering. The chips were crispy, fried to a deep brown and in need of salting. They were great on their own, to dip into a bowl of chicken tortilla soup ($12), or the Southwest salad ($10.95). But the salsa that comes with the chips was bland and forgetful. The kitchen cooks either haven’t tasted it, or they’re following a formula in large batches that is indifferent to coaxing out memorable flavors.
My friend ate her entire bowl of chicken tortilla soup. I tasted it and found it to be watery. Neither of us had more than a couple of bites of the salad. For many years, I used to order salads at Los Cantaros, which was a perfect meal on a hot day. They mixed ideal quantities of lettuce, proteins, guacamole and salsas. The salad at Todos looked like it had been made by a machine, the ingredients poured out and assembled on a conveyor belt.
The dressing was off putting, the color and taste of European toothpaste, both bitter and sweet. We ordered a round of disappointing shrimp with it, which compounded the overall sense of vegetable mush and lettuce wilt. The salad tasted like it was plagiarized from a Chevys menu and not improved upon.
An order of street tacos ($3.75 vegetarian, $3.95 each for chicken and pork) was very plain, and all of them lacked seasoning. A lackluster black bean paste coated the tortilla on the vegetarian taco, primarily filled with a diced chili pepper. I couldn’t detect a trace of salt or pepper. If I were a vegetarian, I’d have felt insulted by the lack of imagination that went into the dish. The chicken and pork tacos weren’t bad, but they also weren’t worth going back for.
I recently ordered three similar tacos at El Halal Amigos in San Jose. The chef behind El Halal, Hisham Abdelfattah, loves Mexican food. It has been his lifelong passion. Even though he’s not of Mexican descent, Abdelfattah has managed to deliver carefully executed flavors on the plate. His cooking tastes authentic because he’s paying attention to the details.
At this point, Todos is an industrial concept encouraging diners to “Become a VIP” so you can hear about “secret menus” and “exclusive events.” But the concept is a bar with a tourist’s idea of what Mexican food tastes like. You don’t need a shot of tequila to figure out that nearby La Guerrera’s Kitchen is serving the real thing.
Todos, open Mon to Sun 11:30am-8pm. 2315 Valdez St., Oakland. 510.808.5584. todosbuenos.com.