Where hummingbirds are a symbol of good luck
Chef Jesus Wence has been working in his family’s business since it opened in Pleasant Hill 10 years ago. He was 14 when he started to work in the kitchen at Wence’s Restaurant. “I grew up around the business. It made me fall in love with cooking and working in the industry,” he said. Wence’s serves seafood and California cuisine, his father’s specialty.
At the beginning of the year, the Wence family decided to open T’Zunun with Jesus Wence at the helm. “I always had this big love for Mexican food and culture,” Wence explained. He and his family wanted to pay tribute to Mexico, to the cuisine and the culture. T’Zunun is the Mayan word for hummingbird. “We settled on the name with my mom,” he said. “She’s a big fan of hummingbirds. To her, they mean good luck, that good things are coming your way.”
If one is feeling down on one’s luck, T’Zunun has a restorative outdoor patio bordering a small creek. It’s located less than a half hour away from nearby, busier cities. But for those whose eyes begin to blur after a shot of mezcal or tequila, the woodsy setting might seem like it belongs in Pt. Reyes or Big Sur. On a recent visit for a very early dinner, we nearly had the entire patio to ourselves. For a couple of hours, it felt like we’d settled into a private suburban retreat.
Although the concept of the menu is influenced by Mexican cuisine, T’Zunun also takes some inspiration from Wence’s days at culinary school. Speaking about his experience there, he said, “You’re working with either American or French ingredients, and French classical dishes.” In thinking about an approach to opening a new restaurant, he didn’t want T’Zunun to be a typical, “chips and salsa” and “$2 taco place.”
Those places are great, Wence admits, but he’s trying to highlight a more diverse range of Mexican dishes while also putting a twist on some of them. He notes that the chicken mole negro ($26) has 30 ingredients that stew for a couple of hours. The chef stuffs taquitos dorados ($19) with crab and Brussels sprouts. “Those are ingredients you probably wouldn’t see at a normal taqueria, but we’re trying to do something different with them,” he explained. T’Zunun’s agua chile, usually a shrimp ceviche, is made with tuna and served like sashimi.
Some of these hybrid or fusion dishes work better than others. We started with a golden beet salad ($14). The beets were pickled to a kimchi funk that made them texturally as soft as nopales. In fact, both of us thought the cooks had added nopales to the salad by mistake. Slivers of crunchy jicama didn’t stand up to the strong, vinegary flavor of the beets. Roasting them would have been a better fit for the vegetable itself and overall for the dish.
Wence does serve tacos, but not for $2. The blue corn tortillas encasing the lobster tacos ($26) melt in the mouth. A note at the top of the menu mentions that the tortillas are “sourced by traditional farmers in Mexico,” hand made with non-GMO heirloom corn. “This corn has been harvested by local farmers for generations and generations by families in Mexico,” Wence said.
T’Zunun employs two people dedicated to making them. “Our tortillas always have to be just right,” he said. “They have to have the right amount of softness. They have to puff up. Every time we make them, there can’t be any holes or grease spots.” It’s a long, tedious process, but he believes the tacos taste much better because of them.
Seafood is featured in every section of the menu, including octopus, oysters, shrimp, crab and fish. For our entrée, we split salmon a las brasas ($29). The only Mexican ingredient was a guajillo pepper compound butter that needed to be amped up a notch or three. Apart from that, it was a nice, if not unique, plate of roast salmon. But that speaks to the variety of dishes at T’Zunun, which should appeal to anyone’s particular cravings at the table. Invariably though, someone in one’s party should be required to order wild mushroom, duck confit carnitas or chicken al pastor tacos.
T’Zunun, open Mon to Thurs 11am–9pm, Fri 11am–9:30pm, Sat 10am–9:30pm, Sun 10am–9pm. 2618 Pleasant Hill Rd., Pleasant Hill. 925.961.5552. tzununrestaurant.com.