Pamela went for a margarita (Cimarron Blanco tequila, orange-scented agave syrup, lime - $9), while I chose the "Palomaesque" (Don Amado Rustico Mezcal, Cocchi Americano, grapefruit, lime, honey and soda - $9). My favorite was "El Burro," made with 1800 100-proof Blanco tequila, lime, bitters, salt, ginger and soda and accompanied with a toothpick laden with thin slices of candied ginger ($9).
While we nursed our drinks, we took in the gorgeous layout and design of the main room, exquisitely designed by the architectural firm Abueg Morris (Nopalito, Roam, Prather Ranch) that incorporated elements of the original Douglas fir beam structure and wooden floors with modern decor and artworks.
Seats at a communal table -- which can accomodate up to 10-12 diners -- opened up within the hour. While it's a little awkward at times navigating in and out of the long wooden bench when it's filled up with patrons, we were happy to avoid an hour and a half long wait for a private table.
And the seating arrangement, like the menu, is conducive to sharing both plates and conversations. We chatted with a party of three seated to the right of us that were marveling at the acoustics of the airy interior. Despite being surrounded by people and being located right near the open kitchen, we could hear our conversation without distraction and weren't disturbed by our neighbors. One gentlemen remarked that he'd heard plenty of thought had been put into the sound quality of the dining space, perhaps no surprise since the owner, John Paluska, spent over 20 years managing the band Phish before embarking on his new career as restauranteur.
We began with thick-cut yucca fries and with chipotle aioli ($5), and sikil pak, a Mayan pumpkin seed dip traditionally made with roasted tomatoes (pak translates to tomato) ($6.50). Chef Gandin (former chef de cuisine at Delfina whose background includes pursuing a doctoral degree in Latin American history and a short stint in Michoacán) opted to use grilled eggplant in lieu of the tomato, although I'm guessing this dish may evolve once tomatoes come into season in the Bay Area as the menu draws upon local and seasonal ingredients. The yucca fries with the creamy aioli seemed like a standard starter dish aimed to appeal to the general public, while the sikil pak was somewhat bland. But the freshly made tortilla chips and three salsas that came with the dip livened it up, particularly the chipotle salsa that gave it a little kick.
There were several other appetizers that seemed tempting -- the local King Salmon ceviche, tripe guisado and Pt. Reyes mussels -- although there was no tortilla pizza, or tlayuda, to be found on the menu and had been hyped up in several blogs prior to opening. We chose the squash blossom, epazote and salsa verde quesadilla ($9), but were disappointed that they must have run out of the cuitlacoche version that was listed on the daily menu posted on their website. We also ordered the potato, rajas, chayote tamale ($8) and a side of midnight black beans de olla ($4). The server was happy to accomodate Pamela's request to have it sauced with mole negro as well, which came with the Fulton Valley chicken tamale. We rounded up the meal with the Berkshire pork carnitas, orange-fennel slaw, salsa verde ($10).
While we waited for our food, we couldn't help but admire our neighbors's platter of spit-roasted chicken, which would be perfect to share amongst a large group.
A native Chilean and daughter of a retired professional chef (and a talented home cook herself), Pamela is a fairly discerning eater -- particularly when it comes to Latin American cuisine. She found her tamale to be too mushy and wished it had a creamier, more polenta-like texture; there was also an underwhelming amount of rajas and other fillings inside. The mole tasted too strongly of tomato and not enough chocolate essence and spices for her liking, and the beans, while garnished with queso blanco, were just average. We both loved the quesadilla which has a pleasant blend of gently bitter and sweet tastes. The carnitas were tender and juicy, but I would have preferred to have more meat and less of the pickled onions and fennel slaw, which were heaped on top with too-large chunks of orange.
While the dinner didn't quite measure up against one of our beloved Mexican restaurants in Oakland, Doña Tomás, the food was good overall. The service from our congenial server and the staff was impeccable, and despite the busy dinner rush, we were attended to quickly and always with charm and warmth. We'll definitely be back once the large patio opens (it can accomodate over 100 diners year-round), and I predict it will be a much sought-after spot in the upcoming summer months.
2020 Shattuck Avenue (at University Ave.)
Berkeley, CA 94704
Hours: 5:30 to late, with weekend brunch to follow down the road