I dine at Doña Tomás regularly and generally I ask to be seated either out back on the patio in fair weather, or in the “Red Room,” both of which I prefer to the room one first encounters via the entrance. However, on this particular evening we did not want to wait for a table, so we sat in the window table of the front room. The downside of the location we were in is that, although tucked away comfortably out of the way, we were somewhat neglected by our server. There were several times we needed to flag her down for more water, new utensils, etc.
After taking your seat, you are presented with a plate of delicious homemade corn chips that are thick-cut and perfectly crisp and salty, served with a spicy, roasted chili salsa that imparts deep a smokiness.
My favorite margarita that I have ever experienced anywhere is served at Doña Tomás. They have many to choose from, and an impressive tequila list. My favorite is the incomparable Margarita de la Reyna, which is a perfect balance of fresh-squeezed lime juice, El Tesoro Tequila, and Cointreau (and is nowhere in the same universe as those sickly concoctions that are all sweet and sour mix and cheap tequila). The Reyna is served up in a martini glass. Delicious. This is cocktail perfection.
On this recent excursion to Doña, we started with the watermelon spiced with lime and chili, the pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds), and Reyna Margaritas. The watermelon was succulent, dark red perfection and a nice companion to the smoky seeds. We also shared the perfect guacamole and chips, Sopa de Lìmon, and a spicy chorizo and fingerling potato dish. The guacamole was delicious; we could have eaten much more, it was perfectly ripe and expertly spiced. The Sopa de Lìmon was a nice balance of sour and spicy, but somehow it lacked the depth I was craving. It was good but not truly satisfying, as if the stock was just not quite rich enough. The appetizer with the chorizo and potatoes was very good; smoky, complex flavors with a salty, spicy depth that was foiled by a chewy melted Oaxaca cheese crust.
After all of this we moved on to the main course. We shared the vegetarian casserole with mushrooms, tortillas, cheese, and tomato sauce; carne asada with elote refried beans; and chicken enchiladas with mole, corn custard, and arugula. The casserole was the highlight -- it was a stack of earthy wild mushrooms, melted cheese, summer squash, thick corn tortillas, and a bright, fresh tomato sauce. It was a satisfying dish, comforting, and the clean, clear, fresh flavors of summer shined through. The carne asada, on the other hand, lacked flavor and interest in general -- it was just flat tasting. Enough said. The chicken enchiladas were dry, very dry, and there wasn't nearly enough mole sauce to offset the filling, which was simply chicken. The chicken lacked flavor, contrast, and moisture. The highlight on this plate was the delicious corn custard, which was moist, sweet and creamy. It was good enough to be a lovely side dish, all on its own.
Typically I order my very favorite Doña menu item (but this time I wanted to break out and try something new): chiles rellenos. These are not the typical abomination of deep-fried, overly cheesy, globs of flavorless canned chilies that result in a blob of grease resembling deep-fried omelets. These rellenos at Doña are sublime. The chiles are fresh and hand-roasted, resulting in a complex, deep smoky flavor and texture. They are not battered or deep-fried. They are stuffed with seasonal ingredients that change from time to time. On a previous visit they were filled with goat cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and spinach served in a rich pool of roasted tomato sauce and drizzled with a Mexican cream. They are served with a side dish of perfectly mashed refried black beans that are smooth and addictive, and warm, thick, homemade corn tortillas that are chewy and moist. This is an incredibly satisfying dish!
For dessert we shared a dish of creamy, cold, and intensely satisfying chocolate and coffee ice creams with chocolate and caramel sauces and mounds of fresh whipped cream dotted with salty nuts. We also tried a stone fruit and berry crisp with vanilla ice cream, which was decent, but it tasted a bit over cooked. The bright, haunting flavor of perfectly ripe summer fruits was missing; it was probably prepared with less than perfect fruit.
We sipped our Mexican hot chocolate and mint teas and watched the East Bay restaurant fill to the brim with diners having a great time as usual at this East Bay institution. Doña Tomás is a real gem, albeit sometimes rough around the edges, and I will always come back for the margaritas, the chiles rellenos, and the soul.
Occupation: Special Effects Artist
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Scala's Bistro
Reviewed Doña Tomás: Wednesday, August 23, 2006
From San Francisco during the week, it was a breeze to get there if you start out at 7:15pm. Parking was easy. I had reservations, and you should as well, as it seems most any time at this place was very busy. We were seated close to our reservation time. We waited at the bar. Folks, when someone steps up to the bar and you are busy making other drinks for the servers, PLEASE look the client in the eye and say politely "I’ll be with you in a moment." We waited at least five minutes before the bartender even looked up at me to ask what I would like.
The restaurant was very busy. It was also intolerably loud. Suggestion: a few Mexican woven anything on the walls would dampen the sound. If you go there, ask to be seated outside. It's very pretty out there, there are heaters, and you can hear yourself think.
The appetizer Quesadillas de Flor de Calabaza was good. It had good flavors and was not too spicy. It got cold rather fast (this is a repeating theme I’ll get to). My friend had the sautéed scallops (Callos con Salsa de Elote y Poblano). The corn and roasted poblano cream sauce that I tasted from his dish was very good.
As my main dish, I had the halibut tacos with mango salsa (Tacos de Pescado). It was tasty and the fish was very fresh. But eat it fast. It too got cold rather fast. My friend liked the carnitas. He said it was very flavorful and not too spicy.
The portions were good size. However, NONE of the plates that came to the table were warm/hot. Thus, the food on the plates got cold too fast. May I suggest a few plate warmers from Economy Restaurant Fixtures?
For dessert I had the Cazuela de Fruta (seasonal stone fruit and fresh berry crisp served with vanilla ice cream). It was very tasty. My friend had the Pay de Chocolate. A Mexican chocolate cream pie in a graham cracker crust with whipped cream. I understand where they were going with this chocolate dessert, in that it wasn't meant to be too sweet, but the graham cracker crust had a very unfriendly taste to it. We were told all the desserts, other than the sorbets, are made there.
Our server was very helpful and knew her stuff and was able to suggest items on the menu and how much she liked each. All of our food came to the table in very good time. And in general, all the wait staff was nice.
As far as bang for the buck, I’m not sure what the problem is with ALL restaurants these days when they can get away with charging the price of a main course for appetizers. Each of our appetizers were over $10. I felt the main dishes were priced at market prices.
Would I go there again or suggest it to others? I think there are other better Mexican restaurants within San Francisco I would go to before I would hop over the bridge. However, if you are in that area, I would suggest a try, once they get the plate warmer thing under control and bartenders that acknowledge you exist.
Be aware they change their menu every six weeks, as I was told, and the next round is coming up soon. However, they do keep key dishes constant.
Location: Menlo Park
Favorite Restaurant: Amber India
Reviewed Doña Tomás: Saturday, August 19, 2006
We live in Menlo Park, so it was an effort to drive to the Oakland/Berkeley border to dine, but boy was it worth it!
Up front, I should say that my husband George said that the Mexican home cooking with fresh ingredients was so wonderful and so unavailable where we live that he would drive back there again just for dinner. I loved it too, although would probably incorporate a restaurant visit into a fuller day in Oakland/Berkeley. We also may buy the new cookbook that the chefs have written called (you guessed it) Doña Tomás.
This is a casual restaurant -- jeans were fine on a Saturday night --and the crowd was young and extremely attractive. But this is a family place as much as it is a place for singles; there were young families with children, too.
While we waited for our drinks, we tried to figure out if we were the oldest people in the restaurant (we are in our late forties) and it looked like we were. But by the time that we finished our meal, we noticed a few other couples even older than us, all seated in the same center (quieter) section of the restaurant with us. We asked our waitress if they deliberately grouped the older folks together and she smiled sheepishly, but said she was not aware of it.
Our favorite dish was the budin de elote, a corn and zucchini pudding side dish ($4.27) that we shared. With both corn and zucchini in season when we went (late August), it was amazingly fresh, beautifully seasoned (we think we tasted lime in there), and light. There are a lot of vegetarian choices here, and all the entrees we tried were prepared with a light touch -- spices were just right (citrus used in many of the dishes), and nothing was heavily fried or overcooked. We also loved the fried tortilla chips served with fresh grated cheese over them and accompanied by a black tomato salsa (we asked what kind of salsa it was, otherwise would have had no clue about black tomatoes). The grated cheese was a nice touch and it was the first time that I had tortilla chips topped that way. My cold gazpacho also had some citrus in it and was filled with large fresh chunks of avocado -- the best gazpacho I have ever had!
My main entree was Caserola con Huitlacoche ($16.25)–which I would describe as Mexican lasagna or, for the Greek food fans, as Mexican pastistio. It was a wonderful casserole of tortillas layered with mushrooms, poblano chiles, spinach, and tomato sauce and an arugula salad on the side. The salad was a great touch instead of the customary beans and guacamole that accompany many Mexican entrees at other restaurants I have been to. Here, the casserole was warm and filling enough, and the salad was a cooling accompaniment. The casserole looked humble on the plate (as home cooked casseroles tend to do) but was wonderfully spiced and a sophisticated blend of flavors. Overall, the presentation of the food here is simple; no fancy garnishes or high towers of food.
Parking was easy because there is a shopping center across the street, anchored by Walgreens, that allows the restaurant patrons to park there. The restaurant has a front room, a quieter center room, a beautiful patio, and a separate bar area. You can go there for a snack, drinks (they serve trio samplers of fine rums and tequila), or dessert. Decorations are simple -- high ceilings, a few tapestries, and I was facing a red painted wall decorated with several Frida Kahlo portraits. I felt her sad eyes upon me as I enjoyed me fine meal and wondered if she would have been jealous.
The patio looked like the best dining option in good weather, because the tables are further apart and they are covered with festive oilcloth tablecloths, and there are nice plants, and heat lamps. If you come with a group and the weather is good, this is probably the best place in the restaurant to dine.