Quixotic Travels Through Small-Plate Terrain
STORY AND PHOTOS BY MARK MIDDLEBROOK
Once upon a time in a village east of San Francisco whose name I need not mention, there lived a fellow who had traveled in Spain and there absorbed the culture of the tapas bar. This Don Bigote (for that was his name) would spend hours in his kitchen preparing tortilla Española, pimientos de Padrón, garbanzos with morcilla sausage, stuffed piquillo peppers, anchovies on pear slices, and melon wrapped in jamón serrano. It was Bigote’s habit to keep a bottle of Fino Sherry cold in his refrigerator at all times, along with some Cava from Cataluña, Albariño from Galicia, or Txakolina from the Basque Country. His basement held an assortment of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, and Bierzo, any of which he gladly would open for a fellow tapas aficionado.
When friends who shared his predilection for tapas visited, he would subject them to passionate harangues about the lack of real tapas bars in the Bay Area. “Yes, we’re silly with small plates places,” Don Bigote would exclaim, “and many of them are very good. But here are the problems. First, the portion sizes are wrong for tapas: A tapa is one or two bites; anything larger is a ración. Raciones are for eating; tapas are for nibbling. A few raciones make a meal. Tapas make an invitation to further nibbling, longer socializing, a later night, another bar. Tapas tease the appetite, satisfy it enough to keep going, but leave the lure for more.”
As guests grabbed another slice of Bigote’s admittedly tasty tortilla Española and edged towards the door, he would continue his rant: “Second, few Bay Area places have the kind of bar or informality that encourages brief stops for a nibble and a single glass. The reasons, I think, are both economic and social. Restaurateurs have figured out how to charge 10 dollars for a glass of wine and run a kitchen with inexpensive labor (some of it legal). But no one here seems to know how to make a viable restaurant of tiny plates, a single drink, and a brief stop. Also, the habit of remaining standing while crowding around a bar is pretty much foreign to us. Despite our professed fondness for Mediterranean culture in the Bay Area, we’re don’t behave like Mediterraneans, who crowd together, jostle, and otherwise enjoy frequent physical contact with strangers. And don’t even get Bigote started about how hard it is to get something to eat after 10:00 p.m. in the Bay Area.”
As the number of guests dwindled, Don Bigote would finish his diatribe: “There is a rhythm and particular form of sociability that holds sway in Spain during an evening tapeo with friends, ambling easily from one bar to another, tasting the bar’s tapa specialty as an accompaniment to a copa of Sherry, other wine, or beer. Why can’t we have something like that here in the Bay Area?”
It seems that the combination of cured anchovies, frequent copitas of Fino Sherry, and overheated harangues about the inadequacy of Bay Area “tapas” establishments finally drove Don Bigote mad, for he one day conceived the folly of attempting to imitate a Spanish tapas crawl in the East Bay. And whether it was to humor him or protect him from the most extreme effects of his madness, several friends agreed to accompany Don Bigote on these desperate sallies.
THE FIRST SALLY: COLLEGE AVENUE CRAWL
So it was that Don Bigote was seen striding purposefully down College Avenue on his first sally, pen clutched firmly in hand and camera stowed snuggly in knapsack. He stopped first at Grasshopper, a restaurant serving Asian-accented small plates. While waiting for his friends, he found an open corner of the bar and ordered a serviceable Cava ($7.50 per glass) and Kiko’s seasoned cashews ($1.75). These provided an auspicious start to his first sally, with the cumin- and sugar-dusted cashews playing a nice counterpoint to the Cava’s bubbly freshness. Bigote also noted with joy the tiny price and size of his first dish. “Perhaps I’ve been wrong all along and there really are tapas to be found in the Bay Area,” he mumbled to himself, as nearby patrons cast a nervous glance and scouted for bar seats that would provide a safer distance.
Don Bigote’s friends Marcella la Bella and Pedro He-Man-Is arrived in time to rescue a few cashew crumbs from the little bowl and help order a flight of sakes. With guidance from the admirably efficient and intriguingly tattooed bartender, they chose three distinctly different examples, one drier, one fruitier, and one fuller-bodied ($7.50 to $11.00 per glass. As Don Bigote’s other friend, Sasho Pazza, arrived, the group dug into gypsy peppers stuffed with yellow curry sticky rice ($7.50) and tempura squash blossoms ($6.00). The latter combined delicacy with a slight spiciness and became Don Bigote’s favorite, although Pedro He-Man-Is argued for the spicy green papaya salad that the bartender brought by mistake (did not charge the group for).
The four continued their night errantry at Pearl Oyster Bar & Restaurant, a medium hike up College Avenue from Grasshopper. They found a spot at the sleek, iridescent bar almost immediately and ordered a bottle of German riesling ($41.00). The runaway favorite small plate at Pearl was the tartare trio ($10). The sequence of flavors and textures among the three different tunas, olive oils, and salts always tickled Bigote’s taste buds and intellect-or what was left of it. The rock shrimp and bay scallop ceviche ($10) was less of a knockout to Bigote’s crew, but the fish spring rolls with pickled chile-mango dipping sauce ($9) restored their spirits and played especially well with the riesling.
Bigote, Marcella, Pedro, and Sasho were beginning to feel full after just two stops, so in order to fend off another of Bigote’s diatribes about true tapas, the three friends convinced him to end the evening with desserts at À Côté, a short walk up College Avenue. This Mediterranean small plates mecca is almost always packed, and the four gladly gave up their ambition of sitting at the bar when a table for four became available shortly after their arrival. They selected two dessert: a “chocolate three ways” extravaganza, and a fresh fig and brown butter gratin with pistachio gelato ($8 each), plus Piemontese Cravanzina cheese ($7) to share. The cheese proved the most compelling of the bunch-as well as the best deal-as it came with candied walnuts, toasted almonds, sliced apple, poached figs, and walnut levain-a veritable groaning board of after-dinner sweet and savory delights. However, the dessert wines provided Bigote’s crew with their most memorable delights-especially a Hungarian Tokaji and 10-year old Marsala ($9 per glass each).
At the conclusion of the evening, Don Bigote toted up the statistics: Four people, three small plates restaurants, three and a half hours, and $225 including tips. “Not bad,” he thought. “We ate and drank well and enjoyed the changes of ambience. But still, it was nothing like the easy, improvisational rhythm of a real tapeo. Each stop required a more significant investment of attention to the menu, time, and money.”
THE SECOND SALLY: DOWNTOWN AND BACK AGAIN
“Perhaps we need to leave the fashionable insularity of Rockridge and seek tapas in some of Oakland’s more quotidian corners,” he mused. Thus it was that Don Bigote sallied forth a second time, this time with Sasho Pazza and their friend Wry One.
They began at Tamarindo Antojería Mexicana in the Old Oakland neighborhood west of Broadway. There they feasted on regional Mexican small plates in which elemental corn flavors played a starring role. Bigote declared his favorite the empanaditas de camarón estilo Nayarit ($8)-three turnovers containing either shrimp or cheese and rajas, served with a pair of delectable sauces, one red and green.
The trio gladly would have lingered to try other small plates on Tamarindo’s menu, but duty drove them onward to Di Bartoli, an established Grand Avenue restaurant with a new bar next door serving small plates (and larger portions) until late. As Wry One made eyes at the bartender, the group ordered from a list of pleasingly designed cocktails ($9 each) and delicious sounding small plates ($5-10 each). Bigote was pleased to find the classic Catalan dish patatas bravas with romesco and aioli ($5) on the menu. However, Di Bartoli’s version only made him long more deeply to be in Spain.
Once again, two stops had left the doughty crew nearly full, but they soldiered on to the newly opened Bar César on Piedmont Avenue. Don Bigote had long been a fan of the food and wine list (rich in Sherries, among many other things) at the original César on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, and he was eager to try the new incarnation of this venerable eatery. Wry One shared Bigote’s passion for Sherry, so they began with a Fino and Amontillado ($5.50 and $8.50, respectively). Trucha a la Navarra ($9.75) -trout wrapped in jamón serrano-was less exciting than the versions that Bigote had eaten in Navarra, but the three adventurers fought over the last pieces of a bocadillo containing heirloom tomatoes, roasted mushrooms, and eggplant ($7.75).
When Don Bigote toted up the second sally, it came to: Three people, three small plates restaurants, four hours, and $175 including tips. “As on my first sally,” Bigote concluded, “the food was worthy and the journey rewarding. But these are more like back-to-back small dinners than the tapeo that I know and seek.”
THE THIRD SALLY: NIGHTRIDERS AND TACO TRUCKS
The next day, Don Bigote and Wry One were recapping the previous night’s adventures when a flash of inspiration revealed to them the path to true tapas, Bay Area style: taco trucks. “They have nearly everything that one desires in tapas bars,” Bigote observed. “They are inexpensive, informal, and open late. They serve a limited menu. And there are lots of them clustered in one area: Foothill and International Boulevards in East Oakland.”
Don Bigote and Wry One regarded each other and pondered for a moment the perils of walking down certain stretches of International Boulevard or Fruitvale at night. Then a smile came to both of their visages as the perfect fulfillment of Bigote’s mad scheme became clear: a taco tapeo on bicycles.
So it was that Don Bigote and Wry One sallied forth from north Oakland one night at 8:30 p.m. on their bicycles. They whisked down Webster onto 27th to Grand Avenue, hugged Lake Merritt’s necklace of lights around to Lakeshore, and pedaled hard on East 14th Street, past iron-barred houses blaring norteño music.
Their first stop was the corner of International Boulevard and 22nd Avenue, where two trucks, Tacos Sinaloa and Mariscos Sinaloa, guarded a large parking lot. An adjacent outdoor seating area basked in the nervous glow of florescent fixtures. Don Bigote and Wry One began with seafood from Mariscos Sinaloa: taco de camerón and taco de pescado (shrimp and fish, respectively; $1.25 each), accompanied by horchata and a Diet Coke ($2.25 total for both drinks). The fish was perhaps not quite Rockridge-fresh, but both tacos had good, succulent flavors and pleasing “slow burn” spiciness.
Wry One walked across the parking lot to the Tacos Sinaloa truck and ordered a taco de carnitas and taco de lengua (braised pork and tongue; $1.25 each). Both were very good, but the lengua taco proved itself one of the highlights of the evening, with a judicious amount of cilantro highlighting the juicy, deep flavors of the tongue. “I like it that they put different sauces on each taco,” Wry One observed, as the two mounted their bikes to continue their sally.
Eight blocks of pedaling brought Don Bigote and Wry One to Mi Grullense at International Boulevard and 30th Avenue. A considerable queue awaited them at this well-regarded truck, where they sat on a curb and ate a taco de tripitas and taco del pastor (tripe and barbecued pork, $1.25 each). Bigote ordered another horchata ($1.00), this one more cinnamon-y than Sinaloa’s, and declared horchata the perfect accompaniment to tacos. “Its milky almondiness soothes the spice of the sauces, and the cinnamon tastes good with braised and roasted meats,” he pointed out to Wry One (who, being a trained chef, probably knew that already). Mi Grullense’s tacos didn’t quite live up to their fabled reputation on that night, although the taco del pastor was very good.
The pair re-mounted and continued a few blocks down International Boulevard, detouring west on Fruitvale in order to visit El Ojo de Agua. There they ate taco de lengua and taco de cabeza (tongue and brain, $1.50 each). Both preferred the lengua of Sinaloa, but they enjoyed the dark, rich flavor of the cabeza taco. Wry One observed wryly, “I really like it, but I can’t compare it to any other cabeza I’ve had, because I haven’t had any others.”
A brief climb up Fruitvale Avenue brought Don Bigote and Wry One to Mazatlán at the corner of Fruitvale and Foothill Boulevard. As Bigote snapped pictures of the somewhat surreal location, behind a fenced garden/shrine protected by the red neon glow of a huge EAST BAY LAUNDRY sign, Wry One ordered a taco de pollo and taco al paster (chicken and barbecued pork, $1.25 each). Both were excellent, and the men remarked on the flavorfulness of the chicken and the onions in the accompanying sauce.
Having decided that their sally merited one more stop, Don Bigote and Wry One pedaled several blocks down Foothill to 38th Avenue, where stands the taco truck El Centenario #2. Under the hungry gaze of a huge, painted shark on the wall of Connie’s Tropical Fish, Birds, and Reptiles, they ordered a taco de chicharrón and taco de carne asada (pork skin and steak, $1.25 each). The pork skin lent pleasing textural variety, while the steak, though overcooked, offered more interesting flavors.
The evening grew late, so Don Bigote and Wry One reluctantly agreed to leave the remaining list of taco trucks, culled from www.tacotrucks.net, for another time. They mounted their bicycles and made the climb back to north Oakland, full of tacos and contentment.
Don Bigote calculated the accounts: Two people, six taco trucks, 12 tacos, five drinks, $21… and no gas burned. “I have not sallied in vain,” Bigote concluded. And then he added, with a rueful grin, “how was I to know before embarking upon these adventures that, here in the Bay Area, one must forgo tapeo in favor of taqueo?”