Calavera takes full advantage of its 18-foot ceilings with a towering, mezcal-filled bar. Photo: Alix Wall
Calavera takes full advantage of its 18-foot ceilings with a towering, mezcal- and tequila-filled bar. Photo: Alix Wall

If you’re one of the many who never made it to El Bulli, the famed Spanish restaurant that was considered a temple of molecular gastronomy, you can now have a taste of it in Oakland.

Go to Calavera, the new Oaxacan restaurant at the Hive on Broadway, and order one of its signature cocktails that includes “salt air.” El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià came up with the idea of using this salty froth instead of a salted rim. He taught it to Chef José Andrés, who then taught it to Michael Iglesias, a partner at Calavera.

Calavera — the name refers to the decorative skull used in Day of the Dead celebrations — is a joint project of Iglesias, Jessica Sackler and Chris Pastena, owner of Oakland’s Chop Bar and Lungomare. Iglesias and Sackler met while they both worked at Oyamel, a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C. owned by José Andrés.

Though Iglesias was working in Bay Area restaurants at the time, he hadn’t had much exposure to upscale Mexican food, so he returned to his native D.C. to work at Oyamel. It was there that he immersed himself in the world of Mexican cocktails.

With the Sandia, or watermelon margarita, they asked, “How do you make it inventive?” The answer? Pierde Almas mezcal, summer watermelon, cilantro, lime, chile pequín and Oaxacan salt air ($12). Photo: Alix Wall

“My experience there was a particular point of growth and discovery for me,” Iglesias said. “Working with José, we did over 100 cocktails that he would taste and then put on the menu.”

More recently, Iglesias and Sackler were working at Michael Chiarello’s Coqueta in San Francisco, Iglesias as general manager and Sackler as assistant general manager and wine director. Given they both shared a love of Mexico, they dreamed about opening their own Mexican restaurant someday.

That someday has come.

Though Oyamel wasn’t specifically a Oaxacan restaurant, both Sackler and Iglesias traveled to the Mexican region while working there. The two were not only were taken by the place, but by its food as well.

After opening Coqueta, they both needed a vacation, so they returned to Oaxaca. While dining at one of the city’s best restaurants, Los Danzantes, they said to each other, “We have to do this, it’s just that simple,” Iglesias recalled.

They also felt that after years of working for others, and starting their own consulting business, Dos Ojos Hospitality, it was time to strike out on their own.

Iglesias and Slacker started looking for investors and the right space, originally in San Francisco, when they got a phone call that changed everything.

Pastena, a long time friend and co-worker of Iglesias, was also planning to open a Mexican restaurant, and told them he had found the perfect space. In fact, he had already signed a lease on the space at the Hive Oakland complex in Uptown.

“He knew that when we left Coqueta, we wanted to do Mexican, and it was incredibly serendipitous,” said Iglesias. “When Chris called and told us he had found this space, we said we’d love to check it out and we fell in love instantly.”

Calavera is housed in an historic Julia Morgan-designed building in Uptown Oakland’s Hive Complex. Photo: Maggie Engebretson

Everything about the project, from the fact that the Hive is zoned for mixed use to the exposed brick walls of the Julia Morgan-designed building, appealed to the team.

“So it became a collection of three friends opening up our Mexican dream,” Iglesias said.

On a recent visit, it was easy to see why the team fell in love with the building. It’s clear that a lot of money and attention to detail has gone into its renovation (headed up by Oakland-based firm Arcsine) and interior design, from the patterned leather bar top to the artwork from Mexican artists. A collection of intricately-carved animals from Oaxacan folk artists are already on display and many more are coming, said Sackler.

Given that the team was looking to amass the most “thoughtful” selection of tequilas and mezcals in the Bay Area — it clocks in around 300 bottles, but they hope to get up to 400 — they needed a bar to house such a collection. The shelving for the bottles’ dizzying display is abstract in nature, and needs its own ladder to reach them all.

The wine program is also worthy of mention, as Sackler and Iglesias are trying to dispel the notion that Mexican food should only be paired with cocktails or a beer.

“We started that conversation in D.C., where there is not a big wine market,” said Iglesias, adding “To have two sommeliers in a Mexican restaurant is unheard of.”

But both wanted to prove that wine can indeed be paired with Mexican cuisine. The list is around 60% old world and 40% new world, featuring many Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners. “Mexican food is so rich in terroir with an earthiness to it, whether it’s mole, a chile salsa, epazote [a Mexican herb] or huitlacoche [corn fungus],” Iglesias explained. “So terroir-driven wines that are lightly oaked or unoaked make the most sense.”

Mexican wines are also represented. On our visit, Sackler paired an Alsatian Riesling and a Gamay Beaujolais with our entrees, but also brought out a Mexican Cabernet Sauvignon for us to try.

The tortilla cook at Calavera. Photo: Alix Wall

As for the food, authenticity is the primary goal. The chef, Christian Irabien, was a sous chef at Oyamel, and hails from Chihuahua, Mexico.

“It was important to us that we had a chef who understood how to do Mexican cuisine rooted in tradition, but had finesse and imagination. It’s authentic food but is presented in a beautiful, thoughtful and modern way,” said Iglesias.

This means that the tortillas are made in-house, of course. “Everything starts with a tortilla in Mexican cuisine,” said Iglesias. “Corn is the ancestral staple, and it was really important to honor that and have the tortilla be the right way. Everything we did in the kitchen design was to honor the idea of the tortilla.”

Iglesias added that it took them six weeks to test various kinds of corn and perfect their 18-hour technique. This means that they do their own nixtamalization; the kitchen soaks the corn in a solution of water and lime and then grinds it to make masa. Calavera also has a dedicated tortilla cook, whose job it is solely to cook tortillas on the wood-fired comal (griddle).

While much of the proteins and produce are sourced locally from small farms, certain fundamental ingredients come from afar. Calavera’s chapulines (grasshoppers toasted with garlic, lime and salt), a worm salt — yes, salt made out of worms — used in cocktails, Oaxacan chocolate for mole, and some varieties of chiles and quesillo cheese all come from Oaxaca.

Iglesias said that with Calavera, they are aiming to be an “amazing neighborhood restaurant, one where you can come in for two tacos and a drink, or a tasting menu for your anniversary.”

He continued, “to have the honor of being ambassadors of Mexican culture and artistry in every way,” he said, “is why we do what we do.”

Calavera treated NOSH to a complementary tasting of much of the menu. The meal, in photos, below:

Calavera has three kinds of ceviche on the menu. The Ceviche de Atún Estilo José (above) includes line caught yellow fin tuna, maggi-lime marinade and toasted amaranth ($13). Photo: Alix Wall
The Ceviche Costeño features local halibut crudo, avocado, salsa Mexicana and toasted hominy ($12). Photo: Alix Wall
Sampling all of Calavera’s tacos is a great way to taste its menu, including Irabien’s 35-ingredient mole, in a few bites. From left to right, Calabacitas (young summer squashes, white corn, epazote crème and queso fresco) ($3.5), Cochinita Pibil (baby pig, mayan axiote rub and sour orange marinade) ($4), Mollejas de Ternera Con Pitayas en Escabeche (masa-crusted veal sweetbreads, avocado, red onion escabeche and dragonfruit) ($5), and Pollo en Mole Poblano (grilled organic chicken, mole and crispy rice) ($4.50). Photo: Paul Bosky
Chapulines (grasshoppers) come with guacamole, but can also be added to nearly any dish for added crunch. (A first, hearing my husband say, “Needs more grasshoppers.”) Photo: Alix Wall
Birria de Chivo (chile-chocolate braised goat, roasted tomato broth and mezcal preserved cherries) ($24). Photo: Paul Bosky
Frijol Con Puerco (braised pork shank, black bean espuma and salsa verde) ($24). Photo: Paul Bosky
Nopal Asado (young Mexican cactus, salsa asada and toasted hazelnuts) ($5). Photo: Paul Bosky
Tarta de Chocolate (mole chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream and cajeta) ($8). Photo: Alix Wall
Arroz Con Leche de Cabra (rice pudding with goats’ milk, stone fruit and candied almonds) ($7). Photo: Alix Wall
“Churrodonas” are a cross between a Churro and a donut. At Calavera, they are served with Oaxacan chocolate and passion fruit dipping sauces. Photo: Alix Wall

Calavera is at 2337 Broadway (between 23rd and 24th streets), Oakland. 510-338-3273. Open Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30 to 10 p.m. and Fridays-Saturdays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Lunch and brunch coming soon. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...