Feast Your Eyes is a photo-driven introduction to an East Bay restaurant that’s been open for at least one year. We hope these stories will inspire you to check out these eateries for the first time, or remind you to visit again. If you have a recommendation for a restaurant we should feature, email us at email@example.com.
In recent years, restaurants have been opening around the Bay Area trying to up the game when it comes to Mexican cuisine. Think of places like Cala and Californios in San Francisco, Comal in Berkeley, and Calavera and Agave Uptown in Oakland.
But in Old Oakland, executive chef Gloria Dominguez has been redefining Mexican food for 13 years at her restaurant Tamarindo Antojeria Mexicana by going beyond your typical burritos and tacos, putting an emphasis on street food but with a polished flair. Dominguez serves dishes that come from more than seven regions in Mexico, many of them antojitos, or small plates.
I’m embarrassed to admit that while Tamarindo was always on my list of places to try, I’d never made it in the last 13 years. I finally made up for it when I recently dined there with a friend (and then again solo at the bar) and now I keep thinking: Why did it take me so long?
The space is inviting and colorful; what you would imagine a sophisticated restaurant in Mexico City to be like. Dominguez’s son is an architect, and he played a major role in the decor, furnishings and artwork on the walls. The large bar is popular during happy hour, and the main dining room gives a glimpse of the partially open kitchen.
Tamarindo claims to be the first mezcal bar in town, with a robust list of more than 40 bottles of the smoky Mexican spirit derived from agave. But when at a Mexican restaurant, I always test the bar by its classic margarita. Tamarindo has three types, all featuring lime and rimmed with a swoosh of fine chile salt. The El Fabuloso ($14) is made with Don Julio Reposado, Mandarine Napolean Liqueur and agave nectar; Margarita de Tamardino ($13) features Pueblo Viejo Silver and sweet-sour tamarind; while Margarita de la Casa ($11) is made with Pueblo Viejo Silver sweetened with agave nectar. I went with the latter of the three, the house margarita, and enjoyed the balance of its sweet base with the spicy salt.
The food menu features soups and salads, and four large plates. But the biggest selection comes in the antojitos section. Ceviche ($15) is a daily changing chef’s choice, and on my visit, the dish was made with meaty rock cod in a spicy chile-lime marinade, mixed with slices of avocado and served with house-made tortilla chips.
Empanadas de platano ($8) doesn’t have the same texture as most empanadas made with pastry dough. Dominguez’s version has a softer shell because of the plantain that’s used as a base for the dough; they’re filled with black beans and queso fresco and garnished with a mole and crema.
Tostaditas de Tinga ($10) is a trio of tostadas made with chipotle-marinated chicken. The tostadas are perfectly crispy with flavorful garnishes — shredded cabbage, pickled onions, avocado, chipotle pepper and crema — piled on top. They’re best eaten with a big bite otherwise everything falls apart after the first crunch.
Albondigas al Chipotle ($10) is a dish of light and fluffy meatballs made with natural-fed beef and pork with a slightly spicy but light chipotle sauce. It’s a must order for any meatball fan.
During dinner, I always order some vegetables for balance and typically don’t think much of a dish made up of assorted seasonal produce. But I was wowed when the Vegetales Asados ($9) came to the table on a beautiful round plate, each grilled piece of summer squash, red bell pepper, asparagus, romanesco and corn carefully placed like a work of art and then drizzled with a creamy tamarind glaze that almost tasted like it had a hint of miso. This simple plate opened my eyes to the sophisticated approach to Mexican cooking coming from Dominguez’s kitchen.
One of the large plates I tried is the Cochinita Pibil ($24), a Yucatan dish of achiote marinated pork steamed in banana leaves and served with white rice, fried plantains and handmade corn tortillas. The pork had a lot of flavor, though maybe slightly dry, but still nice when mixed with the rice and eaten with the fresh tortillas.
For dessert, the guava flan is a different spin on the traditional vanilla-caramel version. At Tamarindo, the creamy flan’s texture had more of a pumpkin pie feel, maybe from the guava, and finished with a caramel syrup.
After 13 years, Tamarindo continues to draw the crowds (some of its notable fans include members of the Warriors). Its welcoming service and decor make you feel like home, but the quality, freshness and diversity of the menu makes you realize you’re in a truly special place.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.