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Mexican small plates that bring out the beauty of the Latin kitchen


When the Dominguez family opened Tamarindo Antojeria Mexicana in downtown Oakland, they knew just what the neighborhood was craving. Antojar means to crave in Spanish, and antojitos (pronounced ahn-tow-Hee-toes) are the small, powerfully flavorful snacks that satisfy those cravings.

Sopecitos (masa corn cakes) with toppings such as roasted chilies and crumbly, white cotija cheese; flaky empanaditas with a spicy shrimp filling; and Oaxacan-style pork-stuffed tamales are the sort of antojitos you might find vendors selling from carts on a plaza in Mexico. Thanks to Tamarindo, you can now find them in Old Oakland, a gentrifying historic district.

Before Tamarindo opened last summer, the Mexican food in the area consisted of anemic tacos at chains like La Salsa in Oakland City Center; big, mediocre burritos at a couple of local taquerias; and enormous combo platters served on scalding hot plates at Mexicali Rose, a restaurant that’s been cranking out Americanized Mexican fare for more than 30 years.

“That’s not how we eat in Mexico,” says Tamarindo owner Gloria Dominguez, a strikingly beautiful middle-aged woman with long, smooth, brown hair; fair skin; and sparkling, dark eyes. “I don’t know where those big old burritos came from. In Mexico, we start a meal with a little soup, and portions are small. It’s a social way of eating.”

Dominguez was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, and even after immigrating with her parents to Oakland at age 15, she returned each summer to her grandmother’s farm. “From when I was small, I learned about the cheeses and making the tortillas,” says Dominguez, who ran a taqueria called Salsa for many years in Antioch before getting the opportunity to venture into something more authentic.

To develop the recipes she serves at Tamarindo, Dominguez returned once again to Mexico to explore the food from various regions. “The recipes weren’t an overnight thing,” she says. “We worked each one till it got to the point where people loved it.”

You’ll taste those thoughtfully wrought flavors from your first bite at Tamarindo. The zippy ceviche—tender hunks of rock cod tossed with freshly squeezed lime juice, serranos and jalapeños, and cilantro—is delectably balanced by a garnish of creamy, ripe avocado and tortilla chips.

Teasing the palate is at the core of the antojito concept. “In your taste buds, you really only taste the first couple bites,” says Dominguez’s son, Alfonso, a stylish 28-year-old who is a partner in the restaurant. “That’s why we make the small plates. It’s kind of like a ‘food-gasm’ all the way through. It’s like: ‘Oh, oh, oh my god!’ You’re tasting different flavors. You’re not stuck with this one flavor.”

Alfonso’s food-gasms might seem over the top if you haven’t tasted Tamarindo’s crispy, golden brown tacos de camarón, filled with plump prawns, roasted chilies, and cool shreds of lettuce, or the mulitas, two supple, house-made tortillas stuffed with pink, juicy Niman Ranch steak, melted jack cheese, guacamole, and salsa fresca. These antojitos pulse with flavor, hitting your mouth with a bang and then revealing their beautiful complexity in successive waves.

The menu includes chiles toreados, an impressive array of grilled chilies, including a lone, tear-inducingly hot habañero that will satisfy even the hard-core heat lover.

“You can’t fake the funk,” says Alfonso of the heat in much of Tamarindo’s food. “You cannot. Because if real Mexicanos come in here, that’s what they want. It’s what we want, too. Otherwise it wouldn’t be authentic.”

Luckily, gringos enjoy the spice, too, and the restaurant’s Latin-themed wine list includes a Spanish rosé and an Argentinean Pinot Gris that pair well with spicy food. You can also order beer, the house-made aguas frescas, or Syrah-based sangria, all of which provide a refreshing contrast to Tamarindo’s at-times fiery food.

For dessert, the flan de coco, a firm yet creamy white custard topped with shredded coconut, is blissful. While developing the recipe, Dominguez converted her kids, including daughters Erica and Adriana,
and her three-year-old granddaughter, Gloria Alexandra, to the dish. “My kids hated flan; they wouldn’t eat flan,” Dominguez says, “but when I created this flan, they loved it.”

In constructing Tamarindo’s menu, the Dominguez family rediscovered their native cuisine. “It’s been so beautiful for me to have my kids working here,” says Dominguez. “To see people enjoying our food—it makes my kids proud of what they come from.”

Contact: 468 Eighth St., Oakland, (510) 444-1944, www.tamarindoantojeria.com
Hours: Lunch Tues.–Fri., dinner Tues.–Sat., brunch Sat.
Price: Antojitos $4–$10, entrées $9–$15
Alcohol: Wine and beer only

at a glance

What Makes It Special: True Mexican food, and it’s hot. Don’t miss the house special, mole de tamarindo.

The Space: The Aztec-chic interior is the work of the owner’s architect son, Alfonso. He even painted the portrait of Maria Felix, the Sophia Loren of Mexico, that hangs on the wall.

What to Order: “Food-gasmic” antojito small plates or one of the house specials.

Bonus: The unique Mexican hot chocolate, which Alfonso’s doll-faced fiancée, barista Johnelle Mancha, and his mother, Gloria, specially formulated.

When to Go: Business lunch, dinner anytime, or Saturday brunch. Tamarindo takes its siesta Sundays and Mondays.

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