High-end chefs elevate the simple taco.
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While beloved by many, Mexican food in Northern California is rarely treated as gourmet. But pedigreed chefs at four new East Bay restaurants are approaching south-of-the-border fare with a foodie’s eye, starting with that most basic of Mexican dishes: the taco. Here’s the scoop.
The Carne Asada Taco
Executive Chef Matt Gandin
A carne asada taco decked out with steak house– quality strips of choice beef.
Anatomy of the Taco
Carne asada: Made with the lean, flank steak–like suadero cut, the beef is hormone- and antibiotic-free, and sourced from a Berkeley butcher down the street. It’s marinated overnight, grilled on a walnut and mesquite charcoal grill, and sliced (not diced) into tender strips.
Nopales salad: The paddle portion of the cactus, the nopal, is blanched in saltwater and marinated with red onion, serrano chile, cilantro, and lime juice.
Chipotle salsa: For spice and smokiness, Comal uses a chipotle salsa made with cara-
melized garlic and onions. Says Gandin: “This taco’s combination of flavors—the beef, cactus, mesquite, smoked chile—was very much inspired by Mexico’s northern ranch country.”
Tortilla: The corn is sourced from a non-GMO farm in Illinois, then milled to certain specification at Concord’s El Molino.
The professor: Matt Gandin
Comal executive chef Matt Gandin spent a year pursuing a Ph.D. in Latin American history, with a focus on Mexican politics and art (“I found that stuff fascinating”), before realizing that academia wasn’t for him. Instead, Gandin switched gears to his other passion, cooking, and worked his way up through some of the Bay Area’s top restaurants, before spending a year in Italy learning to make pasta from locals. When he returned, he landed at Delfina, the San Francisco restaurant that emphasizes a seasonal California cuisine approach to regional Italian food. Gandin spent eight years there before returning to his first love, Mexican food. “Philosophically, there are a lot of similarities to what I’m doing here,” he says. “It’s taking whatever is best at the market, not doctoring it much, and cooking simple, flavorful, soulful food.”
Background: Delfina, San Francisco, chef de cuisine.
Restaurant: The sleek, expansive eatery has an open kitchen, top-notch cocktail program, and beautiful backdoor patio.
The menu: Comal stays true to typical Mexican food—to a point. Gandin explains: “I’m not messing with the moles. But I’m not afraid to use ingredients that you might not find in, say, Oaxaca. There’s no king salmon there, but I’m going to use it at Comal because it’s local here, and it’s delicious.”
Also try: The fried fresh chicharrónes with house-made habanero sauce; a rich, layered tripe stew; delicate squash blossom quesadillas; a chile relleno with salty queso fresco; or ocean fresh wood-grilled rock cod (whole or in tacos).
Contact: 2020 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 926-6300, comalberkeley.com.
The Shrimp Taco
Executive Chef Dominica Rice
Served on Fridays only, these Baja-style tacos show off the pure flavor of A-list ingredients.
Anatomy of the Taco
Shrimp: Sourced from Monterey Fish Market, the shrimp are wild caught. “I would never touch farmed,” says Rice. “These have the concentrated shrimp flavor I love.” They’re coated with a light fritto misto batter made with flour and sparkling water (a technique she learned at Chez Panisse), and fried to order.
Cabbage slaw: A light, citrusy slaw made with organic cabbage and jicama from Berkeley Bowl market, tossed to order with garlic-lemon vinaigrette. “It provides texture and crunchiness, as well as some brightness.”
Chipotle crema: Made with chipotle en adobo (chiles seasoned in a tomato sauce), the crema lends heat and, importantly, “a little fattiness—the taco would be too lean without it.”
Tortilla: Each is made with fresh masa from La Palma Tortilleria by “the señoras,” as Rice calls the Mexican mothers (and grandmothers) who make them by hand throughout the day.
The advocate: Dominica Rice
She has cooked with top chefs at such lauded restaurants as Stars in San Francisco (Jeremiah Tower), Restaurant Daniel in New York (Daniel Boulud), and Berkeley’s Chez Panisse (Alice Waters). But Dominica Rice left her heart in Mexico City, where she worked for a year. “There were all these little sit-down cafés that served prix fixe lunch like something you’d see in Paris or Rome. And even the small taco stands had a bit of formality in their approach. That really inspired me.” It also inspired her Cosecha Cafe, which she opened in Oakland’s Swan’s Market last year. The vibe, with communal tables and counter ordering, is decidedly casual, yet refined. “You can have good quality seafood and good quality meat and veggies in a Mexican place. The yellowtail jack we grill Friday nights is the same as they deliver to Chez Panisse.”
Background: Stars, San Francisco; Restaurant Daniel, New York City (interned); Chez Panisse, Berkeley; Restaurant Soleil, Mexico City.
Restaurant: Located inside Old Oakland’s Swan’s Market, Cosecha’s casual-yet-elegant vibe falls somewhere between a Mexican market stall and a Parisian café.
The menu: Mostly tacos, quesadillas, and tortas (Mexican sandwiches). Cosecha just started serving dinner Thursday through Saturday and weekend brunch. Check the Facebook page for special dinners and visiting chefs.
Also try: Pork belly tacos; grilled chicken torta ahogada; vegetarian mushroom and Oaxacan cheese quesadilla; and perfectly sweet guava tarts for dessert.
Contact: 907 Washington St., Oakland, (510) 452-5900, cosechacafe.com.