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Fun Central

Coco Cabana brings good food and good times to Dublin.


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Husband and wife Omar and Sadaf Etemadi have a refreshingly simple attitude about Coco Cabana, their festive new Dublin restaurant.
It’s an approach perfectly illustrated by Omar’s straightforward-as-they-come explanation for the exotic name: “It just kind of sounded fun.”
He’s right: Barry Manilow’s “Copa, Copacabana” line kept running through my head on my way to the restaurant. And between the tropical cocktails, an accessible, affordable menu of modern Latin dishes, and a hip-but-not-intimidating vibe, Coco Cabana is fun. 

Still, the balancing act that the Etemadis pull off at their restaurant is anything but simple. Coco Cabana manages to slip comfortably into a dining niche that’s somewhere south of an expensive white tablecloth restaurant but well north of ubiquitous chains like P. F. Chang’s and Cheesecake Factory.

“We wanted it to be modern, fun, casual, but at the same time be fine dining,” Omar says. “I didn’t want it to be like an expensive steak house, where people were afraid to come in, but I also didn’t want it to be like an Applebee’s. We wanted something a little cozier, a little more sophisticated.” 

It all starts with the atmosphere: The restaurant’s lofty, spacious interior is striking, something the Etemadis admittedly inherited from the space’s previous tenant, Stacey’s at Waterford. But they’ve added some nice touches—toning down the color scheme to make it more intimate and adding an enormous vase centerpiece and a beautiful segment of tin ceiling—that give it a hip Los Angeles feel, without being forced or cheesy.

But that doesn’t matter without good food, and the food at Coco Cabana is very good. Start with the tapas. A traditionally Italian mussels-in-broth dish successfully incorporated Indian flavors with a rich, spicy coconut-tomato curry broth accented with cumin and served with a side of toasted pita bread. The savory chorizo bruschetta was addictively tasty, the spicy, tender chorizo starring along with fresh chopped tomatoes and manchego cheese. The shrimp in the camarónes al ajillo were bouncy-fresh and bursting with seafood flavor, and complemented nicely by sautéed garlic and peppers. The expertly seasoned sirloin albondigas (meatballs) were wonderfully comforting, served in a richly satisfying tomato-cream sauce.

That comfort factor shined throughout the menu: Each dish tasted as if it had been individually thought out and crafted in someone’s home kitchen.

Credit for that goes to 30-year-old Sadaf, who took an unorthodox path to her role as executive chef at Coco Cabana. When the couple opened its first restaurant, the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern–themed Oasis Grill in Pleasanton in 2004, she temporarily dropped out of dental school to help out in the kitchen, despite not having a lick of culinary school or restaurant industry experience. Seven years later, her dentist career is kaput, but her cooking skills have blossomed. Coco Cabana’s food is totally accessible, but Sadaf isn’t afraid to take chances, as evidenced by those delicious spicy mussels, an intensely spiced garlic-crusted chicken, or the unapologetically tart shrimp ceviche, which tasted as if it had come fresh from a beachside palapa in Mexico.

True, Sadaf’s on-the-job training occasionally results in just-average dishes: The sliders needed some tang to set off the meat, a light jalapeño oil dressing was overwhelmed by the gaminess of the lamb chops, and the arroz con mariscos never quite gelled. Still, it speaks to Sadaf’s skill that all the food we tried at Coco Cabana seemed professionally executed—and I still enjoyed each of those dishes, despite their flaws.

And don’t forget the tropical cocktails. As we listened to an excellent live Latin jazz trio on a packed Friday night, the scene and the cocktails elicited this quote from my dining partner: “Wow, I feel like I’m on vacation!”

Now there’s something you won’t hear at Applebee’s.

At a Glance

Whats so special: With a fun, hip vibe that doesn’t take itself too seriously, Coco Cabana feels like a night out.

The space: A large horseshoe-shaped bar and lounge is seamlessly incorporated into the dining area, creating a festive atmosphere.

Don’t miss: Nearly all the seafood dishes are spot on. Also, make sure to save room for dessert: The tropical upside-down pineapple cake was excellent, and do not—we repeat, do not—skip the fried dough served with your choice of dipping sauce (try the caramel).

Bonus: There is great live music on Friday nights and an outdoor dining and lounge area for warm weather, and the restaurant just started Sunday brunch. Plus, happy hour lasts from 2 to 7 p.m. daily.

Contact: 4500 Tassajara Rd., Dublin, (925) 556-9055, cococabanadublin.com. Hours: Lunch and dinner daily. Price: Tapas $5–$15, entrées $16–$23. Alcohol: Full bar. 

 

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