Ready to Rumbo
Rumbo al Sur: À Côté’s sister restaurant has the same great vibe with a Latin flair.
Photography by Joe Budd
“Hey, someone kick that guy out of here!” shouts Jack Knowles, suddenly serious behind the bar of his newest restaurant, Rumbo al Sur.
Knowles quickly smiles, and everyone relaxes, as it becomes clear that he is just messing around with a bartender visiting from Rumbo’s sister restaurant, À Côté.
A wisecracking owner isn’t the only thing the two restaurants share. The 11-year-old À Côté has proved enduringly popular, and Knowles borrowed liberally from the Mediterranean restaurant’s crowd-pleasing recipe of interesting-but-accessible food, expert-but-relaxed service, and cozy-yet-festive atmosphere.
Knowles, a commercial real estate developer, spent countless hours refining his new pan-Latin concept, helping make Rumbo an instant hit when it opened last fall on the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it commercial strip of Oakland’s residential Glenview neighborhood.
“For me, restaurants are all about creating a place for people to come together. So, I’m really sensitive to all the little details that go into that.”
Like at À Côté, the beating heart of Rumbo is the bar, this one sporting a tequila-centric cocktail menu (and staffed by very generous bartenders). A large communal table adds to the cheery atmosphere, even as couples cozy up at tables for two tucked into intimate little nooks carved into the walls of the dining room’s perimeter.
But as much as Rumbo is a reflection of its design, it’s also a reflection of its owner. Infectiously enthusiastic, Knowles seems to radiate energy, as he chats about his many interests and pet projects, his language peppered with New Agey references (he introduced pastry chef Elaine Osuna as the restaurant’s “spiritual den mother”).
A regular Burning Man attendee, he was a strong proponent of Proposition 19, last year’s failed state initiative to legalize recreational marijuana. Meanwhile, he has translated his love of New Orleans jazz into his current Preservation Hall West project, set to open later this year, which is a San Francisco spin-off of the famous Big Easy music hall. Oh, and he also has plans to renovate the space next door to À Côté into yet another restaurant.
“A madman—that sums him up pretty well,” says executive chef Matt Colgan, with a laugh. “Jack really imbues this place with a lot of energy. He comes in with his verve for life, and everyone feeds off of that.”
Translating that energy into a great restaurant experience is the job of his staff, many of whom have worked together at À Côté for more than a decade. Colgan’s food, as befitting the restaurant’s user-friendly vibe, is on the local/sustainable pulse of the Bay Area, without being in your face about it.
“Don’t get me wrong, we source great products,” Colgan says. “I’m getting organic, beautiful beets from Coke Farm, but I’m not going to say ‘beet salad with beautiful organic Coke Farm beets’ on the menu.”
Let’s start with that beet salad because, well, it’s delicious. Positively luminous in the dim lighting, the red-orange beets are ultrasweet, balanced with refreshing grapefruit, salty queso fresco, and watercress that give the dish a nice bitter bite. It’s a great example for a seasonal, frequently changing menu that delves honestly into its pan-Latin theme, without going overboard.
That menu also offers a chicharrón de pollo appetizer. Osuna joked that they originally wanted to call it “crack chicken,” and I can see why, after tasting the nuggets of crispy, tender chicken served with a wonderfully creamy aji amarillo sauce. Equally addictive are the hearty chiles rellenos, sharply spiced and stuffed with sweet butternut squash, crimini mushrooms, and cheese. My favorite was the rock cod Veracruzana. This whole fried fish (head and all) is a knockout: ocean fresh, moist, and crispy, and covered by a sweet-savory sauce of stewed tomatoes, jalapeños, and olives.
There are a few misses—the shrimp ceviche and chicken mole lost some soul in their translation to fine-dining fare—but just a few. And Knowles, sipping a blanco tequila at the end of the packed bar, certainly seems happy—even as he reflects on his many projects still to come.
“Sure, it would have been better if they didn’t all happen at once, but dude, you’ve just got to answer the call, you know? It will all work out. Everything will open when it’s right.”
At a Glance
What’s so special: A fun small-plates menu, with portions big enough to satisfy. The space: The red-hued interior feels intimate yet festive. Don’t miss: Chicharrón de pollo, tamarind-guava–glazed baby back ribs, and rock cod Veracruzana. Bonus: Complement your tequila shot with a side of spicy tomato juice–based sangrita.
Contact: 4239 Park Blvd., Oakland, (510) 479-1208, rumboalsurrestaurant.com. Hours: Dinner daily. Price: Appetizers $5–$14, entrées $15–$25. Alcohol: Full bar.