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Restaurant Review: El Sacromonte

New First Street restaurant brings uncompromising and vibrant Mexican fare to Livermore.


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Photography by Mitch Tobias

Sergio Barba won’t typically recommend the sweet and salty chile en nogada to his American customers. “They love it or hate it,” he says with a laugh. “Order at your own risk.”

This classic dish shows the culture-clashing challenges of transplanting El Sacromonte’s menu from Guadalajara to Livermore untouched. But if anyone is up to such a transition and translation, it’s Barba, who recently immigrated to Dublin after working at an international construction company based in Mexico. His El Sacromonte is a lively restaurant in downtown Livermore, with an elaborate menu that showcases dozens of sauces (including saffron and a creamy essence of lobster), and features dazzling, intricate presentations. The restaurant’s creation called for heavy investment, careful preparation … and plenty of guts.

“We took a risk,” says Barba. 

“We” refers to Barba and his local partner and architect, Pedro Martinez, and Gerardo Delgadillo, the chef and cofounder of the original El Sacromonte in Guadalajara. Delgadillo’s credentials as an ambassador of Mexican cuisine are impressive. He’s been asked to cook around the world (India and France included), and prepared meals in Mexico for visiting world leaders—even for the Pope.

Barba says giant burritos, margaritas, and chips and salsa are like Cinco de Mayo itself: more of an American fascination than a Mexican tradition. Instead, the signature style here is dishes that are at once elegant and bold. The chocolate mole (ladled over crispy chicken at dinner and tender beef tongue at lunch) is hauntingly sweet, with rich sesame and nut overtones. The pork shank is a massive cut slathered in achiote and orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves, and gently steamed until fork tender.

There are five steaks on offer, from ground beef to filet mignon, each boldly flavored and playfully presented with garnishes of carrot and cacti flowers, bright ribbons of pickled onions, carved radish roses, and gently cooked baby vegetables.

The lunch menu is less ambitious but equally intriguing. A boatload of shrimp arrives in a giant stone mortar filled with lively tomatillo sauce and bits of truly fresh queso fresco. Bite-sized tortillas and a bouquet of cilantro let you roll your own tacos. The Dolores del Rio is a salad of explosive proportions, loaded with olives, anchovies, goat cheese, and croutons. The black bean soup is tame by comparison but uncommonly good—distinct with the tang of epazote (a wild Mexican herb) and red wine.

As for drinks, the wine selection is a tribute to Livermore Valley, with a few Napa and Argentina gems thrown into the mix. The full bar has a wide range of high-end tequilas and a dozen Mexican and American beers.

Desserts are as fanciful as the rest of the menu, with the corn ice cream wrapped in a pastry purse winning the beauty contest.

You’ll find the beautiful food’s  playful and truly Mexican spirit echoed in El Sacromonte’s elaborately decorated dining room. Shiny red hearts abound—life-size look-alikes of candy cinnamon hearts—transmitting a message of all that is sacred. Angels and archangels greet guests and watch over the dining room, while rotund caricatures of a left-handed matador and the Mona Lisa offer sly smiles. The overall effect is a bit like the movie Brazil meets Willy Wonka, or what you might imagine as a divine doodle.

By summer, a new 50-seat patio will extend this spirit to the street. Within a year, Barba and company hope to open an Argentine steak house next to Livermore’s Bankhead Theater. And then the plan is to move on to Walnut Creek for El Sacromonte number three—building on lessons learned in Livermore, but doubtless still featuring the classic ground beef–stuffed chile en nogada.

Its red (pomegranate seeds), white (sour cream and pecan sauce), and green (fresh chile) represent the Mexican flag, and might well test your patriotism. I fell into the “love it” category, but the intensely contrasting flavors, textures, and temperatures (cold sauce, warm beef, and dried-fruit filling) were too much for me to make a meal of it. Try sharing it as an appetizer with a group of friends interested in a real taste of Mexico. And don’t forget the pitcher of margaritas. There are 22 variations to choose from—a spirited nod from Barba to our American ways.


Contact: 2062 First St., Livermore, (925) 371-1173, elsacromonte-usa.com. Lunch and dinner daily. Full bar.
 

At a Glance

What makes it special: Traditional Mexican food served in an elegant style. The space: Prepare to be wowed: The ornamentation is psychedelic. When to go: The best deals are at lunch. What to order: The seafood rocks, especially ceviche and anything with shrimp. Bonus: Lots of upscale margaritas—available by the pitcher.

 

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