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Cocina Caliente

A first taste of the new restaurant collabortation between Jeff Dudum and Carlos Santana promises good things to come.


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Bar Manager Mike Bynum, owner Jeff Dudum, and sous chef Josh Perkins
Photography by Sarah Kehoe

Jeff Dudum was sitting at the head of a table in his Mexican eatery in Walnut Creek earlier this fall. In the space formerly known as the Cantina, Dudum—and a task force of cooks, barkeeps, and bookkeepers—tasted guacamole, which had just been made before his eyes.

Guacamole prepared tableside is a beautiful thing because you see the fresh ingredients going into it. A new recipe for the classic appetizer, punctuated with roasted tomatillo, chipotle, and chile manzano salsa, is one of many culinary flourishes the restaurant was to unveil at its reopening as Maria Maria, which was due to happen in late October.

“Spread the guacamole on a fresh tortilla,” says Roberto Santibañez, the celebrity Mexican chef Dudum has hired to oversee Maria Maria’s menu. “House-made tortillas will mark the difference between a good restaurant and a great restaurant.”Dudum bites. And beams. “Oh, man,” gushes the 35-year-old restaurateur. “That’s awesome.”For the next two hours, Santibañez offers course after course of stunning cuisine. A spinach salad loaded with mangoes and grilled jumbo shrimp is fresh and zesty, as is the Acapulco-style seared snapper with pico de gallo and pineapple. Braised lamb shanks with nopalitos (prickly pear cactus) are hearty and juicy. Even better is the tender braised duck at the center of soft tacos, covered with peppers and crema. Clearly, this was not the family-style Mexican food that Cantina patrons have been accustomed to during the past two decades.From what we’re seeing, and tasting, Maria Maria may bring Mexican cuisine to Walnut Creek that will rival the food served at Oakland’s Doña Tomás. And it will have a larger dining room and Latin music on weekends.

To Dudum, the meal must taste like another hit restaurant. He’s the guy behind celebrity-themed eateries McCovey’s and Bing Crosby’s in Walnut Creek, and Joe DiMaggio’s Italian Chophouse in San Francisco. This new venture, which Dudum plans to open in at least two more locations, is a partnership with music legend Carlos Santana, the Latin blues-rock guitarist who has sold more than 90 million records. The world knows Santana for his soaring solos, his onstage sermons about magic and angels, and his Milagro Foundation, which helps underprivileged children around the world. Maria Maria is the guitar god’s first foray into restaurant ownership.

Named for a song on Santana’s 1999 mega-Grammy-winning album Supernatural, Maria Maria has been in the works for two years, conceived after Dudum met Santana’s sister and brother-in-law, who live in the East Bay. “Carlos’s sister and her husband were coming into Bing’s and McCovey’s all the time,” says Dudum. “We got to talking, and one thing led to another.”

Dudum says Santana was not interested in opening a Hard Rock Cafe with a south-of-the-border theme. “You won’t come into this restaurant and see giant photos of Carlos, or autographed guitars all over the walls,” Dudum says. “Carlos wants to present Mexican cuisine in an authentic, exciting way, so that people can really enjoy, and understand, this culture.”

The restaurant has already gotten major buzz—including a mention in Rolling Stone magazine, saying that it would open last April. One reason for the delay is that Dudum and his culinary director, Frank Palmer, wanted to hire Santibañez, who trained in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu before gaining celebrity in Manhattan (and on The Martha Stewart Show) with his cooking at Rosa Mexicano restaurants.  Santibañez needed to wrap up a few East Coast obligations before getting started on Maria Maria.

According to Dudum, a single conference call was all it took to get Santibañez and Santana together. “Roberto and Carlos are a perfect match,” says Dudum, who grew up in Lafayette. “They have similar backgrounds, growing up in Mexico, and they share common goals. They live with passion and are incredibly creative. Carlos opened the first medical clinic in his town [Autlan de Navarro], and Roberto is planning to open a cooking school for children to really learn about the culture of Mexican cuisine.”

Santana is known for being a deeply spiritual kind of guy, maybe even to the point that he’s having a calming effect on the hyperactive Dudum. Dudum says their collaboration revitalized him at a time when he was juggling life with his wife and two young sons in Alamo and the challenge of opening his first restaurants away from the East Bay. The period around the launch of DiMaggio’s, his North Beach steak house, in 2005 was particularly stressful.

“I was thinking that our success record would carry us. Joe DiMaggio was raised in North Beach, and I thought that was enough of a calling card right there,” says Dudum. “It wasn’t that easy.”

“I was moving at 1,000 miles per hour. I truly thought I was going to have a heart attack,” he says. “I’ve managed to slow things down to 100 miles an hour. Carlos has kind of taught me to sit back and watch, and take in all that’s going on around you, not to let little things worry you. Plus, I have an amazing team in [Dudum Sports and Entertainment’s offices in] Walnut Creek that stays on top of things, so I don’t need to micromanage everything.”

To chill out, Dudum recently purchased several acres and a small home in Murphys, and says he relishes leaving his Treo at home and escaping to Gold Country. “I have a double-wide trailer on a hill and a 360-degree view of paradise,” he says.

Even if Dudum has pulled into a somewhat slower lane, his expanding empire employs more than 800 people. With five restaurants opening in the next year, from Boca Raton to San Diego, Dudum spends a good amount of time on an airplane, but he swears he’s always got one eye on further business opportunities here in Diabloland.

“It’s been exciting to see how much Walnut Creek has changed in the past few years, and to be a part of that,” says Dudum. “There is still so much opportunity here—I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

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