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Weekly Dish: Barbacoa Opens

Barbacoa brings street legal Mexican to Orinda; yet more Oakland dining news; La Boulange goes national; California-Asian street food concept planned for Lafayette; a shout-out to Comal in Berkeley; and more in this week's Dish!


Barbacoa debuted Tuesday night, bringing some much-needed life to the heart of Orinda's Theater Square. From the owners of Table 24 a few doors down, the new Mexican restaurant is a real stunner, featuring a large separated bar area, a lively outdoor patio (bringing energy to an oft-dead part of the square), a nice sit-down dining room with an open kitchen, beautiful interior details including a colorful Latin mural, and, most importantly, a not-your-typical-suburban-taqueria menu. That menu is the labor of love of Jason Moniz, the new executive chef for Table 24 and Barbacoa, who came on board primarily because of his passion for true Mexican food. I spoke with Moniz a few weeks ago, but he brings an extensive resume including stints as head chef at Flora, Tres Agaves, and his own restaurant Locavore in San Francisco. But most importantly, he has traveled extensively through Mexico and wanted to express an authentic interpretation of the kind of every-day food he fell in love with in that country.

CLICK HERE to take a look at a sample menu, but its filled with some really interesting items such as barbacoa (pork marinated in achiote and citrus, wrapped in banana leaves, and slow cooked in coals), chicharron con limon (crisp pork skin with sea salt, chile and lime), and pollo al pastor (half rotisserie chicken marinated in garlic and chiles). It's a bold, interesting menu you wouldn't expect to necessarily find in a suburban locale like Orinda; one that Moniz expressed hope would bring in folks from beyond just the immediate Lamorinda area. "I want to have the best Mexican restaurant in the Bay Area... I want San Francisco, Oakland, to all pay attention to Orinda. I want to have people see it as a dining destination."

Barbacoa chef Jason MonizI went last night and tried a few tacos, and really enjoyed them; in particular the barbacoa, which was absolutely oozing flavor. Also, the fresh-made chips with queso fresco were out of this world. So will this make Orinda a Bay Area dining destination? That remains to be seen, but I'd certainly shoot over from Walnut Creek for lunch to get another taste of the barbacoa—and those chips...

2 Theatre Sq., Orinda, (925) 254-1183, barbacoaorinda.com

Oakland, Oakland... I can't turn my back on that city for two seconds without new restaurants popping up like wild mushrooms. Old Oakland in particular as ex-Hibiscus chef Sarah Kirnon has signed on to open up a new restaurant called Miss Ollie's at 901 Washington Street on the corner of the Swan's Market building. Kirnon's fried chicken at Hibiscus // Photo by Mayra S., yelp.comAccording to Inside Scoop, Kirnon is planning a fall debut and a Caribbean-themed menu with all dishes "using the flavors of the African Diaspora." Also, B Restaurant was bought by A.G. Ferrari owner Paul Ferrari. No word yet on his plans for the beautiful corner space at Washington and 9th streets, except that B Restaurant is closed for good—best wishes to B-owner Kevin Best who gave it a real go in Old Oakland before it became a hip place to invest—he'll continue to run his Boxed Food Company.  "We’re beyond grateful to our loyal regulars and all of the shared meals we’ve had at B Oakland. This sale represents the most difficult decision we have made in our business to-date.  We are grateful and blessed with the opportunities this creates for us throughout the great city of Oakland—stay tuned for news on the expansion of Boxed Foods in the East Bay and San Francisco."

Looks like some more good news for Uptown Oakland as well, as the currently vacant stretch of buildings between 23rd and 24th streets on Broadway may soon be developed. According to Konda Mason, the director of Hub Oakland, the community-growth-oriented shared-workspace will be the centerpiece of a handful of new businesses and organizations that will fill in most of that block, which is set to be developed as a mixed-use housing/retail project by Mike Ghielmetti's Signature Development Group (the same one behind the Broadway Grand condo project down the street that includes Picán and Ozumo restaurants). According to Mason, the incoming group of businesses will feature several dining-oriented spots (in addition to holistic health and urban agriculture elements), which includes a neighborhood cafe, a possible beer garden, and a new location for Numi, the tea production company currently headquartered in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood. While nothing is finalized yet, Mason was confident in the project moving forward and said the preliminary plan was for places to start coming online throughout 2013. "There is going to be a really cool eco-system of businesses, all with a sustainable, green lens to them," says Mason. "It's really exciting."

Speaking of Picán, the popular California-Southern restaurant has finally replaced departed chef Dean Dupuis. And despite owner Michael LeBlanc's original plans to scour the south for a new All Star chef, it turns out that the solution was right under his nose the whole time. Pican officially announced the hiring of Sophina Uong, who originally helped Dupuis open Pican in 2009 and was filling in temporarily (on Dupuis' recommendation) until a full-time replacement could be found. Well, Uong did such a good job filling in that she made the gig permanent. Says LeBlanc: "I was so impressed with the refinement, the interpretation, the skill set in managing the kitchen, the taste of the food, that I said hmmm, I think I’ve got my chef right here."

I sat down with Uong and LeBlanc to talk about the hire and the new menu. Diners can expect a little more California-influenced fusion on the menu, as Uong, a Cali-native, has a French-Mediterranean cooking background in addition to some Asian influences from her Cambodian heritage (she's working on an apple kimchi with meatballs for the bar menu and jook—Asian rice porridge—with pork belly for the brunch menu). "It's still southern, just with a few twists," she says. That being said, LeBlanc is actually sponsoring Uong on a mini-tour of the southern U.S.—including, most importantly, LeBlanc's hometown of New Orleans—to make sure his new chef doesn't stray too far from Pican's southern soul. In the meantime, Uong is set to debut her revamped dinner menu this Thursday. Final details are still being worked out but expect a lighter, more refined touch to the food—not to worry, the fried chicken, meatloaf, and ribs will remain...

I had a chance to sample a couple items (I know, I know; tough job), which included a delicate clam dish with spicy okra served in a Cajun roux-like broth; delicious, refreshing Blue crab salad profiteroles (yes, profiteroles); and a flat iron steak served with a crawfish etouffée and absolutely killer fried cornbread balls. Everything I tried was indeed a little less Southern comfort and a bit more California-fresh—in a good way. And hey, anything with fried balls of cornbread is still soul food at heart.

Crab Profiteroles
Flat iron with etouffée and fried cornbread

I think we can expect plenty more creative dishes to come out of this collaboration: the two have an amusing, odd couple-type partnership that seems to work for them, as they describe below.

Uong: We've found a really good relationship where he asks me for something and I say 'Okay, I won’t give you that exactly, but maybe I'll do something like that." For instance, I won’t make the crawfish quesadillas that he was asking for, but maybe I’ll give him crawfish tacos.
LeBlanc: It's a dance.
Uong: We still smile.
LeBlanc: And I think the back and forth of the dance produces something better, for me, than maybe what I initially thought.

So far so good...

Picán, 2295 Broadway  Oakland, (510) 834-1000, picanrestaurant.com

Boo Koo spring rollsBoo Koo. No it's not a new exercise craze, it's a popular casual Asian street food restaurant in Mill Valley that is hoping to open a new location in Lafayette. I spoke with one of the owners, Matt Holmes, who said that they were looking to open the new restaurant in a new built-out space near Chow sometime early next year. Boo Koo specializes in healthy, affordable interpretations of Southeast Asian street food (every dish starts out vegan before adding a choice of meat), including pad Thai, rice bowls, and what Holmes calls "the best Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches in the Bay Area." While Holmes described the Mill Valley location as "a shoebox," he had grand plans for a potentially larger Lafayette location including hiring a pastry chef for expanded dessert offerings and perhaps a full bar. eatbookoo.com.

Holy La Boulange! It seems like just yesterday I was talking with owner Pascal Rigo about what color the exterior of his new Walnut Creek location would be (blue, although Rigo would have preferred yellow). Now comes the news that coffee behemoth Starbucks purchased Rigo's 19-strong Bay Area cafe/bakery chain for a whopping $100 million and plans to start carrying La Boulange food offerings in all of its U.S. stores. That's not all. According to Inside Scoop, La Boulange stores would remain their own entities with plans to open as many as 400 across the country. Yowzas! I wonder if Rigo was working on this deal while discussing store hues with me... CLICK HERE to see Starbuck's take on things.

Got a few more details on The Melt’s new Berkeley store. The grilled cheese-centric restaurant started by FLIP camera-founder Jonathan Kaplan is schedule to open it's new store located a stone's throw from UC Berkeley “before the start of the fall term,” according to the Melt’s ‪Paul Coletta‬. Wise move that. The Berkeley Melt will also be featuring a new breakfast menu that was just rolled out company-wide featuring egg-in-a-hole grilled breakfast melts, yogurt parfaits, Peet’s coffee & tea, and more. It’ll be what Coletta calls, “the best breakfast for $6 in 3 minutes or less.” A little of the founder’s high-tech pedigree can be found at The Melt, where you can order via your smart phone and then scan a code at the restaurant, where they’ll fire up your order on the spot. They will also soon be adding San Francisco’s 21st Amendment to their beer and wine lineup—and plan to expand to 15 stores (they currently have 4) California-wide by the end of the year. themelt.com

In Pleasanton, Pans on Fire is moving off Main Street and on over to Hopyard Village. Look for a similar lineup of classes and cookware at the cooking school and retail store’s new location at 3059 Hopyard Road, which should be opening on June 14.

And over in Dublin, per Patch, Amdador Seafood restaurant is replacing China Wall Buffet in the Shamrock Village shopping center later this summer. Look for affordable seafood for dinner and dim sum during the day.

Our intrepid managing editor LeeAnne Jones swung by the Chili Shooters Stampede in downtown Livermore over the weekend and came back with rave reviews. CLICK HERE to read her chili dispatches, including her pick for best chili in show (hint: it's from a newcomer to the downtown Livermore dining scene...)

Cypress' new backdoor patioSome tid bits from Walnut Creek… Cypress is officially debuting its new outdoor patio and is celebrating by offering happy hour specials all weekend says owner Rick Delamain. Also, look out for the downtown restaurant’s new summer menu, which should be debuting any day now…  Also debuting their expansive new patio is Comal in Berkeley. I had a chance to swing by there the other day and had a really nice meal: CLICK HERE for my sneak peek.

Local restaurateur and former Top Chef contestant Ryan Scott will appear at Pyramid Alehouse on Saturday, June 9 for a live broadcast of his weekly KGO radio show. The beer-centric show lasts from 4 to 6 p.m., is free to attend, and will feature cooking and grilling with beer, beer and food pairings, and beer “cocktails”—not to mention the samples of the beers and beer-infused food served up by Pyramid.

And over at Corners Tavern, which just got a nice write-up by none other than The Chronicle’s Michael Bauer (and, more importantly, in Diablo magazine…), is now serving Sunday brunch. Look for sweet dishes such as brioche French toast with strawberry butter and savory items like duck confit hash with fingerling potatoes and baked duck egg, and grilled shrimp and grits with housemade andouille sausage. Corners is also now open for lunch on Saturday.

For all you eco-conscious eaters out there, make sure to get your vote in for East Bay eateries Gather and Chez Panisse for The Nature Conservancy people’s choice green restaurant awards. Those spots are two of five semifinalists in the contest designed to “help raise awareness for restaurants that are doing their part for the planet.” CLICK HERE for more info and to vote!

Speaking of responsible eating, Oliveto is kicking off a new lecture series this Saturday called It’s Complicated. The series will cover eating, cooking, and the politics of food, and is aimed at understanding some of the region's more complex food-system issues. This Saturday’s lecture (2–3:30 p.m.) is "Our Local Seas: A Comeback Story," and will touch on the Bay Area’s success in preserving its fisheries—and the challenges faced in other parts of the world. It also happens to kick off Oliveto’s 11th annual Oceanic Dinners from June 12 to June 15, featuring four nights of seafood dinners. Tickets to the lecture are $10, CLICK HERE to reserve. Reserve spots to the Oceanic dinners at 510-547-5356, or by visiting Oliveto.com.


Chicharrones!Okay, not to get too Mexican-centric, but I had a chance to swing by Comal, the hip new Mexican restaurant that just opened in downtown Berkeley. Impressions... First of all, it's a beautiful space, big and open with plenty of natural wood details, and a big open kitchen. And the food... Well, we tried a few things, all of which were good, a couple of which were stellar.

Housemade Chicharrones: Always a treat, these deep fried pork rinds were full of flavor, if maybe a little hard, served simply with hot sauce.
Tripe guisado: Absolutely fantastic. Our waiter recommended this dish and did not steer us wrong. It's an incredibly rich and flavorful tomato-based stew with garbanzo beans, morita chile, and oh-so-tender pieces of tripe. I know, stomach lining may not be for everyone, but for the more culinarily adventurous, this is absolute must-try dish. I mean now. Go order it! 
Comal's delicious tripe guisado dishSquash blossom quesadilla: Very good, large-portioned, and flavorful vegetarian dish.
Carne Asada Tacos: This was a real stunner as well. Rather than chopped-up portions of meat, these tacos sported slices of tender beer-marinated steak—of the kind you'd normally see in a fine dining restaurant—topped with crunchy nopale cactus and chipotle salsa on fresh-made tortillas. A little pricey for tacos at $11, but not really for the quality and amount of meat.

Anyway, looks like a real top-notch spot. And importantly for me, chef Matt Gandin, who comes from Delifna restaurant in San Francisco, doesn't seem to be overthinking the food. It's certainly suped-up Mexican as befitting the chef's gourmet roots, but it's still accessible and comforting. Check 'em out!

2020 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 926-6300, comalberkeley.com


Chili Shooter Stampede Round-up

By LeeAnne Jones

My husband and I spent Saturday afternoon in Livermore at the Chili Shooters Stampede, the annual chili cook-off between downtown restaurants. Logo shot glasses and maps in hand, we walked and ate along First Street, from The Carvery at Maple Street to Casbah Café next to Vine Cinema. Our first taste, at Sauced, proved impossible to beat. We loved the sweet-spicy brisket chili topped with cornbread croutons, which was prepared the day before and simmered for more than 8 hours. Other highlights included turkey chili with black beans topped with blue cheese at Winemaker’s Pour House, First Street Alehouse’s traditional chili with big hunks of tender beef, and the mildly spiced Italian sausage chili from Milano Joe’s. And while neither of us could finish our portion, a hat tip to El Sacromonte for its macho ceviche—halibut and cucumber in a tomato base that brought the heat. (Livermore Downtown has yet to announce the winner.) Live music, beer tasting, carriage rides, and children’s activities rounded out the event. We’ll definitely make this an annual tradition.

UPDATE: Looks like LeeAnne's taste buds allign with the people at large: Winemaker's Pour House was voted top chili, while Sauced came in second. CLICK HERE for the results.