By Jenna Scatena
August 19, 2015
Credit: Andrew Dalton

The Bay Area has another hot new Mexican restaurant—but this time it’s not a taco joint. Calavera, which just opened in Oakland’s burgeoning Uptown district, is an homage to the trifecta of authentic Mexican dining: food made with traditional ingredients, drinks with kick, and art fashioned by the country’s own craftsmen.

Oakland restaurateur Chris Pastena (of Chop Bar and Lungomare) teamed up with chef Christian Irabien, who hails from Chihuahua, Mexico, to create a menu that draws on pre-Colombian recipes and adds their own modern spin. Making use of the wood-fired grill and sizzling plancha, house-made corn tortillas arrive with masa-crusted lamb sweetbreads, grilled avocado, pickled red onion, and dragon fruit, while Mexican gulf shrimp come piled over Haas avocado, watermelon, and a five-chile ash. Don’t overlook the signature guacamole, made with Oaxacan chapulines (grasshoppers toasted with lime and chile).

As for drinks, progressive cocktails are spun from the 150 bottles of tequila on the list, curated by Michael Iglesias, a partner who also managed the bar at San Francisco’s Coqueta, which received a James Beard Award last year. Sip the Corazon, perfect for an aperitif, with Siembra Valles Blanco tequila, lime, cilantro and toasted coriander, and cooled by hibiscus ice. Or opt for the Zapotec Old Fashioned with rum aged 23 years, mezcal, huitlacoche miel, and Oaxacan chocolate-mole bitters. There’s also a prominent selection of Mexican wines on the list, thanks to wine director Jessica Sackler, with highlights including bottles from Valle de Guadelupe and Valle de Parras.

Credit: Andrew Dalton

To construct the menu and the décor, the chefs and partners traveled to the source of their inspiration. “Life in Oaxaca is about strolling through the Plaza Santa Domingo, enjoying the air, or going to the market—and art is everywhere,” Iglesias says. “Every time you turn around, there’s an incredible gallery or amazing street art.”

In Oaxaca, they commissioned ceramicist Omar Hernandez to make specialized copitas for mezcal, secured a grasshopper supplier, snagged some Oaxacan chiles, and sal de gusano (agave worm salt). The region’s style carries over to the décor, with a Zapotec-inspired bar and suspended glass case full of alebrijes (wood animal carvings) collected from the team’s travels.

Jenna Scatena is on the San Francisco Bay Area beat for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.