Cocina Poblana belongs to the bourgeoning genre of Mexican restaurants that focus not on burritos, fajitas, and enchiladas, but on the more complex regional cookery of this food-centric nation. Rick Bayless' Topolobampo was a north of the border pioneer in this field. At his sleek Chicago temple to fine Mexican cuisine, the tastes and textures that make the food unique — that striking amalgamation of earthy complexity and vibrant flavor — are allowed to shine. Local restaurants that achieve this include Colibri and Zazil in San Francisco, where epazote and huitlacoche are an ongoing presence and tequila is sipped from a snifter, not tossed back with a belly lick of salt.
Emeryville's Cocina Poblana, which opened in 2006, helped bring this trend to the East Bay. Now proprietor Lito Saldaña has opened another, more upscale location among the chain stores and restaurants of Jack London Square. But despite the restaurant's admirable attempts to bring seldom-encountered regional specialties to local diners, only a few of the venue's dishes attain the sophisticated, dynamic, virile heights of gustatory Mexico.
The setting is indicative of what's to come. While the ambience is fun and festive, it's fun and festive in a generic-upscale Chevys sort of way, the color scheme Holiday Inn jovial, the spacious dining room barely burdened with the occasional shrine, potted cactus, and bit of folklorico. The let's-party music, meanwhile, sounds more like the closing-credits soundtrack of an '80s spring-break sex comedy than the lilting, joyous, melancholy music of Jalisco.
Jalisco's robust flavors and the more refined home cooking of Puebla are the nominal inspirations for Cocina Poblana's house cuisine, but there isn't much on the menu that's surprising or fantastic or very memorable. The food isn't bad, it's just not up to the standards the kitchen has set for itself. And at these prices, that can be a problem. Take the mole Mama Elena, one of the menu's three variations on Mexico's national dish. Properly prepared — usually with chocolate, several kinds of pepper, a wide variety of nuts and seeds, and a half-dozen other ingredients — mole should be earthy, smooth, and smoky, with a bare hint of sweetness and no individual flavor overwhelming but each contributing to the depths and layers of the whole, the bitter chocolate sensed rather than tasted. Cocina Poblana's version just tastes brown.
Another entrée, the huarache Azteca, involves a dried-out platter of masa piled with refried beans, grilled cactus, grated cheese, and a few salty shrimp; the result is leaden, perfunctory, and unfocused enough that the different flavors cancel each other out. Mariscada frita (fried seafood) is heavy on the overcooked breading, the chewy inner scallops, calamari, and mahi mahi a long way from tempura (although the prawns are nice and juicy). The cocktail sauce enveloping the cóctel exótico is so overpowering with citrus, it's difficult to appreciate the top-quality octopus, shrimp, scallops, and avocado contained within. Even the cabrito adobado (slow-roasted goat) is dry and unmemorable despite the presence of two salsas and plenty of onion, lime, and cilantro.
Nevertheless, the menu offers a number of creditable dishes that the adventurous diner can rally around. The tres ceviches extravaganza is a delight: a curved metal stand containing three removable flutes, one starring lime-cured ahi, another lime-cured shrimp, the third a vegetarian array of jicama, mango, cucumber, papaya, and fresh mint. Sparkly, crisp, and cool, with a pleasant undertone of peppery heat, they make a marvelous meal-opener (especially the creamy-dreamy cilantro-edged ahi). Another appetizer option, the botanas surtidas assortment of one tiny chicken-stuffed huarachito, one tiny zucchini-stuffed cazuelita, a double-cheese quesadilla, and two little empanadas, is hit or miss, but the quesadilla bursts with molten queso and the accompanying guacamole is ripe, chunky, and absolutely delectable.
Two entrées are also worth ordering. The carnitas Don Pedro — pulled pork with onions, tomatoes, and jalapeños — is silky, luscious, and ribboned with flavorsome fat, the pickled red onions and fiery peppers adding nice spiky accents. And the braised spare ribs, served atop thick steamed tamales with a snappy green tomatillo salsa, are moist, meaty, and satisfying. They come with freshly made tortillas and your choice of tender black, pinto, or poblano beans; cilantro-laced rice; or really excellent buttery, mildly spicy mashed potatoes strewn with yellow corn kernels.
The only desserts offered over the course of two visits were a coffee-laced flan and a towering slice of tres leches cake. Although the cake didn't betray any (advertised) boozy flavor, it was rich, moist, and generous with the strawberries and whipped cream, while the flan was light, silken, and as snarky as a shot of espresso.
Vegetarians can choose from several flesh-free dining options. Pancakes, French toast, huevos rancheros, a spinach-mushroom omelet, and a vegetarian breakfast burrito are among the weekend brunch offerings. Lunch and dinner starters include three salads, the aforementioned vegetarian ceviche, the corn- and zucchini-stuffed cazuelita, the double-cheese quesadilla, and freshly made salsas and guacamole. Chiles rellenos, veggie tamales, spinach and mushroom enchiladas, and El Nopal — a platter of spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, corn, and cactus — are on the entrée menu.
One of Cocina Poblana's outstanding features is its 250-item tequila list, an impressive selection of vigorous blancos, velvety reposados, and mellow añejos, most of them in the $8 to $15 per shot range, with several of the añejos edging into the stratosphere (Herradura Suprema at $75, anyone?). Mini-tastings are available in the form of five flights of three tequilas each. Or enjoy your spirits in one of the well-crafted house margaritas; the avocado variety sounds iffy, but the combination of Pueblo Viejo reposado, herbaceous elderflower, and rich, velvety avocado pear is as complex and tantalizing as the food should be.