For the past dozen years, César has been one of the shining attractions of Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto. The sleek little bar-restaurant became the Bay Area's premier destination for authentic Spanish tapas when it opened in 1998 right next door to Chez Panisse. Chef Maggie Pond, a Panisse alumnus, parlayed the traditional flavors of Barcelona and San Sebastian, an impressive selection of wines and spirits, and that upscale Upper Shattuck atmo into an immediate critical and commercial success that endures to this day. A second operation opened on Oakland's Piedmont Avenue in 2006 and quickly duplicated the mother ship's culinary achievements. Yet just last month, the Piedmont location overhauled its menu to showcase the spicy, robust flavors of Latin America, a different kettle of posole indeed from the Iberian Peninsula's earthy, soulful tastes and textures. While the original César continues to impress with its signature Spanish sips and nibbles, its sister operation has become a perfectly adequate pan-Latin hangout with a few exceptional dishes sprinkled among a well-prepared, if rudimentary bill of fare.
César Latino is located along a bustling stretch of Piedmont Avenue where well-togged locals sip espresso, stroll from boutique to gallery, and chow down at Dopo, Bay Wolf, Commis, and other neighborhood hotspots. Happily, an expansive front patio lets diners take in the passing parade. Floor-to-ceiling windows direct plenty of sunlight into the barnlike interior, a high-ceilinged expanse of rough-plank communal tables, a striking bar, and walls in shades of chili pepper and burnt mustard. Another patio out back serves as a pleasant urban oasis.
Assorted platters of tacos and empanadas are the restaurant's best snacking options. The smallish tacos come five to a platter and overflow with top-quality ingredients. The ropa vieja was a lusty handful of spicy shredded beef, cilantro, and onion; the fried shrimp combined crunchy little prawns with a peppery mayonnaise; the outstanding carnitas was a rich, luscious teaming of pulled pork and a brightly flavored salsa verde. (The poblano-tomato and chorizo-chipotle varieties, on the other hand, were surprisingly bland.) The soft, warm empanadas came in four varieties: a wonderfully earthy mushroom-requeson (white cheese); an uninspiring beef-cilantro raisin; a light, lovely shrimp-corn-chili combo; and our favorite, a spicy mashup of pigmeat, cinnamon, and orange. Another small plate, tuna-salad tostadas, featured olive oil-poached tuna, jalapeños, tomatoes, and onion served on crunchy little fried tortillas — pleasant but not especially memorable.
The best plato grande (large plate) was the pollo asado, chicken marinated in herbs and garlic and roasted to order. Moist, smoky, and fragrant, it was a pleasure to attack with fingers, teeth, and napkins. (It's available by the whole or half chicken and takes 25 minutes to prepare, so be patient.) Pozole is one of the great examples of Mexican soul food, a fortifying stew rich in flavor and tradition, but despite all its pork, hominy, tomatillos, and green chilies, the house rendition was unaccountably tepid and bland (the pork was nice and creamy, though). Ditto the gigantic Colombian-style tamale, a combination of too much tasteless masa and not enough chicken, pork, bacon, and garbanzos. The Cuban sandwich was another disappointment: Served on a crunchy-crusted roll instead of the traditional soft bread and not, as far as we could determine, pressed, it had none of the hot, gooey, greasy charm of its namesake, and the filling (pork belly, mortadella, Swiss cheese, ham) was unexciting, to boot. A side dish of fried plantains nearly made up for it: Soft, almost creamy in texture and delicate in flavor, they were the best we'd ever had.
The desserts are the best things on the menu. The pastel de tres leches (three-milk cake) was moist and lush, its consistency all about heavy cream and condensed and evaporated milk, bits of ripe strawberry and mango adding bright, colorful accents to the custard-like cake. The "impossible" challenge of the pastel imposible was to combine flan and chocolate cake into one delectable confection, but the kitchen succeeded, serving up a profoundly rich, dark pastel chocolate with a thick layer of flan on top as a sort of luscious, ultra-creamy frosting: yum. The pineapple upside-down cornmeal cake was a disappointment — dry, bland, and short on sweet and juicy pineapple — but the César sundae was absolutely irresistible: rich, spicy cinnamon-chocolate ice cream; thick hot fudge and crunchy almonds; and two soft, warm, cinnamon-sprinkled churros projecting outwards.
Vegetarians can assemble a sufficiently hearty meal at César Latino. Small plates include made-to-order guacamole, rice with plantains and a fried egg, fried potatoes with alioli, and three salads (jicama-cucumber, beet-tangerine, and hearts of romaine with radish, cucumber, and queso fresco). Among the platos grandes are spinach-stuffed chiles rellenos with rice and corn, or opt for the poblano-tomato taco, the mushroom empanada, or a sandwich of avocado, watermelon radish, red onion, and chipotle crema fresca. Sides of cinnamon black beans, green rice, chips and salsa, and those dreamy fried plantains are also on the menu.
The wide-ranging wine list features an interesting and affordable selection of spice-friendly vintages from Argentina, Spain, New Zealand, Italy, Wine Country, and points south. (Try the Gloria Ferrer merlot with the pollo asado.) The beer offerings are equally impressive, ranging from Belize's Belikin lager and Honduras's Salva Vida to Belgium's Lindeman Pech lambic and Japan's Hitachino red rice ale. Nonalcoholic options include house-made lemon mint soda, tamarind and hibiscus aguas frescas, and elderflower and sour-cherry fruit seltzers. But the bar is the restaurant's central motif, an inviting three-sided cynosure in polished wood, mosaic blue tile, and a vertiginous selection of tequilas, mescal, cachaças, and other friendly spirits. Our favorite cocktail was the Bobo Brazil, a creamy tropical fantasia of cachaça, orange juice, ginger syrup, and coconut.
Ambitious menu notwithstanding, César Latino is above all an inviting place to sip one of those carefully crafted cocktails out on the front patio with a bunch of friends, a platter of tacos at hand, the evening and its possibilities just ahead.