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Oakland's Sobre Mesa reinvents cocktail and chill on the fly

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Sobre Mesa's namesake cocktail is an ode to the Dominican Republic's national drink, the Mama Juana. Sadé Stamps, the bar manager at the recently reopened Afro-Latino cocktail lounge on Franklin Street in Oakland, says they took the base ingredients of the drink and deconstructed them.

"Historically, the Mama Juana is a mixture of rum, herbs, bark, honey and wine," she explains. The lounge made the drink its own by combining two types of rum, a "sobre mesa mamajuana mix," lime and grapefruit. Stamps says it's a "beautiful rum punch style of cocktail."

I recently stopped by Sobre Mesa to meet with May German, one of the owners, and have a brief chat with Stamps when she wasn't busy mixing drinks. May's husband, Nelson German, who was out of town, is the chef and operations manager. They opened the nearby alaMar Kitchen & Bar together in 2014.

Nine days before the Covid-19 shelter-in-place order in March, Sobre Mesa opened to what May described as an "overwhelming response" from the community. Even though they had to close the bar less than two weeks later, the Germans were buoyed by the initial reception. With lines forming out the door those first few nights, they felt the concept had struck a chord in the neighborhood.

While they didn't have any intention of closing permanently, the Germans hoped things would normalize by June. As the uncertain forecast persisted, the couple understood that they'd have to modify Sobre Mesa's concept. "We knew we had to pivot but we had to be smart about it," May says.

AlaMar has remained open all year. Since it was already set up as a fast, casual restaurant, adjusting the menu for takeout and delivery didn't require many substantial changes. But Sobre Mesa was designed to foster a social experience, as a gathering place for friends to get together and chat. May explained that the literal meaning of the Spanish phrase "sobre mesa," or "on the table," is an expression for what happens after dinner's over, when everyone's relaxed at the end of a meal.

"Sobre Mesa is Nelson's brainchild and passion project," May says. Born and raised in New York City, Chef Nelson opened their second business to highlight his cultural heritage as a Dominican American. May points out that the aesthetic experience of the interior is meant to reflect that as well. Inside, the walls are painted a tropical green that's meant to impart "the feeling of being on vacation in Miami." An enormous framed mural of overlapping palm fronds stares back at itself in the mirror above the bar. Each large frond is painted a phosphorescent color: teal, emerald, fuchsia. Real potted plants and an elongated leather booth contribute to the feeling of lushness in the lounge.

On one wall, there's a rotating "gallery" of local artists' work. Currently, DeadEyes owns the space. And for the moment, Nelson has asked Michael Woods to create a pop-up menu based on Afro-Caribbean cuisine with Southern influences. Woods, who was born and raised in Oakland, is serving dishes like fried fish over slow cooked grits, a jerk chicken with brown rice and ham hock collard greens and a Swahilian succotash expressly made for vegans.

Meanwhile, Chef Nelson is devising a menu that will work for indoor dining as well as for takeout and delivery. Alameda County is considering a plan to allow indoor dining in the coming weeks, and May says she believes the timing will work out well for Sobre Mesa.

When I arrived downtown at the corner of Franklin and 17th streets, Sobre Mesa's temporary parklet was protecting a few patrons from the winds that were kicking up at dusk. "Once we heard that outdoor dining was approved, we applied for a parklet with the city and were approved," May says. After a construction delay, the new parklet—expected to comfortably accommodate up to 16 people—should be installed this week.

"Outdoor dining is key to the success of the bar," May says.

Sobre Mesa, open 5-10pm Thursday and 5-11pm Friday and Saturday, 1618 Franklin St., Oakland. 510.858.7544. sobremesaoak.com.

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