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Restaurant Guide



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Holy Land 677 Rand Ave., Oakland, 510-272-0535. This well-worn, well-loved cafe serves Israeli fare as well as the diaspora's best hits. Everybody's here for a taste of home, be they from Tel Aviv, Manhattan, or St. Petersburg. Start with matzo ball soup, the big sinkers enriched with schmaltz, continue with chicken-filled kreplach, and then dive in to a platter of Israeli salads, freshly made falafel, and lamb shawarma. If you order Holy Land's halvah for dessert, you may find yourself loving the stuff for the very first time. $


Best Burritos 10390 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, 510-525-8355. A certified chef in her native Korea, owner Won Eon bought a burrito shop after arriving in America and immediately began to experiment. Asian and Asian-American customers craved Asian flavors in convenient comfort-food shapes: Eon followed their advice. Thus the menu includes tofu burritos and teriyaki/bulgoki burritos along with standard Mexican varieties. All burritos here start with a large tortilla, onto which are spooned rice, boiled beans, chunky house-made salsa, and julienned lettuce and onion. The other fillings are sautéed to order and poured atop the rest to create a gigantic, satisfying surprise. $

Doña Tomás 5004 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-450-0522. Temescal's venerable nouveau-Mexican/California cuisine hotspot is as fun and festive as ever, especially on the inviting back patio, where the artisan margaritas taste especially delicious. The upscale menu offerings tend to lack the zest and deep-down satisfaction one associates with classic and casual Mexican cookery, but for the most part they're perfectly tasty nonetheless. Get the lime pie for dessert. Impressive tequila list. $$$

El Huarache Azteca 3842 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-533-2395. On a strip of phenomenal taco trucks, sit-down El Huarache Azteca stands out for its ultratraditional, carefully crafted Mexico City-style masa snacks. Try the gorditas with chicharrón, the pizza-like sopes, and the huaraches (named after the sandal they resemble) with refried beans, stewed meats, or sautéed fresh huitlacoche (a jet-black corn fungus). If you know what's best for you, you'll return on the weekend for posole and barbacoa, succulent pit-smoked lamb, with hand-patted tortillas and bowls of delicate consomé de barbacoa. $

Jalisco Restaurant 1721 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-436-8696. Jalisco is the OG of the local carnitas game: a family-owned institution dating back to the late Sixties. Open weekends only, the restaurant is the definition of a hole in the wall: little decor to speak of and long tables not so different from the kind used for church-basement potlucks. But oh, those carnitas: whole pork legs slow-braised in lard for eight to ten hours, resulting in meat that's exceedingly tender. If you're even moderately daring, order the "mixed" plate, which comes with a little of everything that gets cooked with the leg: extra-juicy rib meat, little flecks of skin, chewy-fatty slices of the pig's stomach, and gelatinous bits from the tendon and hoof. Also noteworthy: the zingy salsa verde and the chicharrones (fried pork rind). Go early if you can; otherwise, the best cuts of pork could be gone. $-$$

Juan's Place 941 Carleton St., Berkeley, 510-845-6904. Folks go to this family-owned spot for a down-home good time. Huge parties gather at huge tables for huge food (of the refried beans and melted cheese variety). Hey, the chips are good, the wine margaritas surprisingly tasty, and the waiters, like the decor, haven't changed in years. $-$$

La Calaca Loca 5199 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-601-8226. The name means "crazy skeleton," and while this Temescal taqueria has all the trappings of gringo Mexican — Niman meats, soju margaritas, and sponge-painted walls — there's more than a little authentic charm here. The crispy tacos rule (especially those filled with moist, stewed carnitas) and fresh-tasting salsas bite back. But what's really crazy about Calaca is its house-made flan, which is fantastic — certainly a first for any taco joint anywhere. $

La Estrellita Cafe 446 E. 12th St., Oakland, 510-465-7188. The friendliest taqueria this side of Lake Merritt, La Estrellita offers tons of space to sprawl in a room you're happy to spend time in. Come for the food — which is pleasant and abundant, if not sublime — but stay for the margaritas. $$

La Penca Azul 1440 Park St., Alameda, 510-769-9110. It's Mexican food for the fearless — those who don't quail at the sight of huge portions, lakes of melted cheese, and mounds of refried beans tasting of real lard. Peruse the Brobdingnagian menu while you sip a massive margarita and make headway on the mountain of chips. Soups, enchiladas, and the steak ranchero are big hits. $$

La Torta Loca 3419 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-532-7105. Tortas are Mexican sandwiches, and La Torta Loca's sandwiches are crazy good: huge griddled breads stuffed with top-notch grilled meats or vegetables, sour cream, avocado, lettuce, and tomato. You'll find this tiny food stand (with no seats) by the spicy smell of frying chorizo and the crowd around the window. La Torta Loca's tacos, sopes, and tostadas are just as good as the sandwiches, but for a decadent treat order a pombaso, a torta dipped in chile sauce and then fried. $

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