Wednesday, June 23, 2010

CESAR LATINO - South American Delights Tango along the Tastebuds

It was a gorgeous day in early May, and the Better Half and I were enjoying an A’s game at the Oakland Coliseum. Although the food at the ballpark will probably never be anything I feel an overwhelming urge to write about, it was tasty enough to be enjoyable. Ballpark food can be fun. The game was chugging along well and the weather was spectacular. Win or lose, the act of watching a baseball game will always remind me of my Dad. He was pretty taken with baseball. He’d been a shortstop in high school. For that reason, and because my current husband courted me with baseball games and nachos early on in our relationship, the unmistakably sunshiny smack of bat against ball will always induce in me that perfect feeling of contentment. It’s a custom I enjoy. Another of life’s joyous rituals.

So we’re digging the game and I can’t help but notice that the guy behind us had the cutest baby. He’s feeding him and changing him and being this amazing modern dad (isn’t that just another blog in itself) and we struck up a conversation over the kid fairly quickly. At some point or other — perhaps because I am food obsessed — the subject of our conversation turned to eating out. His name, he said, was Pepe. Pepe also said he didn’t get out to eat much because he worked such long hours. I asked him what he did. Ironically enough, he replied by telling me that he was currently a Cook at Cesar on Piedmont Avenue. Serendipitously, our baby-centric chat morphed pretty rapidly into a delightful food convo. What we like, how to cook certain dishes. Regions of cuisine. Fun times.

Heavenly Guacamole
We began to discus Cesar’s recent menu shakeup. I was curious to find out what had changed besides the name (they are now calling it “Cesar’s Latino”). Pepe said the restaurant has added numerous dishes from all over Latin America. He said that the management asked many of the staff, cooks and waiters alike, for input. The menu is the resulting combination of their favorite dishes from the regions they grew up in or were familiar with across the Southern Hemisphere of the Americas. Pepe himself hails from Guatemala, so he was able to contribute that perspective, but he said there were many others. As we chatted, it occurred to me at that point that this was something like the third time the restaurant had restructured. When it opened it was channeling the cuisine of Spain. In the interim, it had taken some confusing turns with breakfast menus and lunch service. The last time I reviewed it, I was a bit disappointed with it’s lack of a distinctive voice, but the food itself has always been consistently good.

It was during that conversation that the BH and I realized it was time to return to Cesar Latino. And return we did.

Garnish for Pupusa
It was another beautiful day. Sunny enough to sit outside. We perused the new menu, and it really has some intriguing new dishes on it. We dug right in, ordering Guacamole & Chips and a Platito de queso. The guacamole was thick, chunky and perfectly seasoned. The pudgy bites of fatty green goodness clung to the bowl beautifully as we dug at them with our chips. My favorite guacamole at the moment is the one that is currently produced by Tamarindo in Oakland. Cesar’s was definitely as good, but uniquely different. It’s much less creamy with an after kiss of lime that keeps you chipping back for more.   And don't even get me started on the cocktails. The bar here is first-rate.

The cheese plate or Platito de queso likewise rocked our world. Today’s selections were a Crottin(goat) cheese from California, a Carmody(cow) also from California, a Manchego (sheep), from Spain. All of them were tasty and the overall plate had a nice balance of creamy, aged and firm. Cheese may be a simple fare, but a well done cheese plate is delicious.

We had to stagger our dishes, as the tables are small. Really small. One usually needs to get an additional chair or serving table to manage the small plates. It’s a peeve of mine for tables to be inefficient or too small. In the case of Cesar Latino, the food at this place is so spectacular that I believe I can honestly say it is well worth the hassle.

Tacos - 5 ways
So the next thing to arrive was the Tacos. There were so many varieties of taco to try, that we ordered the 5-platter to allow us to check out all the varieties. The first was the Copa Viejo, a hearty mix of spicy shredded beef, onions and cilantro. It was rich, evenly seasoned and the crunch of the onions with the springy green flavor of the cilantro was absolutely delicious. Of all the tacos this was perhaps my favorite. The next was a Chicken Tinga taco composed of chicken meat, chorizo sausage, tomato and chipotle. This taco was a splendid blending of flavors as well but not quite as successful to me as the beef. The next to be sampled was a Pork Carnitas and it’s lovely blending of shredded pork dripping with a lovely spicy sauce, neatly finished off with a Salsa Verde, was a total hit. The flavors were fresh, inventive and inviting. The fourth taco to be tasted was a vegetarian selection. It was the Rajas taco. They use a blend of mushrooms, poblano chiles, cream and tomato. The tomatoes were rounded out with the cream, since mushrooms don’t have the fat that meat has in its natural juice, the chef built out a sauce with the cream and mushroom broth. This made the mushrooms almost like meat, really moist and tasty. The last taco was their Fried Shrimp which was layers of chipotle creme and shrimp. It was a light, airy concoction not unlike the ones at Tamarindo. Well seasoned, but not quite as memorable.

Delicious and extremely varied this dish was my favorite food experience of the day. There was something about the layers of the flavors in each of the tacos and the layers in which we ate them. One different bite at a time, like an adventure of taste. We loved them all, and though I have rated the above according to my own taste, each of the four of us had uniquely different perspectives on which was our own favorite. Yet there was still more food coming!

Next we sampled their Salvadoren Pupusas. I had never had one but had recently read about them as the “new” taco.  Apparently pupusa stands are springing up everywhere, from Los Angeles to New York City. These pupusas are apparently, quite “hip.” While it is a starch and a filling, they aren’t quite a sandwich. Nor are they really a taco. They are fairly flat, but they are stuffed, a hybrid of pancake and crepe. Hard to describe, but quite tasty, with endless possibilities for deconstruction. Cesar served us three varieties: Black bean & Monterey Jack which was creamy and simple, the beans melting into the jack quite well, it’s edges containing those nice hidden bits of crunch cooked brittle cheese chips. Yum! The second was a Pork, Black Bean & Monterey Jack all the lovely flavors of the last with the addition of some lovely, fatty spiced port. The last was the simplest. It was a Monterey Jack and Loroco which is the simple white jack cheese and some lovely South American spiced herb. Nice~

But we aren’t done yet! This meal was one of my all-time favorites just because of the amazing variety of foods we were able to sample in one sitting.  Next up was the Cubano Sandwich. A Cubano is a form of griddled sandwich, almost like a spanish panini. This one was a sensational combination of Pork Belly, Mortadella, Swiss Cheese and Ham. This was an amazing sandwich. No seriously, they had to pry it out of my hands to take a bite. The pork belly was so tender it melted into the cheese, the ham was so buttery, it just lay over the bread like a spread. The toasty perfection of the bread when grilled was enjoyable, its crunch giving away to the gooey cheesy insides of the sandwich. So much more than just ham & cheese. There were some house made bbq chip which though well seasoned, were too chewy. I have noticed a tendency to do house chips these days where they are just a bit too soggy for my tastes. But the sandwich was AH-may- zing!!

Tres Leches Cake
Finally we’re done with the food. Oh was that a spread! Okay, so we were not completely done. We needed a touch of sucre after all that cheesy, fatty, melty-fried goodness. We ordered two. The Tres Leches Cake with strawberries which was moist, the sweet milks combining into the cake to give it that soft wet texture that is just indescribably. It is one of my favorite desserts. Top it with fresh strawberries and other ripe seasonal fruits and you have a hit. Tres Leches is such a standout cake, each cranny of its spongy surface soaked with sweet, sugary milk to make each mouthful uniquely juicy.

Since there were four of us, we ordered also the Cesar Sundae. The one dish that has remained on the menu and consistently perfect since it opened. It is a simple dessert, consisting of a nice serving of their house made chocolat ice cream, two piping-hot house made chorizo cookies lovingly sprinkled with cane sugar and cinnamon. All of that covered in chocolate sauce.

Cesar Latino
4039 Piedmont Ave
Oakland, CA 94611-5208
(510) 985-1200

Table size: they are way, way too small
Noise level: okay, but we were outside
Service: today it was excellent. It can be spotty