Restaurant: Comal, New Authentic Oaxacan Spot in Bay Area, is Surprisingly Good

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Surrounded by a wealth of fresh produce and quality eating options, it’s almost hard to not become a foodie while living in Northern California. Whether dining in a three starred Michelin food haven set deep within wine country or the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall, one comes to expect a gastronomic adventure. So when the people of one of the hottest new restaurants in the bay, Comal, invited Remezcla to come and experience the innovation coming out of downtown Berkeley, I was undoubtedly excited.

Open for less than a month, this ambitious project from the former band manager of Phish combines the culinary talents of ex-Delfina chef Matt Gandin and the cultivated tastes of the guys behind the Bon Vivants. Located just steps from the Downtown Berkeley BART station, this 85-year old building on Shattuck Avenue has been transformed by Abueg Morris architects into a large open space incorporating exposed poured concrete walls, reclaimed wainscoting, and attractively distressed wood flooring that creates a clean and modern design which organically unites what was previously two separate store fronts. The heart of the restaurant is the open exhibition kitchen with the namesake comals sitting pronounced at the forefront. There is a sizeable bar area in the front, a large dining space throughout the restaurant, and a huge soon to be open patio in the back.

My dining partner and I were seated adjacent to a colorful image of a Oaxacan street corner and Café Tacuba’s rendition of Alarmala de Toz was playing overhead (huge brownie points). Owner John Paluska gave us a demonstration of the pioneering new sound system (the first of its kind in any restaurant). The revolutionary system created by Meyer sound has design elements incorporated into almost every detail of the structure. Paluska goes on to describe how the scene I was admiring on the wall was actually printed on acoustic fabric and filled with recycled denim. In fact, everything from the wainscoting to the art throughout the restaurant was added with reverb dampening in mind.

“We have microphones and speakers installed throughout the restaurant” Paluska states while gesturing to the barely visible microphones hanging high above the table. “Each of the microphones and speakers throughout the room are independent from one another. The microphone picks up the sounds and sends it to a computer where it is processed and fed back into the room in a manner that helps eliminate noise reverberation.”

Managed entirely via an iPad app, the reverberation levels can be set independently for different areas of the restaurant – buzzier in the bar area, warmer in the dining area – giving incredible control of the noise levels within the restaurant. When Paluska gave us a demonstration of the difference between the sound of a clap with the system both on and off, I was amazed. No joke, it was like the difference between being outdoors and being under a dome. It was that dramatic.

The cocktail menu is very tequila and mezcal focused with inspired creations such as the Joaquin Murrieta which pairs reposado tequila sweet vermouth, and Amaro Montenegro with orange bitters and lemon zest or The Comal Swizzle which mixes pineapple, passion fruit, and lime juice with Falernum, ice, and your choice of tequila, mezcal, or sotol. I chose a fantastic little concoction of Siete Leguas Reposado tequila, Minas Real Reposado Mezcal, Jarabe de Grenada, and house bitters called the Abuelo Sucio (finalist for most bad-ass drink name ever).

In addition to cocktails, the drink menu offered wine, Mexican beers by the bottle, local beers on draft, and an assortment of tequilas and mezcals. I couldn’t resist sampling a flight of three tequilas from the La Altena Distillery. The tequilas were served in small flutes on a wooden plank. Next to each flute was a palate cleansing shot of a “sagrita rojo,” made of tamarind, tomato, hibiscus, ginger, Fresno and habernero chiles, cilantro, orange and lime. No pinche salt and lime chaser here.

If this were only a bar, I would be a fan on account of the drinks and sound system alone; but ultimately, this is a restaurant so let’s get down to the meat — literally. Now, I don’t care about your previous experience with tripe because I’m gonna come right out and say that you absolutely must try the tripe at Comal. I’m not sure how Gandin’s kitchen prepares the tripe that they use in the Tripe guisado, which pairs strips of tripe with garbanzo beans and pork trotters in a tomato based broth flavored with morita chiles (a type of chipotle), but this tripe is flavorful, soft and delicate; not rubbery in the least.

If you’re reading this mom I apologize in advance because I don’t know if it was the Cafeta in the air or the alcohol in my blood but honestly, it’s the best tripe I’ve had in my life – and I’ve eaten plenty of menudo in my time.

The daily changing menu has its roots in Oaxaca while assimilating very northern California ingredients such as artichoke, asparagus, and king salmon. Gandin’s approach to food uses ingredients from Mexico and California as if they were one in the same. In addition to the tripe, a few standouts where the very tasty green chile-green goddess dressing which topped the “little gem “salad, quesadillas stuffed with mole amarillo, rotisserie chicken, and rajas (sliced poblano chiles cooked with cheese and cream), and tacos of Al pastor that had delicately smoky flavor derived from cooking horizontally over a wood fire rather than the traditional method of cooking on a vertical spit; served with pineapple salsa.

Overall Comal serves remarkable food and drinks in a hip atmosphere with an ambiance that is great for both intimate conversations and large groups alike. Paluska’s esteemed roster of gastronomes do an impressive job of seamlessly interweaving Mexican and Californian culinary traditions, and their forward-thinking approach to dining is a welcome addition to the bay area culinary scene. We’re told that brunch service is in the works and the huge back patio will be open soon. If you go, be sure to try the tripe, one of the many masa based dishes served on the custom made comals, definitely get something from the wood burning grill, and don’t neglect the tequila.