468 8th Street
Oakland, CA 94607
It’s always nice to go to a place a few times before writing about it. I know critics do this and, in our own adventures, it often proves to be a very good idea. Return trips to a Pho restaurant I thought delivered bowls of breathtaking perfection found bowls of broth that were merely swallowable. Return trips to a favorite Chinese restaurant reiterated how consistently they were able to deliver best-in-class meals at a reasonable price.
We found ourselves back at Tamarindo for a second visit in as many weeks after attempting to get a table at a nearby barbecue joint. I didn’t have high hopes for barbecue given our locale, but thought it was worth the three block walk from our place in Oakland.
Seems like I’ll never know if the barbecue place is good or not. Getting seated and taking our order was too much to handle on an admittedly busy night.
But we were hungry.
I had worked through lunch and the heat wave had drained me of any shade of energy. Fortunately, the lingering memory of our first meal at Tamarindo helped guide us back to this spot on 9th Street that is becoming one of our favorites.
Our first visit was somewhat of a happy accident. We’d walked by several times and not ever really had the urge to step in. But on a recent cool evening, we decided to check it out.
The first thing to note about Tamarindo is that the menu is formed around antojitos (“little whims” or “little cravings”). I know everything on small plates looks like tapas to some, but this has its own name and I plan on using it. Besides, “antojitos” is fun to say. Everyone together now, “antojitos!” Isn’t that fun?
Yeah, but probably not nearly as fun as eating at Tamarindo. Here’s what we had on the first visit. Remember, these are small plates:
Chilaquiles en Salsa Chipotle: Chips tossed with a chipotle purée, garnished with cotija & crema
Chilaquiles at Tamarindo are an exercise in very well-considered texture, flavor, and heat. Before us in short order was warm pile of fried flour tortilla triangles baked in a deeply flavored chipotle sauce. It’s biting, but not lingering, heat was something I crave just writing this. Drizzled with cold crema and topped with a few generous pinches of cojita, this was Mexican comfort food that was both deep and sassy. I will always order them.
Tacos de Camaron: Two crispy tacos with sautéed prawns, rajas, jack cheese, romaine lettuce, guacamole & salsa fresca
I actually would have enjoyed a lesser taco given the quality and deft hand frying this tortilla, but I didn’t have to. Maybe you’ve had tortillas like this on a regular basis, but this Texas transplant and tortilla lover has not. The rajas and jack cheese were great complements to the shrimp. Rajas were roasted and subtle and the jack cheese was just a bit more flavorful than I expect from jack cheese. Again, this was a texture dance I enjoyed.
Empanadas de Hongos Y Queso: Three masa turnovers, mushrooms, goat cheese, epazote, accompanied with Tomatillo sauce
In a field of standouts, the empanadas hang back in the merely very good aisle. I’m a sucker for epazote and am obsessed with tomatillos. I found the whole dish just a bit mild and quiet for my tastes, but I think some would welcome it. On certain nights, I might order this again. As with everything at Tamarindo, these were perfectly cooked, served hot, and garnished sparingly, but with a consistent flare for flavor balance.
Elote Asado: Grilled corn on the cob, garnished with aioli, lime & parmesan cheese
Perfectly grilled corn with a little fun thrown in for good measure. Yum.
Arroz Blanco con Platanos Fritos: White rice topped with fried plantains.
Nothing surprising here. Tasty, toasty plantains that were crisp-edged and fruity. Rice was rice, again perfectly cooked. (See the rice from the second night for something a touch more exciting).
Flan de Coco
A dish that could have been phoned in, but was a deliberate execution. A consistent, smooth, texture with just a hit of density and a full-bodied coconut flavor made this an enjoyable end to the meal. The caramel syrup was light and thin and the kind those of us with a taste for sweets would just slurp up with a straw if it weren’t a little tacky.
For our second trip, we’ll call it the night Tamarindo saved our tummies. By the time we had arrived from the sad barbecue restaurant of rejection and indifference, we were very hungry. I was a bit on the low blood sugar side. To our surprise, Tamarindo was packed. I say surprised because many of the other restaurants we passed were fairly empty.
Despite being very full both inside and on the sidewalk, we were warmly greeted, shown to one of the remaining tables and offered a drink within, oh, about three seconds. Send in the Chilaquiles! Yes, we had them again. This time, a slightly more robust portion, but otherwise identically pleasing.
Mole De Tamarindo: Tamarind mole served over Rocky Ranch chicken breast garnished w/ toasted sesame seeds, accompanied with Mexican Rice
Mole is an acquired taste according to quite a few folks. I’ll never forget my one trip to Mexico with my family for spring break when the enchiladas came out with a mole sauce. I just thought that was the worst idea ever. And it tasted terrible. But over the years I have come to cherish this blend of nuts, chiles, chocolate and whatever else finds its way in.
I won’t pretend to know all that goes into the mole here, but i can tell you it is delicious. Would I make it less sweet and fruity, possibly more traditional? Yes. Mostly because I can tell it would be incredible, but also as a matter of personal taste. But we both enjoyed it and liked trying something new. The chicken was moist and served hot, full of its own flavor as well as that of the sauce. The side of Mexican rice was absolutely delicious. Light and fluffy with just a touch of tomato and spice, we were tempted to order more as its own dish. The accompanying handmade corn tortillas were lovely.
Mulita: Sirloin steak, melted jack cheese, guacamole & salsa fresca, between two handmade corn tortillas
We were encouraged to try Tamarindo’s Mulita by a few regular diners who were sitting near us during our first visit. We’ve enjoyed chatting up the locals to learn where to eat and shop and these folks knew the menu well. I believe one of them was a current or former employee. They were incredibly nice, just like the Tamarindo staff and pointing us in the direction of the Mulita was a good idea.
The steak in the mulita could have stood on its own. Cooked slightly before medium and marianted in something terribly yummy, it was a hit. As was the mulita itself. A medium-to-small sized disc of thick corn tortillas with Tamarindo’s tasty jack cheese, the steak, and a tangy salsa fresca. The guacamole that comes with many dishes here was just between smooth and chunky, served cold, and made with very fresh avocados (as one should expect in California).
Crepas con Cajeta: Crepes w/ Mexican caramel sauce
I grew up eating a variety of delicious crepes that my mom would make for bridge parties and holiday dinners. I definitely will bring her here to try Tamarindo’s version. A bit thicker, served hot with a sauce that seemed to have a light touch of cinnamon swimming in it caramel goodness.
Top all this off with some of the best service we’ve had since arriving in the Bay area just about 4 weeks ago and a delicious margarita (which I thought was a touch better than the pomegranate margarita I had on the second trip — though, again, we’re talking by small degrees and about personal taste).
The question now for us is not whether we will go back, but how often.