Gentrification, colonialism, and bugs? The Calavera restaurant in Oakland

Photo credit: Calavera

It was a big deal when Calavera opened last August. It is Oakland’s only high-end Mexican restaurant and one of the few in the region to specialize in Oaxacan cuisine, which is world famous for its complexity and pre-Hispanic elements.

Also, as an anchor tenant of The Hive, Signature Development’s new live-work complex in “Uptown,” its launch was a vote of confidence in the gentrification of the area—signaling that people with money expect it to remain a place for people with money. Even more interestingly, the restaurant engages major traumas in the city’s history: although it is often considered a Black city, its lands were once Mexican and Indigenous before that. To serve Oaxacan food in Oakland is to evoke these chapters in its past as well as the brutal colonization that closed them.

I had these issues in mind when a friend and I visited Calavera last Saturday. How did it navigate them? Did it do so while tasting good?

The Scene
The restaurant was nearly full when we arrived at 6:00 PM. The hostess whisked us to our table and our waitress greeted us immediately thereafter. Both had the hip, casual-cool style typical of Bay Area food service workers, who are expected to perform physically demanding labor and also to be cosmopolitan. The staff looked mostly white to me; the bus boys being the only obvious Latin Americans among them. The clientele seemed like well-paid professionals, largely but not exclusively white. I did not hear any Spanish spoken.

Calavera occupies a former auto-industry showroom. The din of voices, music, and clanging dinnerware in its cavernous main room made conversation difficult at times, but I suspect this was deliberate. Whereas elites of another era preferred to dine at isolated tables and interact mainly with their servers, now they seek out a more social experience. Calavera’s noise cultivates this, as does its open layout and the close proximity of its tables, all of which compel some mixing. The exposed ceilings and brick walls felt incongruous, but situated the space in Oakland’s industrial past.

The food
The menu offers a range of Oaxacan specialties that run from the familiar to the exotic for American palates. A diner could order tacos and a beer without thinking much, whereas someone who wants to explore has many options. Whatever you get, you will probably try Calavera’s hand-made nixtamal tortillas, which it produces through a unique process that the Mayans invented in 1500–1200 BC.

We ordered the Guacamole Verde with a side of grasshoppers, which the restaurant imports from Oaxaca (through a family connection of one of the owners, our waitress said). They showed up at our table in a porcelain bowl and tasted slightly of garlic and lime, with a trace of salt. I had never (intentionally) eaten bugs before, but these were delightful. We also had the Queso Flameado appetizer, a cheese dish from the Chihuahua region served in a cast-iron pan. It contains Huitlacoche among its ingredients—mushroomy little black beads of fungus that have been regarded as a delicacy since the Aztec Empire.

For entrees, we had the Puerco con Frijol [pork and beans] and three Cochinita Pibil tacos (pork prepared with an ancient Mayan technique). The pork and beans platter was colorful and artfully laid out; the black bean’s creamy texture complemented the chewy meat and the red onion’s faint tang offset the pork’s saltiness. For dessert, I ordered the goat’s milk rice pudding, which was amazing. The entire meal cost $85.

The Issues
Placing Calavera’s approach to food in the context of California’s colonial history reveals that it is making an important critique. Utilizing pre-Hispanic culinary practices in an informed, sensitive way in the middle of the Bay Area, which is an engine of the global economy, suggests that America’s original peoples and European-Americans could have a more equitable relationship. That is, if original peoples’ food can receive a dignified treatment in the belly of the beast, then why not original peoples themselves? The restaurant’s use of bugs and fungi amplifies this. These ingredients are mostly forbidden in American cuisine, but Calavera shows that they can be delectable if employed properly. This underscores the irrationality of America’s fears of nature and “the other,” which have been integral to its violent colonial rages.

However, Calavera could have helped us understand how this cuisine reaches Oakland. Oaxaca is bitterly poor and large numbers of Oaxacans survive by selling the state’s food practices to wealthy foreigners. There are scores of cooking schools, culinary tours, and “authentic” eateries there as well as a huge industry focused on exporting local gastronomic expertise and ingredients. In this sense, Oaxaca’s poverty produces Oaxacan cuisine as a global commodity. Unfortunately, Calavera does not acknowledge this in its menu or decor. It could have informed us that many Oaxacans eat grasshoppers as an inexpensive source of protein because they cannot afford meat or eggs and it also could have noted that the FDA found dangerous levels of lead in them—these things would have highlighted the state’s grave economic and environmental problems. At the very least, it could have mentioned Mexican food justice campaigns and cooperatives.

Like a song or a novel, a restaurant can help us think through complicated and painful issues. Calavera does this in a tasty but flawed way. Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel, both of Oakland, explore similar questions in their Decolonize your Diet, a new cookbook that argues for an activist use of “traditional” Mexican foods. Although there are major differences between their book and Calavera, both underscore the importance and possibilities of linking politics to food.

~ Chuck Morse