Serious Eats

First Look: Comal in Berkeley, CA

[Photographs: Wes Rowe]

Opening a restaurant specializing in Mexican cuisine was something of a no-brainer for chef Matt Gandin. "This is the food that speaks to me, it's soulful. It's not tweezer cuisine," he said when we stopped in at Comal, his new restaurant in Berkeley. "The tradition in Mexico is to go to the market every day, and to cook what's there. That's the way I want to cook."

Gandin, having made his mark as the chef de cuisine at Delfina, is returning to his roots in a sense—he spent a good deal of time in Mexico pursuing a doctorate in Latin American history. With Comal, he hopes to create "the experience of eating in Mexico, which is all about the family," with shared plates and large-format dishes prepared on an open, wood-fired grill.

The space, large and open, has been designed with a state-of-the-art sound system, allowing for music volumes to vary by section. The ample front bar area caters to a more lively party crowd, while the back tables are meant for more intimate dinner conversations. A large back patio will open in the next couple of weeks, and brunch service will begin in a few months. While the team did not originally plan on lunch, there seems to be large demand in the Berkeley neighborhood—a number of people stopped in hoping for a table on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Gandin's presence at the helm of the kitchen, plus a cocktail menu designed by Bon Vivants founders Scott Baird and Josh Harris.

Gandin is taking a similar approach to the food at Comal as he did at Delfina; the menu will change daily. "I'm treating the Bay Area like my region of Mexico," he said. "That being said, there are a lot of ingredients that might not be traditionally found in Mexican cuisine. But I'm not afraid to use them."

So, expect dishes like a local King Salmon crudo, or a side of bok choy, prepared with Mexican flavors in mind. And Gandin isn't staying completely local—he's using a number of chiles that can only be found in Mexico.

"You can barely find them outside of Oaxaca! I'm trying to get some farmers around here to grow them," he said. "Now, I send anyone who works here or who knows someone going with a duffel bag and a wad of cash."

The chiles, and other flavors from Gandin's menu, have made their way into Baird and Harris's cocktails, as well. "We had lots of good conversations with Matt," Baird told us. "We're definitely riffing on his choices of chiles and assemblages."

This focused approach has been carried over to the choice of spirits on the menu, as well. "We're using almost all Mexican products, and some rum," he told us. "Mexican food really lends itself to pairing with cocktails -- it contains such bright, strong flavors. We want to give guests the chance to drink cocktails throughout the meal."

Baird had the challenge of creating drinks that would satisfy enthusiasts of other spirits, as well. So, the bourbon drinker should try the Abuelo Sucio; fans of Moscow Mules should try an El Burro; and Negroni lovers will love the bitterness of the Joaquin Murrieta.

Additionally, the drink menu contains a long list of tequilas and mezcals, along with flights of both. Tequilas are served with housemade sangrita, a traditional palate cleanser, while mezcals come with chunks of pineapple and ground up chicharron salt.

"The mezcal straight is your ride to take as you see fit," Baird said. "But, I wanted to put bacon in people's mouths."

The menu will change with the season, but Baird wants guests to have a chance to "get familiar" with the cocktails. "You find a drink you like, and it becomes like a friend," he told us.

Both Baird and Gandin are excited for Comal to become a fixture of the neighborhood.

"I saw it happen with 18th Street and Delfina," Gandin said. "This neighborhood is ripe for it."

Check out some of the dishes and drinks at Comal in the slideshow >>

Comal

2020 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley CA 94704 (map)
510-926-6300; comalberkeley.com

About the author: Lauren Sloss is a bicoastal food-lover who is based in San Francisco. Some of her favorite things include The Black Keys, goat gouda, and guacamole. You can follow her on Twitter @laurensloss.

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