Wal-Mart and its monolithic brethren have given one-stop shopping a bad name, but every now and again the pleasures of satisfying all of one's needs in one easily navigable setting are undeniable. Take La Taza de Café, a multifaceted nightspot near the Oakland-Piedmont border. Part salsa club, part cafe cantante, part al fresco brunch venue. and part tapas bar, the place offers a wide range of pan-Hispanic attractions under one timber-and-adobe roof. Here the questing fun-lover can sip a Havana cooler, enjoy a set of flamenco dancing, nosh on ceviche and empanadas, and conclude the evening with a bit of the cha-cha.
It's an attractive setting for a self-contained night on the town. Just off the canopied entrance is a cozy bar overlooking Grand Avenue. Toward the back, past the wrought-iron chandeliers and velvet curtains, is an equally cozy dining room and candlelit outdoor patio. And up a narrow flight of stairs is the intimate, low-ceilinged music room where a troupe of talented flamenco dancers pound the parquet most Friday nights. Cuban son is performed Saturday nights; a deejay takes over in between. The food, however, is an occasionally delectable constant.
La Taza's multicultural bent is reflected in its menu, a compendium of Cuban, Spanish, Colombian, Mexican, and Venezuelan influences filtered through a farm-fresh California perspective. One delicious example was Tinga, bite-size canapés of moist, chipotle-edged organic chicken topped with slivers of avocado and crème fraîche. Another tapa caliente, chops de cordero, was its polar opposite, two charred French-cut lamb chops draped in an overly sugary mint-rum reduction and accompanied by a hillock of cloyingly sweet, sweet potatoes reminiscent of overly ripe bananas. Happily, the empanadas du jour wrapped slow-roasted eggplant and zucchini in a crisp, flaky crust and were especially tasty dunked in the bright, spicy cilantro salsa served alongside. Best of all was the halibut ceviche, a lush, meaty example of the genre with contrasting hints of lime and coriander. Two large plates — dry, stringy slow-cooked pork and a watery paella lacking character — weren't as impressive as the tapas.
The dessert menu features three items. The house flan was as soft and yielding as it should be, with a pool of lush caramel adding a burnt-sugar edge to the pillowy custard, bits of toasted coconut and a drizzle of bright, bracing mango essence aiding and abetting. The housemade guava cheesecake didn't taste much like guava or any fruit in particular, but it was fluffy and fulfilling, with a thick, buttery brown-sugar crust and a pleasantly astringent apricot coulis. Best of all was the Venezuelan chocolate mousse, which was powerful enough in taste and texture to engender a good old-fashioned sense memory of See's dark chocolate. Thick and chewy as a fine gelato, with the slightly bitter taste of purest cocoa, this deep, decadent dessert was pleasantly accented with a minimal hazelnut crust and a pool of blackberry reduction.
La Taza's Sunday brunch is best enjoyed out on the back patio during the warm weeks of Indian summer. Reclining in a wicker armchair in this brick-paved, palm-shaded retreat is like taking a too-brief vacation to Port-au-Prince or Havana, without the humidity and mosquitoes. The arepa Benedict is a yummy variation on the New Orleans classic in which thick slices of smoky ham are glazed with sweet, snappy rum butter and the standard English muffin is replaced with two arepas, the delicately flavored Colombian cornmeal patties. (The hollandaise sauce could've used a hint of lemon, though.) El Classico, aka steak and eggs, was nothing special, four fillets of grilled sirloin topped with a surprisingly taste-free garlic-studded chimichurri salsa, with four slices of tomato and two eggs on the side. But the Cuban sandwich was the best thing on the menu and one of the best we'd ever tasted: creamy, hearty, tender, and spicy all at once, it combined peppery pulled pork with slivers of smoked ham, pungent Gruyère, and spiky mustard between a soft, pillowy roll that served to cushion the dynamic flavors. Result: wonderfulness. Make sure to order a side of the fresh-from-the-oven pan de queso, globes of warm, chewy dough studded with queso blanco and dusted with sugar and cinnamon: an oddly addictive treat.
There isn't a whole lot on La Taza's menu vegetarians can wrap their lips around most nights of the week; the flesh-free dinner selections begin and end with the mango-manchego-frisée salad, the occasional vegetable empanada, and sides like fried yucca and black beans and rice. Brunch is a better option, offering veggie-friendly specialties like the arepa Benedict prepared with spinach and tomato instead of ham; a spinach-mushroom omelette; huevos rancheros; waffles with bananas and rum butter; Oaxacan quesadillas; and the mango-frisée salad. Or drop by Thursday night between 5 and 9 p.m., when the restaurant serves up a special vegetarian menu rife with portobello-Gouda croquetas, quinoa relleno, black bean and chimichurri crostini, and tofu frito with mojo criolla.
La Taza's moderately priced 16-bottle wine list features a token sampling of local vintages, but be adventurous and order one of the Spanish riojas instead. The Conde de Valdemar Tempranillo was smooth, velvety, beautifully balanced, and by association raised the lamb chops to a higher gustatory level. Another option is sangria, available here in three varieties: the Tranquillo (rioja, orange liqueur, and pomegranate); the Sangria Negra, an unexciting brew of red wine and apples (the advertised peaches and nectarines were MIA the night we ordered it); and the Limonada, the clear winner, a sparkly, refreshing blend of aromatic Verdejo white wine, bubbly cava, and housemade limoncello. La Taza also shakes up several tropical cocktails founded on agave wine, non-distilled cane rum, or soju, (the restaurant doesn't have a hard liquor license); one concoction that overcomes these obstacles is a mojito made with champagne, a crisp, minty, invigorating variation on the rum-based classic.
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