Two years of soaped windows has a way of jacking up expectations, especially among a captive population of office-cube rats desperate for a new lunch option. When Emeryville's Cocina Poblana opened in late October, you could smell the excitement on the user review site Yelp. Office workers published dissections of their first tacos and burritos, like restaurant critics parsing the amuse-bouche at the French Laundry.
In the heart of Emeryville's spreading condotopia, and with a high-profile location on Hollis, Cocina Poblana had to live up to fierce expectations from the first day it packed ice into its serve-yourself salsa bar and unlocked the doors. Understandable, since the restaurant's road to strawberry salsa was fraught with so many delays. The space used to be the sleepy pizza joint Milano. When Cocina Poblana's construction remake began exactly two years ago, owner Lito Saldana must have seen the location as a slam-dunk for Picante-style gold. Owner of a taqueria on Fillmore in San Francisco, Saldana no doubt saw Emeryville's densely packed offices and townhouse building boom as the perfect opportunity to work the taqueria-with-regional-cooking-cred formula that keeps Berkeley's Picante perpetually thronged. And not only there. Saldana had experience working at Cancun, his brother's taqueria in downtown Berkeley. Seemed a safe bet that Emeryville would flip for the kind of salsa bar that gives Cancun a bright, contemporary presence.
How does it take two years to morph a pizzeria into a fancy taqueria? Poblana chef Christopher Zekos says the construction process was from hell, a space that needed more extensive reconstruction than Saldana expected, tangled up with the difficulty of nailing down contractors.
Now that Poblana is open, it's clear that Saldana's concept is so sprawling it'd take anyone time to get it off the ground, even without the drywall guy dragging his feet. With distinct menus for lunch, dinner, and weekend breakfast, Zekos oversees preparation of an enormous number of different things every day. The sheer volume and complexity would take its toll on a chef with more experience than the 23-year-old Zekos has. Even with a chef as earnest as Zekos, the results are bound to be uneven.
In the dining room at breakfast and lunch you order cafeteria-style, and the vibe is as casual as at Picante's. It's a noisy taqueria, with cooks on the open line rolling up wet burritos for office guys in Pumas and track jackets dangling laminated security IDs. But at dinner Poblana becomes quieter and a little glossy: There are trolling waiters, the romantic burble of Los Trios pulsing through the speakers, and an emphasis on the cooking of the Mexican states of Puebla and Jalisco. After dark the food gets a little fancy, in concept if not on the plate. (Menu slogan: The art of Mexican cooking.) You can also order more-casual stuff, gringo money dishes like enchiladas and fajitas.
One of the fanciest dinner entrées is the Puebla set piece chiles en nogada. It shows off the kitchen's appeal and its weakness. You've got to love Zekos for taking a chance with it at all. It's a cold, roasted poblano chile stuffed with fruit-studded shredded chicken, a dish that feels partly like a colonial curiosity. The strands of chicken had a nice kind of chewiness, the kind that feels oddly good wedged between your teeth. And Zekos has the right idea with dried fruits, trying to dry his own whenever he can (on the night I tasted it, the filling contained house-fried Granny Smiths, along with commercially dried pineapple and pears).
The cold, creamy almond sauce tasted as rich and old-timey as eggnog the chef steeps toasted almonds in cream, strains and thickens the sauce, adds a bit of cacao liqueur, and sprinkles it with pomegranate seeds. Interesting, but we couldn't eat more than a couple of spoonfuls, a fraction of what was flooding the plate. The dish would have made a good appetizer, where small portions of vivid tastes might have left us wanting more. And drying all of the fruits in-house could have made the filling less sweet. All the elements cried out for modern adaptation.
The moles were straightforward and unsurprising, disappointing only because the menu descriptions depict them as family treasures. Named after Saldana's mother (the menu hypes her as grandma), mole Mama Luisa brought a terracotta-colored sauce with the bite of guajillo chiles. Even with that bite, the effect was a bit too pinched, too tidy to have come out of mom's kitchen, especially ladled over a boneless chicken breast that seemed decidedly unlike home cooking. Pipian mole had a peanutty richness and the same bland, boneless protein.
Mole Mama Elena was better, if only because it was messier, more homestyle. Named for Saldana's mother-in-law, its braised leg and thigh of chicken were partially dissolved into a black sauce that breathed complexity. Tannic and borderline bitter with a sheen of fat on the surface, it had character.
The kitchen is at its best when it gets messy. Carnitas Don Pedro were delicious, a mash of still-moist meat fibers. They had a husky, caramelized-brown taste with the slight tang of tomatillo. Beef tinga, stewed chuck that ends up dark and pulpy, was fantastic on an appetizer called huarachitos poblanos. Three mini huaraches Azteca, shallow masa-dough cups shaped to look like classic Aztec sandals, had thick toppings of that irresistible beef, shredded cabbage, and salsa.
You can get an entrée-sized version, too, as well as huaraches Azteca filled with a grilled cactus paddle and sautéed shrimp. As a size twelve, the masa sandal doesn't quite work, since more dough makes it clear how oddly sweet it tastes. Too bad, since the nopal cactus that sat atop the dough was wonderful, poached soft with bay leaves and peppercorns before picking up more flavor from the grill.
A vegetarian version of a Michoacan-style tamale, corundas, was the biggest disappointment. Available only at lunch, it was dry and bready, studded with pieces of bland potato and watery yellow squash. Not even dousing it with a tasty, fiery cascabel salsa from the salsa bar could save it.
Lunch is the weakest meal. The chips are bad, sunflower-yellow with a sugary, cornmeal taste. They're the chips you expect at some airport taqueria, not from guys who know better. Scattered with overcooked mahi-mahi cubes starting to taste tired, tacos de pescado were unsatisfying. A crab burrito had a tasty filling of real crustacean, but its wrapper was a stretchy, herb-flecked tortilla that got gummy where the filling started to saturate it. Stick to the platillos, the entrée plates.
Can any restaurant live up to a two-year accumulation of expectations? Probably not one that reaches so high, with a chef who's more enthusiastic than experienced. The menu makes Christopher Zekos' enthusiasm so clear that you want him to make Cocina Poblana extraordinary. With this prime location, he may not have to.
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