A survey of unlikely culinary mashups in the Bay Area would include a bluegrass bar serving West African dishes (Soleil's African Cuisine); a doughnut shop that, for a brief but glorious time, sold Cambodian meat skewers (Yellow Brick Cafe, RIP); and a world-beater of a Chinese restaurant inside another Chinese restaurant (Mission Chinese Food).
Add to that pantheon Oakland's Nido and PieTisserie: the former a Mexican restaurant with Californian sensibilities; the latter an old-fashioned, mostly-all-American pie shop — two up-and-coming businesses that share a lime-green building in the Jack London district.
Needless to say, Cal-Mex and pie aren't genres that normally go together (a Google image search for "Mexican pie" yielded several Monterey-Jack-topped monstrosities). But Silvia McCollow, Nido's chef and co-owner (along with her husband, Cory), met PieTisserie proprietor Jaynelle St. Jean when the two were both working in Old Oakland — McCollow doing kitchen stints at B Oakland and Cosecha, St. Jean a series of pop-ups selling pies through a little portable window. The McCollows were looking to open a restaurant; St. Jean wanted a permanent kitchen. One thing led to another.
While St. Jean has since created a signature pie (a "Mexican pie") for the restaurant — a sexy key-lime-and-prickly-pear number — the point here isn't to fuse two cuisines. Rather, each business mostly does its own thing, the working theory being that if the Mexican food is delicious, and the pie is delicious, then that's good enough to make this marriage work.
Nido, for its part, feels like a mish-mash of every single Bay Area dining trend of the moment: furniture made from reclaimed materials, Mexican food reinterpreted through the prism of local ingredients, and the feel — with St. Jean's bright-red pie window greeting you as you walk in — of a permanent pop-up.
All that trendiness might rub a cynical diner the wrong way: corrugated shipping container doors slapped on the wall like works of fine art; light fixtures made to resemble bird cages (or perhaps made from actual bird cages). A margarita came in (what else?) a small mason jar, and consisted mostly of ice cubes and rim salt. And a two-person order of lentil soup was served in a large enamel bucket of sorts (no individual serving bowls), so we drank straight out of the pail like true frontier folk, and then had to lift the whole thing up to our mouths to get at the last several spoonfuls.
I don't think it's unfair to say that some of this comes across as a wee bit precious, though there is rhyme and reason to the decor: Nido means "nest" in Spanish, so the idea was to scavenge materials from the Jack London area like a bird building its nest.
But the main thing — the important thing — is that the food at Nido is tasty and lacking in pretension. McCollow's idea was to take family recipes (many of them with roots in the coastal Mexican state of Nayarit, where her family is from) and to the reimagine those dishes using high-quality local ingredients. Sound familiar?
What ends up setting Nido apart, though, is the homeyness of the food — like what an excellent home cook might serve for a special Sunday supper with friends and family. Take the Pollo Sobado: half a chicken that had been rubbed with ground chiles moritas and other spices, then roasted until juicy and succulent — nothing fancy, but at least twice as good as any rotisserie chicken you'll ever find in a store. The accompanying tortillas, handmade to order, were excellent — hot, thick, and fragrant. And, lest you hear "rotisserie chicken" and automatically think "white-bread Mexican food," a xoconostle-tomatillo salsa offered plenty of zip and zing.
The "Ollita de Pobre," a one-pot meal with rice, refried beans, sliced avocados, salsa, and a rotating meat selection (tender, slow-braised pork when I ordered it) offered similar pleasures: simple comfort food, skillfully prepared.
And, for an appetizer of chips adobadas, an enormous portion of house-made tortilla chips had been tossed in adobo sauce, Cotija cheese, and crema fresca. The chips were alarmingly cold and moist, upon first taste, but, ultimately, addictive in their refreshing coolness and crunch.
But perhaps the best thing about eating a meal at Nido is dessert, which for now consists entirely of PieTisserie's pies — sold whole, by the slice, and in individual-size mini pies. My first encounter was with a chocolate peppermint cream mini pie special that St. Jean made over the holidays, and it was one of the single most delicious things I ate last year: smooth, rich chocolate cream infused with a blast of peppermint — like a sophisticated Grasshopper milkshake — and served in a delicate all-butter crust that was remarkably thin and shatteringly crisp.
St. Jean is one of those self-taught savants who can be infuriating for anyone who's ever wrestled with making a pie crust from scratch. When asked how she gets her crust so thin, she said, without sarcasm, "We just roll it thinner." (When pressed, she cited small batches and not cutting corners.)
At any given time, PieTisserie offers a selection of about six seasonal pies, at least a few of which are available, to both diners at Nido and takeout customers, in single-portion servings — shareable by two if you're dining with a less-greedy pie-eater than me.
Nearly as good as that chocolate-peppermint revelation were the brilliantly purple Okinawan sweet potato pie (starchier and more assertive than pumpkin pie) and another chocolate cream pie in which the cream sat upon a bed of crushed pretzels — a little salty-crunchy surprise in each bite.
If this is what St. Jean's pies are like in December and January, color me excited to see what she'll be putting out in the summer, when berries and pitted fruits make their glorious return.
Editor's note: The prior version of this story misspelled the name of Nido chef and co-owner Silvia McCollow. This version has been corrected.
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