Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Restaurante Dona Tomas in Oakland

Fresh Standards at Longtime Restaurant
5004 Telegraph Ave. (near 51st Street), Oakland
Temescal neighborhood
PH: 510.450.0522
Open Tue.–Thu., 5:30–9:30 p.m. (till 10 p.m. Fri. and Sat.)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

One of the early restaurant pioneers in my nearby neighborhood of Temescal is Restaurante Doña Tomás, which opened in 1999. It’s been on my list of places to try in the hood, but I never got around to it until a recent Friday night when I found myself with no reservations and nearing the peak of the weekend dinner crunch.

I should note that I was with my friend Joe, who has an odd schedule (which explains why I can’t make reservations when I get together with him). Luckily, we have a few options in our area these days, but they were all a minimum 60-minute wait on a Friday night. Doña Tomás won out with a promised wait of only 30 minutes.

The restaurant has an interesting layout. From the street, it looks like two restaurants side by side, separated by a gated corridor that’s like a tiny alley. But the main dining area is on the left and to the right is a festively painted bar that was just as packed. Joe and I got a couple of drinks while we waited, enjoying the beautiful night and wondering why no one was sitting in the spacious patio in the back. (There were some diners in another room behind the patio that looked almost like a renovated storage shed.)

Doña Tomás is the flagship of a growing empire started by Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky. They opened the restaurant to celebrate the fresh flavors of Mexico, and have since opened a taco bar in Berkeley called Tacubaya and a totally different concept in the retro dinner club Flora across from the Fox Theater in Oakland.

When we were finally seated in the main dining room, I started with the Sopes con Callos ($11.95), an appetizer of seared dayboat scallops sitting on housemade crispy masa cakes. The cakes were served with Oaxacan mole negro.

The simple but elegant presentation of the scallops clearly represented the style of what was coming out of the kitchen — fresh, quality ingredients with simple, homemade flavors. When eating the masa cakes, I could tell they were homemade because of the distinct flavor of the cornmeal. The mole was rich and thick, but not overwhelming.

For our entrées, Joe got the special of the night, which was the La Espada con Salsa del Cura ($18.50) or Seared Swordfish with a salsa of tomato, green olives, onions, garlic and pickled jalapenos. Joe said he enjoyed his hearty serving of swordfish, but I thought his dish really looked buried in gloop. First gloop was the salsa on top of the fish, and second gloop was the puree of black beans. I guess the black bean puree made it easy to dip in the fresh tortillas that came on the side.

I actually had been eating a lot during the day, so I wasn’t in the mood for any of the carnitas or meat dishes. Instead I ordered the Enchiladas con Camote y Queso ($17.25), which was enchiladas stuffed with sweet yams.

My enchiladas were steamed and the filling of yams and roasted poblano chiles was a nice balance of sweet and spicy. The natural sweetness of the yams really held up well in this dish, so I appreciated that. Of course, my enchiladas also had a good helping of salsa, called quajilo.

On my plate were some anchote rice and an interesting radish and nopales salad. Nopales is a kind of succulent or cactus, and when you eat it the texture can only be described (by me) as mushy crunchy. I didn’t really like the texture, and thought the slight pickling flavor would have helped the nopales if the pickling flavor was even stronger. Still, I liked the idea of being introduced to new ingredients.

Doña Tomás seems to retain its popularity, especially with families. I think it’s because of the loud noise level, which makes it popular for young kids who are not afraid to screech in an already loud environment. (An example of how noisy it was: Joe told our waitress after dinner that he was “full” and instead she came back with dessert because she thought he said “flan.” We sent the flan back because we really were “full.”)

The service ran like clockwork, although at times I felt like they were just going through the motion and weren’t as engaged. Maybe the years are starting to show?

Still, the menu reflects a strong attitude toward local sustainable dining with a Mexican heritage. The flavors may not hold much punch, but you can always count on the quality. While I’m not an expert on Mexican food, I enjoy the lessons learned through the dishes at Doña Tomás.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (Fancy but Fresh)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Doña Tomás on Urbanspoon

Related reviews:
Flora: “A Touch of the Past in a Neighborhood Reborn”
Tacubaya: “This is Some Fancy Taco Shop”

P.S. Happy Cinco de Mayo!


Kim said...

Full/Flan. Cute.

Carolyn Jung said...

I am dying to try this place. Friends and family who get the East Bay more than I do, just rave about the food at Dona Tomas. Those enchiladas are calling out to me, saying, "Come on, come on, drive up here and enjoy!'' ;)

Anonymous said...

I tried to have dinner here alone on an early Saturday evening. I got there just as they were opening, so it was not crowded. I hate sitting at a table alone so I headed to the bar. Unfortunately they refused to serve dinner at the bar on weekends. So I left. I probably won't go back.