Calavera Pop-Up Dinner Includes Amaranth, Eight-Hour Suckling Pig, and Grasshoppers


Kristan Lawson

Five-chile ash and crispy amaranth adorned the ceviche. Ramp salsa awaited the squash-blossom quesadillas. Pickled lamb tongue and the soft corn fungus known as huitlachoche crowned the sopes. Hoja santa -- Oaxaca's aromatic, face-sized "sacred leaf" -- adorned the roasted grass-fed hanger steak. Generous, sumptuous cocktails sported Pierde Almas mezcal gin, hibiscus, juniper and fluffy, fruity mounds of "guava snow." Forming a russet trail across the Haas-avocado "Guacamole of the Feathered Serpent" were (as depicted above) chapulines de Oaxaca, aka crispy dried grasshoppers. 

All this and more was served last Friday night at Jack London Square's Lungomare, during a pop-up dinner hosted by the team that plans to open Mexican restaurant/tequila-mezcal bar Calavera -- a sleek, chic, art-inhabited, lofty-ceilinged tile/glass/blond-wood landmark-in-the-making, if the preliminary images are anything to go by -- in the Julia Morgan-designed Hive building at 2335 Broadway within the next month.

The space is being designed by Oakland-based Arcsine, whose other current projects include the Oaktown Spice Shop, Walnut Creek's Teleferic Barcelona, San Francisco's Dirty Water and more.

Calavera's team comprises restaurateurs Jessica Sackler, Michael Iglesias, and Lungomare's owner Chris Pastena. Preparing the huitlachoche and everything else was Calavera's executive chef Christian Irabien, who was born and raised in Chihuahua, Mexico, and has worked at Washington, DC's Le Diplomate and Oyamel Cocina Mexicana. 

Irabien called his planned menu modern, yet also "pre-Hispanic."

During Calavera's early planning stages, "we were trying to figure out what makes Mexican food Mexican," the chef explained. "In order to do that, we tried to find the darkest corners of Mexico. We wanted to find out: What were the Zapotecs eating? And the Mixtecs? 

"We're reaching back to how Mexican food was before" it in any way, shape or form resembled what is served at Taco Bell.

"But it would be pretty hard to put everything we've learned into words without spending three hours spouting factoids at you," the chef laughed.

Stunning folk art -- including carved wooden "spirit animals" -- studded the room in which the pop-up meal was served. 

"Calavera is a celebration of Mexico's art," declared Iglesias, citing several Mexican artisans whose works will adorn and be used inside the restaurant --  including Oaxacan ceramicist Omar Hernández, maker of Calavera's coffee mugs and mezcal cups.

"You'll see a lot of art around the restaurant, and that art is going to inspire Chef Christian while he's making his own 'art' in the kitchen," Iglesias said.

And that kitchen won't skimp on the exotic ingredients. Diners who sampled the chapulines last Friday described them as variously smoky, sweetish and slightly vinegary.

"Before starting my research, I already knew that people in Mexico ate grasshoppers," Irabien said. "As you can see from tonight's meal, we'll be serving those. But we're also putting worms in things. 

"Those worms that you sometimes find inside tequila bottles? Those are real worms that feed on agave plants. We have a guy in Mexico who sends them to us, fresh and dried."

Another insect with which Irabien would like to experiment is jumiles, better known stateside as stickbugs. 

"You'll see whole buckets of live jumiles in Mexican markets, surrounded by big crowds" of customers, the chef explained. "You put a handful of them onto a tortilla, fold it over and eat it, and jumiles are crawling around on your face." 

Calavera will source its ingredients from Mexico and locally, whenever possible.

"We want to do really good Mexican cuisine -- the best, actually. We're very excited."

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