La Capilla dishes up lovely Mexican cuisine in a serene setting in West Berkeley.
Yellow corn tostadas with chicken, in foreground, and tacos with a cucumber agua fresca are among La Capilla’s treats.
Photos by Lori Eanes
The East Bay is packed with good, cheap Mexican food options, and small treatises have been written on the taco trucks lining International Boulevard. Increasingly in recent years, it also boasts a large selection of more modern, upscale Mexican eateries with places like Nido, Calavera, and Comal.
But there are fewer options in the middle, the kind of places that dish out made-from-scratch Mexican staples in an environment more attractive than a street taco truck or hole-in-the-wall burrito joint but more casual and affordable than the likes of sit-down spots like Doña Tomás and Comal.
La Capilla, which opened earlier this year just off the increasingly hopping West Berkeley area surrounding the intersection of San Pablo and University avenues, fills this niche quite snugly. It’s not a taqueria, but it does serve some pretty killer tacos, in addition to burritos, torta sandwiches, and some more ambitious and substantial platos like carne asada, chile verde, and chicken mole. They also show a legit healthy and fresh bent in using free-range chicken and hormone-free grass-fed beef, serving some lovely salads, and operating a full-on raw/juice bar.
Paul Rivera cooks at La Capilla.
And it’s cheap. Not taco truck cheap, but reasonable, given the portions and quality—entrees are below $14 and all other items under $9, including some brick-sized burritos. It probably helps that La Capilla is not owner Juan Romo’s first rodeo. He owns more than a half dozen other mostly Mexican spots in Berkeley and San Francisco, including three—La Mission, Casa Latina Bakery, and Monte Cristo Taqueria—within a few blocks (he also owned the now-closed Montero’s in Albany).
But there’s nothing chainlike about La Capilla. Indeed, the first thing you notice in walking in the doors is just how pleasant and thoughtful it feels. The lofty, light-filled space is decorated sparingly but beautifully, primarily with objects of Mexican religious art (la capilla translates to “the chapel”), including angelic statues, an oversize-wood arched mirror, and, of course, a richly painted image of the Virgin of Guadalupe perched on a red-bricked accent wall above a shelf of filament candles. The sharp white tile behind the order counter lends it all an elegantly contemporary feel.
That’s not to say there will always be space to dine in, since it’s a petite interior with minimal seating. As such, take-out service rules the roost, but if you have the chance, try to grab a seat for lunch on a sunny day—this is really a pretty place to eat some carnitas.
Surprisingly—maybe because sandwiches don’t typically come to mind when I think Mexican cuisine—the tortas were hands-down my favorite on the menu. The lechon blew away any Southern-style barbecue version of pulled pork that I’ve ever tried. The fatty, succulent shredded pork was slathered with a mildly spicy chipotle barbecue sauce that skewed pleasantly savory. A vinegary salsa criolla of thinly sliced red onions, tomatoes, and cilantro served to cut the richness. It’s served between torpedo rolls of perfectly squishy grilled white bread (baked fresh at Casa Latina down the street). It’s not fancy, but it’s totally comforting, and really well done—and given the amount of pork stuffed in there, it’s a bargain at just $8.50.
Stephanie Romo, manager at La Capilla.
Even better: the Cubano. It seems like everyone does a Cuban sandwich these days, to the point where I tend to skip right over it when I see it listed on menus. Don’t skip this one. In place of roasted pork, La Capilla subs in carnitas, rich shredded pork braised in oil—no argument here. Ham, grilled and sliced thinly so that it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the ingredients, is tucked away underneath, along with a few dashes of yellow mustard (but not too much) for kick. On top are a few thin slices of pickles and a resonant mojo rojo sauce for some spice and smokiness. It’s a thoughtful, well-balanced sandwich.
In general, the meats here are great. The ground sausage in the chorizo taco was moist and flavorful with a hefty oomph of spice. The carne asada, meanwhile, was perhaps my favorite item on the menu. Grilled over an open flame, the generous strips of thin skirt steak were remarkably flavorful, both from the meat’s natural fattiness and tenderness and from the char imparted by that open flame. The mojo rojo sauce makes another appearance here, again adding spice and smoke.
Oddly, some of the chicken dishes I tried were the most disappointing. The mole 23—the digits indicating the number of ingredients—boasted a citrusy, chocolaty, spicy mole sauce that was wasted on strips of dry, flavorless grilled chicken. Similarly, the braised chicken in a crispy taco special was on the dry, bland side. The pollo verde, however, fared much better, the braised chicken moist and tender and smothered in a zesty, spicy tomatillo sauce.
One of the admirable things about La Capilla is an authentic commitment to substantial vegetarian dishes. The mushroom and kale taco is a nice meatless option, combining robust, stewed kale with earthy mushrooms and a filling black bean spread that was balanced by cabbage slaw and chipotle crema. I also loved the tacos dorados de papa, highlighted by the creamy, hash-brown-style fried potato. Another good option is the tostada salad, sort of a deconstructed salad with perfectly fresh greens delicately dressed in a sweet pineapple-mint dressing and surrounded by mounds of light, flavorful green rice, black beans, cojito cheese, and strips of fried yellow corn tortilla. I added sliced avocado on top and didn’t walk away hungry.
In addition to the fresh juices and espresso drinks, La Capilla churns out breakfast dishes like chilaquiles, chorizo, and eggs, and breakfast sandwiches, as well as a few pastry items and desserts. It’s a pretty impressive output for such a small operation, and yet, under the watchful eye of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the friendly staff seems to manage it all smoothly with an unwavering grace that suggests that the restaurant’s namesake is not misplaced. I’d suggest you pay your own respects soon.
1106 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-529-4906, Facebook.com/Capi1106
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, 8am-9pm.
Average dinner entrée: $10. No alcohol. Credit cards accepted.
Published online on July 14, 2017 at 8:00 AM