The new Doña pares down the menu but carries over the impressive bar from its full-service predecessor in a sprawling fast-casual space.
In 1999, Mexican restaurant food in the East Bay was catapulted into the future by chef Dona Savitsky and her partner, Thomas Schnetz, when they opened Doña Tomás on Telegraph Avenue in the Temescal neighborhood. Twenty years later, Savitsky closed Doña Tomás, having assumed control of it after splitting with Schnetz and dividing up their little empire. She also kept Tacubaya; he took Bar Fauna, Xolo, and Flora (since closed). Partnering with Doña Tomás manager Andee Brown, Savitsky set her sights on the spacious Piedmont Avenue location vacated in late 2018 by the restaurant-market hybrid Chow. In December she opened Doña.
Two decades after Savitsky brought refined techniques, fresh and seasonal ingredients, and her own creative flair to the Mexican food scene, none of that seems novel anymore. Berkeley and Oakland have seen the establishment of such horizon-extending eateries as Comal, Nido, Calavera, Agave Uptown, and Cholita Linda (just as San Francisco has welcomed the likes of Nopalito, Cala, Californios, and Loló), and both sides of the Bay are witnessing what San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho has called “the slow Tijuanization of our taco scene.”
So Savitsky’s reboot comes at a time when the bar she raised 20 years ago has been elevated even higher, in terms of everything from regional variations and chef-driven cuisine to cocktail pairing and artisan mezcal flights. And at the same time, the rising costs of staffing, rent, and ingredients have necessitated an accelerating retreat from full table service. Embracing the fast-casual business model (order at the register, grab your own utensils and water, and find a table), Savitsky has scaled back the Doña Tomás dinner and brunch menus, simplified the plating, and situated Doña in a location more likely to attract a lunch and take-out crowd, especially from the nearby Kaiser Permanente buildings.
Many of the offerings are familiar, including the ensalada de doña (little gems, jicama, carrot, watermelon radish, scallions, toasted pumpkin seeds, lemon vinaigrette, and cumin salt, $11), the sopa de lima ($11), chicken-and-cheese enchiladas with Oaxacan mole rojo ($12), such fillings as carnitas (made with oregano-rubbed pork) and pescado frito (battered and fried rock cod), and such sides as refried black beans, whole pinto beans, Mexican green rice, and fried plantains. There are some new variations among the fillings — pollo tinga (shredded chicken in tomatillo, chipotle, and Negra Modelo), pollo asado (achiote marinated grilled chicken thigh meat), barbacoa (beef braised in smoky chiles, tomato, and Coca-Cola), and butternut squash and kale salad — as well as queso and chips ($6), nachos ($10), and ceviche tostaditos ($13).
Other than the taqueria-style service, one of the biggest changes that came with the move is the ambience — Doña is essentially one giant room with a big wraparound bar near the middle, and the 30-to-50-seat patio bordering the parking lot is a far cry from the flower-bedecked backyard space behind Doña Tomás. The interior is described as inspired by 1970s Guadalajara. I don’t know what that means, but I do know that during a busy weekend night, when the restaurant is filled with families, it’s loud enough to require raised-voice conversations and inspire rapid turnover. Another big difference is in presentation. There are no large plates. You choose your filling and order it in a soft taco ($4.25), a flour-tortilla burrito (with rice, beans, cheese, salsa, crema, and pico de gallo, $10) or a bowl (with rice, beans, cheese, cucumber salsa, pickled red onions, and guacamole, $11). You can also select items from the taco, “and also,” and small plates and sides sections.
On our three visits during Doña’s second month of operation, whether the place was packed (Sunday night), half-full (early on a weeknight), or almost empty (weekday late lunch), the food came quickly and was of consistently fresh and high quality. The sopa de lima — chicken broth with lime, garlic, onion, tomato, chile, cilantro, shredded chicken, avocado, and tortilla strips — was the clear standout, followed closely by the ahi tuna ceviche with avocado, cucumber, garlic, and micro cilantro on three tiny crisp tostadas, and the fish taco, with the cod blanketed with purple cabbage, pickled red Fresno chiles, and chipotle aioli. The fried plantains ($5) were piping hot, perfectly caramelized on the outside and nested in crema. The house-made chips and large scoop of guacamole in a big wooden bowl, while excellent, felt like a splurge at $10.
I enjoyed the barbacoa in a bountiful and beautifully arranged bowl and tacos amply filled with carnitas and pollo tinga, but I sensed that the kitchen held back on spicing the meat. The red mole on the chicken-and-cheese enchilada was more sweet than rich and spicy, and the filling was a bit like a paste. The arbol chile-tomatillo sauce on the cheese enchilada ($10) had some kick, but I wouldn’t call it complex. Robin still dreams of a chile relleno she had at Doña Tomás several years ago, which partially accounted for her disappointment in the current Doña version, served essentially open-face in a pool of sharp tomato-habanero sauce and filled with a thick amalgam of cheese, roasted yams, onions, garlic, and crema. I liked its flavors, but Robin won’t be fanaticizing about it. The cajeta caramel pudding (made with goat milk, sprinkled with sea salt, topped with whipped cream, $8) is the stuff of dreams, however. Other desserts include assorted cookies ($3), flourless Mexican chocolate cake ($7), and churros with Mexican chocolate sauce and cajeta. The coconut horchata iced coffee ($5), one of the many non-alcoholic drink options, was dessert-like in its own right.
After we had completed our visits, Savitsky put breakfast burritos and bowls and house-made granola and yogurt on the morning menu — neighborhood friendly additions but not the sorts of things for which I’d make a special trip the way I would for Tacubaya’s chilaquiles, scrambles with chorizo or nopales, huevos divorciados, or sopes with chorizo and potatoes.
What might tempt me most to return to Doña, and what separates it from any typical taqueria, is the idea of pulling up to the 16-seat bar and indulging in one of the many cocktails ($11-$13) carried over from Doña Tomás. From a straightforward Margarita Especial through the ingredient-upgraded Margarita de la Reyna, a superb mezcal margarita, and the sizzling habanero-infused El Matador, the Doña bar holds its own even as today’s competitive agave-spirits market grows more innovative. A sweet-tooth-pleasing Doña Colada #2, a Bloody Maria made with tequila, a fine house-made sangria, and other adult libations make up for the very short lists of beers (seven) and wines (five). A successful bar can ease the burden of shrinking restaurant margins, and one hopes that Doña’s might underwrite some creative tweaks to Savitsky’s solid cuisine. n
Doña. Mexican. 3770 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-450-0522. Serves breakfast Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-11 a.m., Sat.-Sun.9 a.m.-12 p.m., and dinner daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m., DonaOakland.com.