There is always room in a community for an ingredient-driven restaurant like Comal. But this Mexican cantina is particularly valuable in Berkeley because of its downtown location–a block from BART, less than a block from the Berkeley Repertory Theater, and a 15 minute walk to Zellerbach Hall. Eating pre-performance turns out to be your best bet, because the only time you can reserve a table is at 5:30 p.m. when the restaurant opens. From then on, hosts seat on a first-come-first-served policy except at the two bars, one in the large, high-ceilinged main dining area, the other on the heated patio in the back. For me, the payoff in pleasure has always been worth any how-long-will-I-have to wait anxiety.
One reason I never worry about the wait is that I love Comal’s meticulously built cocktails, based on fresh fruit juices and artisanal tequila and mezcal. The house margarita ($9) balances orange-scented agave syrup and fresh lime and could not be more evocative of Mexico’s breezy Pacific coast. Comal’s extraordinary chips ($4) have body and heft–thick but not too thick– and are freshly and cleanly fried. A basket of them with three salsas (a hot, smoky chipotle, a medium-hot guajillo chile and tomatillo, and a blandish pureed tomato) can all too easily become a meal.
Or, start with sikil pak ($7), a rich, olive-green, grilled eggplant spread with toasted pumpkin seeds, tomato and chile that brings warm chips and salsas to the table as well.
A bowl of tender tripe and garbanzos ($9), slicked with red chile oil, delivers everything I want from those secret parts: unctuous yet provocatively resistant texture, and a clean if super-meaty animal flavor. I find Comal’s preparation, which is made with beef honeycomb tripe, pig trotters and chicken broth, sexy and addictive.
Lighter palates will appreciate California-inspired salads–bitter greens, persimmon. pomegranate with shaved manchego cheese ($9); and crispy little gem lettuce, beets, avocado and goat feta with cilantro-yogurt vinaigrette ($10)– both of them perfectly constructed.
There are antojitos– enchiladas, tacos and tamales–including a spectacular wild mushroom quesadilla ($11) enclosed in a substantial, startlingly purple tortilla made with blue corn, folded over a meaty hen-of- the-woods mushroom filling scented with oregano-like epazote and perked with a bright, hot, habanero salsa. Comal’s starter-size chile relleno ($9) lightens a queso fresco-filled, battered and deep-fried chile with tomato salsa and a chopped salad of avocado and lettuce. The textural contrasts of the raw and the cooked, cool and hot in spice and temperature, keep it interesting.
Many gravitate to Comal for whole rotisserie chicken ($39) slowly turned over a live fire, juices dripping onto fire-roasted fingerling potatoes. A platter of cut-up chicken can easily be consumed by two– or maybe three, depending on what else you order. I like to accompany the chicken with a clay pot of black beans and braised collards with bacon, chile and lime ($7), one of the most soulful renditions of greens I’ve tasted. You can make the most delicious chicken tacos with steamy house-made tortillas and salsas that come on the side.
The roaring, warehouse-like dining room and the tented patio (warmed by heat lamps) give Comal the feel of a downtown Mexico city establishment. But in all honesty, the quality of the food and cocktails place Comal squarely in the Bay area.
Comal is the restaurant that the beloved Delfina would be–if it were Mexican. Its food possesses that same clarity. LIke Delfina, Comal’s kitchen reveres simplicity and balance, and achieves even more because of the way it handles ingredients. You always taste their goodness underpinning the preparations. From chips and salsas to the whole rotisserie chickens, saucy tripe, stuffed chiles, quesadillas and Mexican cocktails, everything delights and satisfies. The cooking technique is straightforward but ever so skillful. I suppose this should come as no surprise, since the Comal chef/owner, Matt Gandin, was the accomplished chef de cuisine at Delfina. Now Berkeley has a Mexican version.
2020 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley 510 929-6300 dinner nightly