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barbacoa at Casa Maria, Oakland

Ruth Lafler | Aug 29, 200412:29 PM

So I grabbed a friend and headed to the new Casa Maria for a late lunch/early dinner. It's a very pleasant restaurant: the interior has been set up like a Mexican plaza -- an open area in the center under the high-arched, skylighted roof with areas separated by arched arcades on either side. Murals, old leather barrel chairs, elaborate wrought iron chandeliers, etc. I think maybe they clear out the center area for dancing sometimes, as there's a stage set up for live music at one end.

We ordered the barbacoa and pork enchiladas en mole. Fresh chips made from hand-made tortillas came to the table with three salsas: a mild, tomatoey red; a bright, tart green; and a roasted, toasted brick orange. All of them were good but none were mind-blowing (the green I had from the truck out front earlier in the week was better).

You can order the barbacoa by the pound, but I ordered a "serving" which came with rice and beans, tortillas (handmade but I think reheated, not to made order, but it was off-hours). I was surprised the barbacoa came without any sauce or appreciable spice rub. It did, however, have a distinct but not overpowering flavor of wood smoke, so it really is "dehorno." I asked the waitress how it was made and she didn't know. I asked her *where* it was made and she said *Stockton* -- I'm now envisioning Stockton as riddled with BBQ pits supplying barbacoa throughout Northern California. Anyway, it was delicious -- not spicy, but very flavorful. Heavenly wrapped in a tortilla with a bit of the chopped onion, cilantro and lime provided, and a drizzle of the orange salsa. It was very rich -- fortunately my companion was happy to help me finish it, or I wouldn't have made much of a dent.

He also scarfed down the enchiladas en mole, which came with rice and beans, topped with crumbled Mexican cheese and a swirl of crema. I thought it was very good but -- and this is an ongoing problem -- there was way too much sauce. A traditional dark chocolate mole is too strong to pour over a dish like a tomato-based sauce -- it completely overwhelms the dish. I need someone to teach me enough Spanish to get an order that isn't drowned in sauce. I have to say my friend practically licked the plate, though.

With a fresh orange juice, tax and tip it came to $27 for two. I'm definitely going back. Open every day, but barbacoa only on the weekends. The $2.99 breakfast specials look tempting.

Casa Maria
4021 International
Oakland -- plenty of parking in the lot in front

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