A few weeks back, I posted a request for East Bay Mexican recommendations, and got several. What with family obligations, my time for 'hounding was limited, but my first outing, at Picante Cocina in Berkeley, was just exactly what I was seeking.
We had guacamole. which was freshly made, chunky, as if mashed with a fork, and sopes, both the mushroom and cream and chorizo-potato. I hadn't had sopes with deep-fried masa cups before--I liked the crunch. Sopes are often tough and leathery. I had chicken enchiladas with mole negro, which was really good-very silky and rich. The chicken was juicy and full of flavor. My hub had chicken tamales. They were tender and fresh, and the accompanying tomatillo salsa was a tangy puree, a fine balance of flavor and texture with the tamale. My daughter had carne asada tacos, which were flavorful and loaded with strips of roasted poblanos. The refried beans were creamy--they could have used a bit more lard, for that real pork-y savor, though. The rice was so-so, but who cares about rice? It's all about corn, beans and chiles in my book. The freshly made tortillas, Niman Ranch meat, aguas frescas, great salsa verde, Negro Modelo, were all major plusses.
It was so good, that we forgot about the rest of the list and went back to Picante two more times, to try other things on the menu. Carnitas were succulent and full of flavor--that good Niman Ranch pork really shines. Tamales de verduras had butternut squash and poblano chiles inside, which was delectable when combined with the steamed masa. The batter surrounding the chile relleno was freshly fried and tender, and the salsa was a thick tomato puree, rather than the usual watery tomato-onion broth that is served with chiles rellenos.
Next time we come, I want to try their chile verde and manchamantel. I liked the casual, get-it-yourself atmosphere. My only complaint, other than the rice, was that the food could have been hotter. Everything was pretty much luke-warm. No "hot-plate, hot-plate!" Anyway, thank you, fellow chowhounds. Picante was the highpoint of my trip.