This must be the week for long-awaited East Bay restaurant openings (along with Chef Edwards and Epicurious Gardens)!
I noticed going by on the bus this morning that the sign said "Grand Opening March 13," so I went by there hoping for a late lunch after my dentist appointment. The front windows are dark, so it doesn't look open from the street, but inside was a whole other story.
They've done a really nice job with the place: you enter into a bright, two-story atrium-like area, with a full-wall mural. There's a full-bar area to one side that opens onto patio seating overlooking the street. Farther into the restaurant the ceiling drops to single-story height. There's a long banquette on one wall, a counter with seating on the kitchen/service side opposite, and four-tops down the middle. It feels very warm: dark wood, earthtone fabrics, gold sponge-painted walls, wrought-iron light fixtures and Mexican pottery and copperware. I guess I'd call it upscale traditional Mexican, although the counter area hints at the restaurant's more diner-like roots.
The service was also amazingly warm -- the kind you get in a new restaurant where everyone is excited and eager the please. It seemed like every time I looked the manager's way he headed over to ask if I need anything or just to chat (I commiserated with him on the fact it took them two years to get it built, most of that time tied up in permit hassles).
The menu looks very much like the original on International (with a few additional gringo-Mexican favorites like taco salad), including the daily specials. Susan will be excited to know that the Tuesday special is albondigas; the weekend specials are carnitas, pozole and birria de chivo.
I had the Thursday special of chicken mole, which was good, but better when the manager came by and offered to bring me some onions and lemon (he said not everyone likes onions, so I suspect gringos have to ask for them). Wrapped with the mole in warm housemade tortillas they gave the earthy mole some pungency and sparkle; their addition definitely brought the dish together and into balance. Half a chicken in mole, with rice and beans and huge basket of warm, housemade chips set me back a measley $6.95. With one of their excellent strawberry aguas fresca -- also a huge serving for $2 -- my tab with tax but before tip was under $10.
You could run up a much bigger tab if you succumbed to the temptations of the special drink menu, but they all sounded delicious (and no Margarita mix in sight). They have a modest selection of specialty tequilas -- not anything like the list across town at La Pinata, but enough to satisfy most people, and the food and the atmosphere are much better.
Susan had remarked after peeking in the doors that it's very big -- one reason, the manager explained, is that they have a banquet room on the second floor (with windows overlooking the atrium) that seats 180 and has a dedicated kitchen and bar. Something to keep in mind when planning an event in the central East Bay.
Otaez Mexican Restaurant
1619 Webster St., Alameda
Open at 7 am seven days a week (ummmm, chilaquiles and machaca) -- until 10 pm Sunday through Thursday and until 11 pm Friday and Saturday.