Comal is one of the few gourmet Mexican restaurants in Berkeley. At first, it seems like a small, cozy restaurant, but it expands into a large, 170-seat escape once you enter. Its mood lighting and polished wood-color theme give it an atmosphere like that of an upscale bar, though it is much less crowded. The restaurant gives customers the choice of communal-table seating or an individual table.
The one-page menu changes every day, and the selection is unique in that most menu items do not appear in other Berkeley restaurants. Appetizers range from house-made chicharrones to white-shrimp ceviche. I ordered a salad, and the contrast between the taste and appearance impressed me. At first look, the salad was plain and did not seem to have many ingredients, but after taking a bite, I was pleasantly surprised. The salad was a tasty blend of oil and vinaigrette — although it was overly salty and could have used more ingredients for a more three-dimensional flavor, it was overall a good salad.
The entrees include quesadillas, enchiladas, tamales and tacos. For those who do not know what tamales are, they are a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of starchy dough steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. I ordered chicken tamales, and they came already unwrapped with a special, almost black-colored sauce blended with the chicken inside. The overall taste was strong, salty and reminded me of a barbecue and black-bean blend. Again, the saltiness level could have been lower, but the taste of the tamales overall were quite unique.
The second entree I ordered was the spit-roasted whole chicken with fire-roasted fingerling potatoes from the platos fuertes menu section to share with two or three people. Other dishes from this section included wood-roasted pork loin with pipian verde and grilled vegetables, as well as a bone-in 22-ounce ribeye with green beans. Keep in mind that the menu changes daily, so the items are most likely not going to be just like these.
The chicken was juicy and perfectly seasoned and had a soft and tender texture, almost melting in the mouth. Seasoned with onions and pepper, the combination was great for people who enjoy subtle spice seasoning in their food. The potatoes were also seasoned the same way and complemented the chicken well because the potatoes were also soft and slightly buttery with a texture that barely required chewing.
For dessert, I ordered arroz con leche (rice with milk) with strawberries and toasted pistachios as well as a Oaxacan chocolate budin with whipped cream. The arroz con leche was not overly sweet, which was a nice complement to the previous strong and salty dishes. The nuts and fruits helped decrease the sweetness even more to bring a refreshing taste that reminded me of eating fruit and yogurt. On the other hand, the budin was much creamier and even zesty. At first bite, the pure chocolate taste was satisfying, and I wished it had lingered in my mouth for just a second longer. The surprise came after I swallowed the budin — a peppery and spicy kick ran through my throat, and the zest was a welcoming surprise to what otherwise would have been a chocolate budin like any other. The whipped cream helped reduce the zest a little for those who may not enjoy such a spicy dessert. And who doesn’t like a little whipped cream to top off any dessert?
Comal is a unique Mexican restaurant that can satisfy most anyone who enjoys Mexican food, and for the foodies out there, be happy to know that the restaurant also strives to please those with an unconventional palate or more adventurous taste buds. I will be returning to Comal to try more zest and spices and to see what surprises the next visit holds.
Comal is located at 2020 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA and is open from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Contact Annie Chang at [email protected].