Summary: Upscale Mexican food, a little uneven.
I don't like mole. Not at all. It's just too dark and bitter for me. That is my conclusion after having dinner at Cocina Poblana in Jack London Square (Oakland) last night (a Friday night in January 2009). It's not them, it's me. But let me start from the beginning.
I don't remember why I'd wanted to go to Cocina Poblana in the first place - I must have read a positive review about the place, but it was on my list of restaurants to try (a list that is really in need of an update). Then earlier this week I found out that Restaurant.com had $25 gift certificates for Cocina Poblana and other restaurants for $2 - so I figured it was my chance to go. Alas, after I bought the certificate and made the reservation, I actually went and looked at the reviews on Yelp. Let's just say, they weren't good. I thought about not going at all, not throwing good money after bad, but then I figured I might as well give it a try. I'm glad I did; while I wasn't terribly impressed by the food at Cocina Poblana (i.e., I didn't like the mole), it was a nice change of pace and a good dinner out. I probably wouldn't go back, but just because there are so many other restaurants to try. If it was in San Leandro rather than Oakland, I'd probably become a frequent patron - but that speaks more about the dearth of good restaurants here.
Cocina Poblana occupies the space that Pizzeria Uno had many years ago. They've spruced it up, painted it in warm colors, added sophisticated decorations, and it looks very nice and stylish. It's not romantic, but it's definitely the sort of place you could bring a date. It is also remarkably family friendly; while I didn't see a children's menu, half of the patrons had children with them (and pretty well-behaved children at that). Now that my kids are older and have been domesticated, I wouldn't hesitate to take them there.
The food can be defined as either upscale Mexican or authentic Mexican, or perhaps even upscale authentic Mexican - I don't know enough about that cuisine to accurately describe it. It does rely on many typical Mexican plates, such as mole, pipián sauce and meat adobadas. The meal starts with tortilla chips and three salsas. None are too spicy. I preferred the very refreshing green one. The chips themselves were tasty and a little bit greasy.
Mike and I shared the botanas surtidas, the mixed appetizer ($14). I'm not sure what it consisted of, as I hadn't experienced most of the dishes before. The cheese quesadillas were delicious. They are made with a mixture of Mexican & Jack cheese, and they were very flavorful. Most of the other botanas were quite as good, with strong and balanced flavors. The guacamole was fresh and refreshing, though perhaps it had a little too much salsa. The only botana that I didn't quite like was one that resembled a pita, with a thick corn dough and a shredded pork filling. The filling wasn't seasoned enough, and it tasted pretty bland. Everything else, though, was great. The dish was also very large - you definitely could share it among at least 3 people. I could have skipped my entree after eating half of it (though I had already ordered it).
I had the cuatro moles ($16), which included generous servings of the four different moles that are offered at Cocina Poblana (poblano, Maria Elena, Maria Luisa and pipian). As I mentioned above, I wasn't thrilled with them. I liked the pipián the best (or disliked it the least) because it had the lightest flavor. The other ones were just too intense for me. If you know you like mole, however, I would encourage you to give them a try and let me know how a mole-connoisseur rates them.
Mike had the crab enchiladas ($15). At first I thought that the two long, thin enchiladas - served along with a scoop of cilantro rice - weren't too much of a portion, but Mike was overfull when he finished them (and he didn't even touch the rice). He liked the crab flavor, there was a lot of crab, but wasn't won over by the sauce. He doesn't quite know why, he just didn't like it. He wouldn't order it again.
I had a coke with dinner ($2 - but the menu said $3), and Mike had a Poblana Margarita ($7). He loved it. They were generous with the tequila and didn't have the watery composition of so many restaurant Margaritas. He'd order the drink again.
Service was very good, our waitress was attentive and helpful (in identifying the moles, for example). When I asked for a box to take my leftover moles home (I gave them another try, I liked them better the next day), she offered to box the dish for me - something that is rarely done anymore. Water and drinks were refilled often, as were chips.
Our dinner bill came to $44 after considering the $23 off from the gift certificate (it's $25, but it cost me $2), and tax and tip. Had we paid $70, I'd have considered the meal overpriced, but it was definitely a good value for $44, specially considering the margarita. Just remember to wait until Restaurant.com has a promotion and get a gift certificate before going.
499 Embarcadero West