Owner Thad Vogler has been jonesing to open Obispo for a very long time. His third outing in the City (he’s the owner/creator of Trou Normand and Bar Agricole – highly esteemed cocktail drinkeries), it has been described as a cocktail bar with food to go with. I found Obispo to be pretty near a full-service restaurant (though granted, the food menu is limited), but I can see how Vogler perhaps got carried away.
He is a spirits guru, with the exotic belief that spirits should be quaffed in the spirit of whence they came. Obispo is his rum mecca, and the food that goes with it could well have been an afterthought, but nothing about these dishes plays second fiddle to the cocktail program. And while the word “authentic” has lost much of its meaning in connection with food, for me Executive Chef Seth Stowaway’s cuisine isn’t playing at being fusion nor “updating” tried-and-true dishes.
The food here hails from places such as Cuba and Jamaica, rum-producing island cultures. There is a flavor of tradition here, of “that’s-how-my-mama-used-to-make-it.” And Vogler is hyper-aware of those regions’ ugly history with slavery and colonialism. In an effort to honor the prevalence of African influence in Caribbean culture and cuisine, Vogler is partnering with the Museum of the African Diaspora to feature leased art from the museum on its walls and will also donate to the museum. Vogler has also worked with Calle 24 to make sure Obispo’s prices were at least somewhat Mission-friendly. And while you’re not going to find taqueria prices in either the food or beverages, Obispo isn’t gouging anyone.
But hey, they’re also just really tasty drinks.
It is, after all, a cocktail bar. Friends and I tried, on our maiden voyage, the Mojito Criollo 1, which forever takes mojitos back from the vapid TGIF and every-fisherman’s-wharf-bar realm, and gives it back its dignity, its perfume-y allure. Vogler has an eclectic list of quality spirits he’s sourcing, none of them mass produced, and you can taste it. I’ve never been much of a rum drinker before, and now I know why: I’ve only had shitty rum until now.
But the Mojito Criollo 2 was fabulous too, even though it’s made with gin instead of rum. My favorite of the evening may have been the Rum & Ting, a simple concoction of Rum de Jamaica and a house-made grapefruit drink. Every drink was balanced, none too sweet, and best of all, none of them tasted like they’d come out of a tiki bar.
As for the food, we started out with escabeche veggies:
Very nice job on the pickling – there were strong notes of clove mixed with the tartness and heat. Our only quibble was that the carrots in particular were a little unwieldy to just fork into your mouth. As they were quite crispy, a knife and some effort had to be employed. But do get them.
We tried both of the empanadas:
One stuffed with ropa vieja (a Cuban beef braise) and the other, potato, both in a flaky, crispy dough. I love anything that’s doubly carby, so the potato empanada fit the bill perfectly. The beef was my favorite, however, as it was juicy and robustly flavored. It helped that both were drizzled with a lovely, chunky chimichurri.
Next we split the “small” order of the Obispo Chicken:
This isn’t just “bar food.” It’s a feast. I’m not sure if it was meant to be jerk chicken; it was charred and juicy, but not particularly spicy. I wouldn’t have minded some heat (Obispo’s own hot sauce is very tasty, made with habanero, pineapple and rum [natch], but not incendiary), but it was damned fine just as it was, at least to me. My friends found it a bit on the salty side, but I begged to differ as I scarfed down another tasty chunk.
We also split a “small” portion of Jamaican oxtail curry.
Hearty, homey, delicious. Nothing terribly curry-like about it except maybe the texture, but it just made you feel all warm and cozy inside, like a good stew should. We got an order of coconut rice for this dish, the perfect foil for the richness, nutty and just a tad sweet. Comfort food nirvana: attained.
We also got a taste of the choripan (which literally breaks down to “chorizo (sausage) y pan (and bread).” (A note about the menu: it’s all in Spanish. I’ve heard that people gripe about this. Get over yourselves. You’re in the fucking Mission. You’re in California, for god’s sake.) (ETA: I’ve since heard that they caved and now have a menu in English as well.) Anyway, the pork sausage was house-made and bursting with white wine and garlicky juices. Plus, I liked that the ratio of meat-to-bread favored the carnivore side. This is a dish I must have the BF try.
Since there were three of us, we ordered dessert: pineapple with rum & chilies.
Unfortunately, the rum was almost indiscernible to us, but yet somehow very salty at the bottom of the bowl. And for some reason, we’d all had the idea that the pineapple would be grilled. It wasn’t, but it would benefit greatly from a little caramelization. And more heat. This was my only real disappointment of the night.
The arroz con leche, however:
… was pure, soothing, adult baby food. Not cloyingly sweet, the dish tasted mostly of the goodness of quality rice, as it should, with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top. A creamy winner.
P.S. I didn’t really need a second visit for this review, but I could not resist. Took the BF this time, and we sat at the bar and attempted to have the cocktail-and-bar-food experience.
I ordered the camarones ahogados en mojo:
The five shrimpies (you can order 10) luxuriated in a spicy, creamy sauce that I spooned into my mouth as if it were soup as there was no bread on offer (which was fine.)
On my recommendation, the BF got the choripan and the ropa vieja empanada (thumbs up!), and we “split” an order of congri (Cuban red beans and rice):
“Split” because, after one, bite he would have risked life and limb to retake that plate from me. Holy Puerco, Batman, this dish is probably in my top-five rice dishes ever. It’s pork, squared: it contained minced pork but also just oozed the heady scent of pork fat, without being the slightest bit greasy. I don’t know if any rice dish has ever made me swoon like this one. Such a simple, homey dish, but perfectly executed. Our bartender/server said he had to fight to keep from eating some every day.
Besides trying the Mojito Criollo 3 this time (with cognac, it’s fabulous), our bartender shepherded us to a couple of delicious 12-year-old rums from Guyana: El Dorado Demerara and the Hamilton 86 Demerara. The El Dorado had wonderful vanilla notes and was smooth as hell, while the Hamilton packed a boozy bite.
Thad Vogler made me want to explore the exotic world of rum – good ones, none of this Bacardi shit of my youth. And he made me want to come back to see how Obispo’s food evolves over the seasons and time.
3266 24th St. (near Folsom)