Venga Paella, Oakland’s Hearty Spanish Table
By Kenya Aissa
Northern California foodies expect to find plenty of unique, quality restaurants in San Francisco, Napa, Berkeley, and even Oakland’s “Gourmet Ghetto”. It’s especially delightful, however, when a restaurant chooses to put down roots in a neighborhood that’s populated, but not so overcrowded and off-the-beaten-path that getting there is a major undertaking fraught with parking woes. It’s even better when the restaurant delivers fresh, thoughtful and authentic dishes in a family-friendly and inviting space.
Since Spain is literally my favorite place on earth, and my love of the food so deep that a saffron flower is my next tattoo, the opportunity to dine at Venga Paella on the corner of Oakland’s 3rd and Brush streets was as appealing as it was daunting. Far more than a simple rice dish, Paella is one which frequently misses the mark. I needn’t have worried. Every dish leading up to and including the 2 paella dishes that were served to us was sublime in the brightness of the produce, the intensity of the spices, and the perfect – and I do mean perfect – preparation of the shellfish.
But we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. There’s the sangria, after all. Venga Paella serves only one type of sangria, which was initially surprising. Don’t restaurants usually offer several versions of sangria, with the goal of successfully meeting the tastes of every diner? The first sip proved that one type of sangria is all they need. Venga Paella’s Sangria Rojo is a smooth, Merlot-based red sangria with flavors of pineapple, orange, and lime. Triple Sec offers just the right amount of sweetness while allowing the wine and fruit to shine. Our plan was to stop at one glass, but that was impossible.
A major standout was the Gambas al Ajillo appetizer, ushering in the start of their perfectly cooked seafood. The shrimp, or gambas, were unctuous and buttery, gently floating atop a light yet rich and herbaceous ajillo sauce. Try to refrain from licking the plate. The Paella Tradicional, with its spicy chorizo, didn’t shy away from heady smoked paprika and carried just the right amount of heat to the palate. Copious amounts of shrimp, mussels, clams, and calamari married nicely with the al dente vegetables and hearty rice. The Paella de Arroz Negro, with black squid ink, contained mussels, clams, and calamari cooked to perfection. The mussels stood out for their meaty, tender succulence and the clams were briny in that way where you knew they weren’t long from their home.
Dessert was an offering of 2 choices, both examples of simple yet satisfying flavors: Manchego con Membrillo (slices of Manchego cheese topped with slices of quince paste and lightly drizzled with honey), for those who prefer a little savory with their sweet. Flan Casero is a sweet creamy custard that’s a decadent finish to the meal. Eduardo Balaguer, the friendly and accommodating owner, patiently endured my questions about the source of his seafood and the earthy spices used in the dishes. The seafood comes from the Monterey Fish Market and the spices were from my personal favorite resource for all things Spanish, The Spanish Table in Berkeley.
The overall message that Venga Paella sends is one of authenticity, freshness and full flavor. The restaurant filled up fast and early with a few large parties, some couples, and smattering of folks eating and drinking at the bar. One can’t help but notice the workmanship of the beautiful bar, made by Eduardo himself from wood cut from a single tree and tables custom-made by a friend. The atmosphere is cozy, casual and rustic, with the beer and wine menu written on a large paella pan above the bar, and the specials menu, including a vegan selection, on another pan on the opposite wall. The open kitchen, where Eduardo can frequently be spotted washing dishes, contributes to the casual, inclusive vibe of the restaurant. We’ll be returning to Venga Paella, and next time, we probably won’t stop at two sangrias.
229 Brush Street, Oakland, California 94607