Recently, Impose Magazine editor Blake Gillespie was in town for a show in San Francisco, and on his way out the next day he swung by my neighborhood in Oakland, CA with his lady and we grabbed lunch at Nido, a newish “farm to table” Mexican restaurant in the Jack London Square neighborhood. He quickly saw that I wasn't joking — the guacamole, amongst other things, was pretty goddamn delicious.
Nido was opened by the husband and wife team of Silvia and Cory McCollow opened in September of 2012. I'm not going to lie — there are a couple very specific things the Jack London Square neighborhood needs. One of those is a grocery store. The other? More restaurants that are more casual but still delectable. Neighborhood type spots that you can just roll up to without having to to click through OpenTable multiple times. So it's no surprise that Nido's brand of updated Mexican food, with an emphasis on seasonal produce and locally sourced ingredients set against a decor highlighted by repurposed neighborhood materials, has caught on in Oakland. And while Nido's food might look a bit nicer than what you get at a storied Mission taqueria, the flavors sing and soar with an authentic depth that is borderline addictive.
I caught up with Cory and Silvia over food and drinks at The Fifth Floor in San Francisco, and chatted about what it means to be a Mexican restaurant that's not a taqueria in the Bay Area, the challenge of updating Mom's recipes, their boozy cocktails, and the unexpectedly controversial origin of the burrito.
So how long have you guys been around now?
C: The business itself has been open 7 months. The idea has been around for 2 years, under a different name.
What was the different name?
C: Classified. In case we, you know, used that in the future.
S: *Laughs* It's kind of a dumb name.
C: It's not a dumb name! We have the website rights to it already and we might use it.
Tell me about your backgrounds a bit.
S: I've always worked in restaurants and honestly, I love to eat. The first opportunity I got was a job at the Hard Rock Cafe in Beverly Hills. I was 17. I really just wanted to be around it all.
What did you like about working there?
S: The food! I need to eat. I love to eat. I really love to eat. I could eat all day. I'm always hungry.
That is seriously is an amazing answer. “I like to eat.” Pretty honest. No BS about this lifelong vision, or your greater world view, etc etc.
C: Just like I like to drink, and I've always wanted a bar.
We'll get to that later. But first, the actual Nido concept and food. Lots of the recipes, I've read, have a background from Silvia's family. How did it all come about?
S: It started when Cory and I met, which was at at bar. We fell in love, got married, all that. We were in San Antonio at the time. And Cory had to move to Oakland for work, and he asked me what I wanted to do with my life since I obviously was coming with him. So I just threw it out there — a restaurant. I was teaching at the time too, so I wasn't sure how he would take to the idea. But I knew for sure I didn't want to teach anymore. I would have had to start from the bottom in the Oakland school system and work my way up, which I already had done.
C: So instead we opened our first restaurant ever in the bay area, one of the most cutthroat “foodie” community. Started from the bottom there instead!
S: At first I wanted a cafe. Something really simple, intimate, small, etc. But the idea got larger… and ultimately we wanted to go bigger.
Cory does seem like a “go big or go home” kind of guy. Did he push for bigger?
S: Well the space we ended up getting kind of dictated the concept ultimately, at the end of the day. It gave us a semi-legitimate chance to actually get a liquor license, etc.
How did you decide on Oakland and Jack London Square?
C: Well the original plan was to move to San Francisco… but after a disastrous trip where we learned about insanely sky-high rents, got 17 blisters and wrecked our rental car, we decided we'd look for a day in Oakland. We ultimately found some place we wanted to live. The whole plan for the restaurant though, was for it to be in Oakland. We wanted it to be in the long-completed-for-years, but still not-open Jack London Market building on the estuary out there. We had meetings with the owners of the building, had a spaced carved out, talked rents, etc., but it never evolved. So we had to keep looking. Once Silvia started working at Oakland restaurants, that allowed us to learn about other spots to seek out. We stumbled across what would become Nido — it was a vacant, beat up, former BBQ-Juice Bar kind of thing, but it was down the street from another popular restaurant, not to mention around the corner walking from our place.
S: Additionally, Dominica Rice at Cosecha — the restaurant where I stodged (e.g. interning/working for free in restaurant lingo) in Oakland when I moved there, and then ultimately worked — she really taught me a lot about the food scene out in the bay, and Oakland specifically. About the pop ups, the ins & outs, etc. I learned a lot from her.
Cory — how did your growing up in the Midwest shape your outlook on food?
C: I grew up on a dairy farm. Drinking milk straight out of the utter.
C: No… but pretty close. We would get milk into a tank, and we would scoop it right out of there. The majority of our vegetables came from my parents, grandparents' farm, etc. It was before “farm to table” was the norm. My family just did as well as it could with being in the middle of nowhere. I never thought about anything restaurant related though until after college and moved to Philadelphia, which had a great restaurant scene.
Silvia — I've read a lot about how a lot of what you do is riffing on your family's recipes. Can you elaborate on that?
S: Geographically, I know where some of them are from. My parents are from the coastal region of Mexico, so there's takes on those kinds of dishes. But also we have other stuff that isn't that either. It's just takes on dishes you might find in different areas of Mexico, vs. one specific region.
C: She's always calling her mom, jotting stuff down, making notes, etc. But her mom doesn't know any measurements or anything like that.
That's how it is. Old school style cooking.
S: The idea was that I wanted to cook my mom's recipes. I wanted that food, I wanted to relive it, share it. I wanted that as the base of whatever it was that I was going to be doing. I wanted those recipes to be the platform for what Nido serves. As a kid I would run home after school, so excited to see what my mom had made that night.
What dish do you really latch onto from your family?
S: So many. I'd say the tamales though. They're different than all other tamales.
S: They're made with turkey!
C: It's kind of a secret weapon.
S: But we've also done other kinds. There's a crispy tamale as well.
C: They would see commercials on TV when she was little — restaurants, fast food, etc.
S: But my mom would just tell us that she'd make it at home. Whatever we wanted. Even ice cream.
Your mom sounds hardcore.
S: That's just how it was. But it's difficult to duplicate recipes exactly… not that's what we want to do anyway. You know, things change a little bit — it's hard to copy cooking that hasn't been documented for so long, no matter how many notes I take.
C: When her mom walked into this space for the first time, she got a little emotional when she realized we had actually done it.
Was she impressed?
S: She was impressed… but she critiqued. *Laughs* You know, telling me a sauce had too much oregano, asking why I'm using cumin. She doesn't hold back.
You guys call yourselves “farm to table” Mexican. It's a term that has become commonplace with more restaurants in recent years, and some would argue that now it's a bit hackneyed. How does important is that description to what you guys are doing at your restaurant?
C: It is and it's not. We just needed to find a way to delineate ourselves from Taqueria X,Y, and Z. There will forever be a stigma to a Mexican restaurant being synonymous with a taqueria. We needed that really more so in the early stage, to help define what we were doing. Now we've been calling ourselves “Nido Kitchen & Bar.” It should be kind of a given around here that you're going to be as fresh and local as you can.
S: People will ask us why we don't have a burrito though.
C: And burritos aren't even Mexican.
*Pause* Burritos aren't Mexican?
S: *Looking at Cory* There's nothing wrong with burritos. This is coming from a guy who wants to put a burger on the menu. And who is white. My grandmother made burritos!
C: But I think they originated in San Diego or something.
Wait a second. You're going to put a fucking burger on the menu?
C: We sure are, I'm working on the recipe. It's going to have chorizo and ground beef. It's going to happen.
But Silvia, how would your mom feel about that?
C: She'd laugh.
S: She would think it's funny, yeah.
Do people come in thinking you're a taqueria? And if so, how do they react?
C: They're upset. They're angry. We try to direct them to stuff like our tacos, our quesadilla, etc. But they also might walk out.
S: And for the record, there's some people who just don't care — and that is perfectly fine. I mean sometimes you just want food, whatever kind it is. Faster, cheaper, no fuss. I totally get that. You don't necessarily care how it's prepared, where it comes from, etc. I mean, we're like that too. We're not “foodies.”
C: I have nothing against places like Taco Bell. In fact, yes, I go there.
What are your more popular items right now?
Both: Chips & guac.
C: It's just a given. You sit down & eat at Nido, you start off with that 98% of the time.
Well okay, that kind of doesn't count then. Like aside from chips & guac and margaritas, what have you gotten good feedback on food-wise?
C: Our pork chop, our chicken.
S: Chicken is one of those things you kind of don't want to order when you go out to eat, kind of boring. So I wanted the chicken dish to be good, different. Not just like another chicken dish. We hand stuff those things everyday with the rub. It's quite time intensive.
What hasn't gone over well?
S: The oatmeal for brunch! It was amazing too.
C: The oatmeal is like, a 7am-9am kind of dish. By the time we start serving brunch at 10am, people are over it.
S: Although the 4 people that ordered it seemed to really like it.
You've gotten a good wave of press about your cemita sandwich, from Bon Appetite for example. What makes it so good?
S: It's one of those things I wanted on the menu because it was different. You don't see that everywhere, if at all. The bread makes it a cemita. I don't have a real personal attachment to it or anything, but it just came from us wanting to do something different. People have a torta usually, but rarely if ever a cemita. For brunch, it has fried eggs, and for lunch it has chicken mole. We tried a cured ham cemita recently, but the results were mixed.
Silvia — ingredient wise, if you had to choose one, what is the one ingredient that is most important to you?
S: That's like asking me to choose my favorite color!
C: Or like, what ingredient would would it be impossible to cook without?
S: Lime? It helps balance out so many things flavor wise.
C: I would honestly say chiles. Chiles are in everything, in the chicken, in our sauces, in our salsas, etc etc.
S: That's true. I guess I'd have to say chiles too. We really do use them in everything.
Cory — your cocktails are quite boozy, in a good way. Is that on purpose?
C: I mean… I drink a lot? I like spirits in general, as is. I think the best cocktails are the ones that have minimal amount of ingredients. While it's cool to see cocktails with like, 13 different kinds of fresh ingredients or bitters or whatever, I don't necessarily know if that makes a better drink. So in a sense our drink menu veers simple, so maybe that's what you're referring to.
You have a cocktail with Mexican Fernet too. That's kind of amazing.
C: That's the Oscuridad Verde. It has Mexican Fernet, Green Chartreuse, Simple Syrup, Lime Juice.
See that's what I'm saying? That's not exactly lightweight.
C: Well we're messing around with other drinks too. So maybe we'll rotate that one.
Speaking of drinks, do people ask for bucket sized margaritas because you're a Mexican restaurant?
C: Oh yeah. We've been asked for pitchers many times.
S: Or a BLUE margarita! Love that one.
C: I get asked if all of our margaritas are on the rocks… and I smile, and say yes. Because that's how they should be! But lots of people expect them to be blended. Maybe we'll do a blended margarita come summer time, we'll see.
If your food made music or were in a band, what kind of music would they make?
S: Whitesnake! Just kidding… although we did hear them last night. I… will hand this one over to Cory. He knows more about music than I do.
C: The first thing that comes to mind is something like Pretty Lights. It's eclectic. Old & new at the same time. Chile rellenos meets pollo sabados. It's normal but, with and edge. Slow but, fast. Timeless yet, trendy.
Wow, Cory. Was that rehearsed?
C: I just nailed that answer.
S: I'm sticking with Whitesnake! Cause they are fun.