Monday, January 28, 2013

Going Whole Hog in the Foothills

When Sous Chef Edgar first started at Rumbo Al Sur­ in Oakland, CA, it was serendipitous that his boss, Executive Chef Matt Colgan, had begun a tradition Edgar knew from back home. That is, smoking a whole pig and leaving little to waste. In Yucatán, Mexico where Edgar’s from, all the smoking is done underground. The pig is first covered in spices, wrapped in banana leaves, and then eased into a casing of metal sheets that are perforated to let in air­. No flames are visible above the surface. Stone and wood keep the fire going. 

Inherently, the roasting process looks a bit different on busy Park Boulevard in the Glenview District. Is there some sort of regulation against cooking underground? I’m not sure. Whatever the case, Rumbo plays it safe with their above-ground outdoor oven or Caja-China, available for about $300. Or, let’s call it $150 each if we go Dutch on it.

Pig in the oven

The afternoon of the roast, I’d walked by the parking lot several times before I found out what was in the big wooden box. I’ll be honest: I had to blink once or twice to get Wilbur out of my mind. But somehow, all my pseudo-vegetarian neurons pardoned me and I went for it. After all, what was in the Caja-China had been marinating for two days in more than twenty juices, spices, and herbs. And it’s true that a whole pig roast is far off the beaten path. I, for one, endorse this kind of big-picture-dining: I’m a waste-not kind of eater these days.

Rumbo’s servers don’t present the whole pig on a platter,­ as is done in say, a luau. Instead, the chefs plate both dark and light meat­–shoulders, thighs and all­–along with moist corn tortillas. Garlic, oregano and epazote black beans jibe nicely with coconut rice. Fresh chicharones­–or fried pork skins­–round out the offering, along with pineapple salsa. It’s a savory, spicy, and mildly sweet dining experience, and if you’ve never eaten the thigh of a pig, a mysterious one as well.

Everything but the tortillas

After such a hearty meal, most people would be satisfied and skip dessert. But I just couldn’t leave without trying their Margarita Pie, which is better than any Key Lime I’ve ever had. I even offered some to a new neighbor seated at the bar. Some. Not all. A final sip of a margarita and I was on my way home after my first pig roast. It was an education.

The night before, when I was still reluctant to dive in, a front-house manager named Erin put me at ease. “I’ve seen my fair share of smoked pigs,” she said, “and [Matt Colgan’s] is definitely the best.”

If you won’t take her word alone, I’m sure her colleagues Elmer, Rick, Ali, Patrick or Matt B. would back it up. Even at their busiest–with customers like me asking for a drink, a meal, and dessert to go–the staff fulfilled my wishes with a smile. It's the food and the service. No wonder they're so packed Tuesday through Sunday. (They're closed on Monday).

Enjoy Rumbo's 'southbound journey'
4239 Park Blvd
Oakland, CA

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