The perfect paella starts with a few fundamentals: short-grained bomba rice, a proper flat-bottomed steel pan, wood charcoal and friends gathered around a large outdoor table under the dappled shade.
No wonder the pursuit of the perfect paella is an elusive endeavor. Eduardo Balaguer, whose family runs a paella restaurant in Spain, started Venga Paella as a catering outfit, cooking for weddings, parties and other al fresco celebrations. Now he has opened a bricks-and-mortar paella bar in West Oakland to give people a chance, he says, "to slow down, eat well and enjoy each other's company for more than just a moment."
Venga has done a fine job remodeling the space, which used to be the Port-Lite, a scruffy watering hole known for booking local metal bands. Today, the rustic 49-seat tavern boasts exposed brick, Spanish art posters, shiny wooden tables and a redwood bar. A lounge area in back is outfitted with couches, a giant Jenga game and a rack laden with dozens of giant battle-worn paella pans.
We ventured in on a Saturday afternoon, and although it was prime paella-eating time -- at least in Spain, where the main meal is lunch -- it was slow at the restaurant. We settled in with a round of libations and tapas. Venga offers relatively limited selections of both, but they are well-curated, with Spanish wine, and beer from Drake's and Linden Street on tap. We tried the refreshing, well-balanced white sangria ($6 by the pint glass), garnished with pineapple.
The tapas include crowd favorites, such as tortilla Espanola ($7), Patatas Bravas ($7), and Gambas al Ajillo ($11). The potato-and-onion tortilla was not as tall and impressive as some. But moisten an omeletlike tortilla with glugs of good olive oil and top it with a generous drizzle of garlicky aioli, and it's pretty irresistible. The simple combination of piquillo peppers ($7) with creamy goat cheese and briny, bitter green olives is classic and crave-worthy.
We also tried the Catalonian Pa Amb Tomàquet ($6), a toasted baguette basted with tomato and olive oil. We loved how the warm, fluffy bread soaked up the light sauce and contrasted with the crisp crust.
Legend has it that paella was invented in the Valencia region by farmhands who improvised the dish in the fields. Cooking with an open pan over an open fire, they sauteed whatever proteins were handy -- wild rabbit, say, and snails -- mixed with rice, broth and a few precious saffron threads.
Venga's paella leans toward the better-known -- and snail-less -- seafood varieties with a Paella Tradicional with seafood and chorizo ($12) and a squid ink-seafood version ($12), plus a vegetarian variation ($10). A side salad, dressed with a kicky sherry vinaigrette provides a nice foil.
With its tender prawns and impeccable shellfish, the tradicional was our favorite. But a perfect paella is less about toppings and all about the rice. The rice in Venga's tradicional was steeped with the sweetness of sofrito, the richness of chorizo, the iodine of seafood, and the aroma of smoked pimento. The grains were a touch overcooked for my taste, but I wasn't deterred from scooping up every last bit -- especially the prized soccarat, the crispy bits from the bottom of the pan.
The seafood paella was also excellent, with the squid ink providing a more subtle and earthy luxuriousness. Again, the mussels, clams and calamari were pitch-perfect, and this time I found the al dente texture of the velvety rice more to my liking. For a little heat, top your rice with a few lashes of Venga's flat-out addictive house chili oil, made with ancho chilis and sherry reduction.
The vegetarian paella was made with basmati rice, which is hardly a traditional base (bomba rice is favored for its superb ability to soak up tasty broth), but as Balaguer explained, it works well for paellas without heavier proteins. On this particular day, the paella included sweet squash, dinosaur kale and grilled asparagus -- perfectly cooked and tied together with aromatic cumin-scented rice.
We finished the meal with a light and eggy flan and a chocolate mousse, which came on a thin bed of cake, drizzled with blackberry sauce (both $5).
All the dishes we sampled were solid, but perhaps the most notable thing about Venga is the reasonable prices -- $12 for paella, and only $10 during Venga Jenga happy hour (4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays). We'll have seconds, please.
WHERE: 229 Brush St., Oakland
HOURS: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; for dinner 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; and 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays.
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including a vegetarian paella and tapas
BEVERAGES: Spanish wine, local craft beer and sangria
Accepted for parties
NOISE LEVEL: Medium (loud when crowded)
KIDS: Kids will enjoy the Patatas Bravas.
PLUSES: Excellent paella and solid tapas at great prices.
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