Venue Review: Calavera
Day-of-the-Dead skeletons, Virgin Mary prayer candles and strings of colorful twinkle lights set an emphatically offbeat mood in the compact downstairs bar and upstairs dining room at this downtown Raleigh newcomer. Score a window seat, and you’ll get a prime view of late-night bar hoppers in the bargain.
Calavera’s bar offers a modest Spanish-leaning wine list, a handful of bottled beers, and cocktails ranging from classic caipirinha to fanciful creations such as the Manzanita (Maker’s Mark, Absolut Orient Apple, fresh ginger and orange).
But Calavera’s most valuable liquid assets take the form of one of the area’s best tequila selections. The list of 34 tequilas is helpfully divided into categories for blanco, reposado and añejo and includes such rarities as Patron Platinum and Don Julio 1942. If you’re an aficionado – or if you just can’t decide on one – you can always opt for a horizontal or vertical flight.
The food menu isn’t nearly as broad, but it presents plenty of temptations in its own right. Eleven variations on the baked empanada theme – a widely eclectic selection ranging from Holy Frijoles (black beans, roasted sweet potato and Oaxacan cheese) to Piggly Wiggly (“Carolina-style” pulled pork) make up the bulk of the offering. At $3 a pop, you can afford to sample liberally.
Having done just that, I can especially recommend the Holy Frijoles, along with the New Mexicana (pork and roasted New Mexican chiles) and Poblano Loco (tequila-marinated poblanos, onions and molten cheese). Add a selection or two from the quartet of sides that round out the menu, and you’ve got a satisfying meal. The sharable cilantro lime salad, say, or Mexican-style corn on the cob: boiled in sugar and topped with mayonnaise, cotija cheese and a sprinkle of cayenne.
Then finish with the King of Kong, a dessert empanada with a banana and Nutella filling. As for what tequila might pair best with that one, you’re on your own.