Inside Casa Del Toro, the new upscale Latin American restaurant in Hayward, the shelves are lined with top-notch tequilas, by far the largest selection in town. A classically-trained Oaxacan chef makes ceviche and paella with halibut. And discerning diners dig into $56 dry-aged ribeyes.
It’s not what you’d expect from a restaurateur who “made an entire living from rice, beans and tacos.”
But Alejandro Gamarra, a Hayward resident and restaurateur for the past 28 years, is determined to turn his beloved city into a dining destination and be the catalyst for others in the industry to join him. He’s seen its potential since he dropped out of college in 1993 to start a taco truck, Tacos Acapulco, at the corner of West A Street and Royal Avenue.
“I was 22 and had three kids,” says Gamarra, now a father of six. “It was my way into the (restaurant) business.”
Those humble beginnings paved the way for Gamarra’s restaurant group, Acapulco Taqueria, named after the first brick-and-mortar he opened at 310 W. A St. when his taco truck lease expired in 2004.
That taqueria was just half a mile from where he once parked the truck, but these days, it’s called Metro Taquero, a fast-casual spot known for simple street tacos and gut-busting burritos, like the French fry-stuffed Haystack.
Today, the restaurant group includes two Metro Taqueros in Hayward and one in San Leandro. He opened the third in May 2020 — during the pandemic.
“I did my best to get that place open in 2020 and it was a blessing,” Gamarra says. “It kept everyone employed.”
Like pizza, tacos and burritos are pandemic-proof. His restaurants not only stayed open, they kept all 130 employees on the payroll. And a fourth Metro Taqueros is set to open at Hayward’s Skywest Commons shopping center in January.
He’s reminded of something Jerry Brown said when he was mayor of Oakland: “‘More people eat beans than caviar.’ And it stuck with me forever. It’s been relevant for my life.”
Gamarra’s restaurant group also includes The Mexican, a full-service restaurant and bar that opened in 2007, and yes, he named it after the 2001 film. “Some think it’s corny or even derogatory, but it is not,” he says. “We’d gone through 100 names, and at the end I said, ‘Let’s name it after the Brad Pitt movie.’ And it worked. It’s the classic Mexican restaurant.”
But the 140-seat Casa Del Toro, which took over the former Playt location at 1034 B St., is Gamarra’s first restaurant to venture beyond traditional Mexican food. It offers a range of seasonal Latin American flavors, from paella to the steaks of Gamarra’s native Argentina.
“We’re trying to bring something to Hayward that is unique, another standard,” says Gamarra. “This city has given me the opportunity to have a great life. It’s a natural progression for me to do this.”
Hayward’s rapidly-evolving demographic and uptick in real estate development — he cites Lincoln Landing, a five-story, 445-unit North Hayward residential building that should be full by 2022 — should spur a booming downtown food scene, Gamarra says.
“Hayward has gotten a bad rap over the years, but I think we have a downtown that is ready to explode,” he says. “And I think the folks who are used to traveling to Paradiso in San Leandro or any of the restaurants in downtown Oakland would like a spot close to home.”
To give them that, Gamarra gathered a stellar team. He brought executive chef Serafin Cruz from Oakland’s Lake Chalet to produce the type of trendy yet refined tapas — think truffle fries, roasted bone marrow, Aleppo-crisped Brussels sprouts — that were missing downtown. And he plucked mixologist and Hayward native, Sam Jimenez, formerly of Emeryville’s Prizefighter and Oakland’s Chop Bar, to run the beverage program.
The bar program features a strong agave-centric selection not seen in these parts: 38 types of mezcal, 46 tequilas, plus sotol, a Mexican whiskey and a rare agave spirit from Peru. The wine list focuses on Chile, Argentina, Mexico and Spain, but expect Livermore, Lodi and Paso Robles wines, too.
On the dinner menu, look for protein-driven entrees, like wine-braised short ribs with cilantro mashed potatoes ($27) and mezcal-glazed king salmon with purple potato puree ($28). No surprise that the tacos (you get two per order) are eye-catching: Ribeye steak is drizzled with Peruvian rocoto sauce ($18) and spicy rock cod gets the mango salsa and chipotle crema treatment. Look for similar gourmet tacos to pop up on The Mexican’s menu, too, closer to spring.
“We want to reduce that menu and train our cooks to be a bit more elegant in the plating,” Gamarra says.
Details: Casa del Toro is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 4 to 9 p.m. Sundays at 1034 B St. in Hayward. Make reservations at https://casadeltororestaurant.com. The Mexican is open for lunch and dinner daily for dining, takeout and delivery at 19950 Hesperian Blvd. in Hayward; www.themexicanhayward.com. Find details on the soon-to-be four locations of Metro Taquero at www.metrotaquero.com.