Sunday, June 16, 2024

Dominica Rice-Cisneros: The chef bringing award winning Mexican cuisine to California

Love for good Mexican food reaches far beyond Mexico’s borders. A former firehouse in Oakland, California hosts one of the best examples of Mexican food outside of the country’s borders. Bombera, created by Chef Dominica Rice-Cisneros, embodies an outstanding example of heritage cuisine.

Speaking to Mexico News Daily, Dominica discussed bringing award-winning Mexican food to the United States, and how her love for the country inspired her to delve into the world of high end cuisine.

A feast of accolades for Bombera’s culinary triumphs

A plate of Mexican food at Bombera, Oakland
The cuisine of offer at Bombera has earned it a coveted Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide. (Bombera)

The San Francisco Chronicle proclaims Bombera as the “Best tacos in the Bay Area.” Eater San Francisco recognized Chef Dominica as one of the “Female Titans of the Bay Area Food Scene”. Besides these prizes, Bombera made even bigger waves when it earned a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide.

The Michelin guide was effusive in its praise of Bombera, writing that; “Chef Dominica Rice-Cisneros, whose passion has helped to shape Oakland’s current Mexican restaurant scene, [combines] a locavore pedigree and fine dining chops with a respect for the generational knowledge of heritage cooking. The single best illustration might be a dish of beautifully rendered duck leg confit, paired with a delightfully complex, nutty mole verde, just-right black beans and handmade blue corn tortillas.”

The remarkable career of a Mexican chef born in America

Dominica was born and raised in Los Angeles. She is a second generation Mexican American with family ties to Abasolo, Guanajuato. While working in Mexico City, New York, and Italy, she worked with leading chefs throughout the industry. This global apprenticeship shaped her path with a deep respect for the origins of ingredients and a love for the stories they tell.

Before Bombera, Dominica made her mark with Cosecha Café, which opened in 2010 at Swan’s Market. Her cooking drew crowds for 12 years, winning attention from The James Beard Foundation. Dominica was also named a semifinalist for Best Chef California in 2019.

Dominica Rice-Cisneros of Bombero, Oakland
Dominica Rice-Cisneros was inspired by the traditional cuisine of Mexico, which she describes as an “anchor” to California. (Bombero)

Chef Dominica continued her distinguished career by establishing Bombera. This culinary haven symbolizes a firewoman and protector of the sacred flame of corn. She works with her team and husband, Southwest University history Professor Carlos Solomon. Their dishes celebrate the history and resilience of people who proudly identify as Mexican despite being born in the United States.

The value of terroir

I asked Dominica if the dishes she serves are authentically Mexican or adjusted to American taste, to which she replied: “What is authentically Mexican? Look at albondigas, those did not start in Mexico. Albondigas came from the African style of cooking meat with sweet herbs. The Moors took this style to Spain and the Spaniards took it to Mexico.

The dish that most traces back to my grandmother is a good pot of beans. In her philosophy, if you have that, everything else is going to be fine. She would start every day by washing and cooking a new pot of beans. Refrying yesterday’s beans for breakfast but cooking a new pot for dinner. That’s a real anchor for me.”

Chefs outside Bombera, Oakland
The team at Bombera prioritize regional Mexican cuisine, finding the best of every state in the country to serve to diners. (Bombera)

Rice-Cisneros also told me about her struggles, she works hard to source only the best ingredients. “It’s hard for me to make sure that the chiles I am buying are from Mexico, not from anywhere else. The terroir is very real in Mexico, every State has its own sazón.”

“Nobody is trying to homogenize the flavors in Mexico. The U.S. obsesses with making everything taste the same. I want the U.S. to learn from France. They are proud of their many wines and cheeses. This is because the soil changes from the north to the south.” she continues.

Besides praising European regional cuisine, Dominica says that the same overall concept is true in Mexico. “You have tequila blanco from sandy deserts. Then you go to Oaxaca and sense the tropical notes in their mezcal. Including the queso, because the vacas are eating the alfalfa from red clay that is high in minerals.”

“We received a ton of blue corn from Oaxaca last week, literally one ton,” Rice-Cisneros explained. “We work with two companies that specialize in corn from Oaxaca and Tlaxcala. The shipping and freight are very expensive, that is why this is a labor of love. I have vendors that are very precious to me.”

Why California deserves Bombera

I asked Dominica about California’s definition of Mexican.

“Mexico anchors California’s culture,” she replied. “We have this amazing blend known as the mestiza reality. A culture that has been thriving here for over 300 years in harmony. I’m always trying to show that this culture has always been here.”

“Having access to clean and delicious Mexican food is our birthright in California,” Dominica continued. “I want to keep that tradition alive. I grew up in a neighborhood where the señoras would hand-make the tortillas. When I started to see that disappear and everything coming from a bag, it broke my heart. I didn’t want to see that for my community.” It was at that point, Dominica said, that she realized there was no option but to open her own restaurant.

“This industry is a family tradition and a blessing. My immediate family has been working in the food industry in California for over 150 years. We’ve been part of the pizcas, worked in the farms, canneries, and restaurants. We’ve worked in catering, even feeding Charlie Chaplin and the Duchess of York. My little family has done all that.”

If you would like to try Bombera Oakland for yourself, reservations can be made online.

Sandra Gancz Kahan is a Mexican writer and translator based in San Miguel de Allende who specializes in mental health and humanitarian aid. She believes in the power of language to foster compassion and understanding across cultures. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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