Dining Review: Union City’s Federicos Tapas and Wine Bar delights
By Chrissa Ventrelle
For the Bay Area News Group
IT’S EASY to miss charming little Federicos, a tapas and wine bar hidden away in Union City’s sprawling Union Landing, a metropolis of chain restaurants and cookie-cutter storefronts.
The vibrancy of Federicos’ sunny walls, the trickling of an ocean-themed fountain and the beat of Latin music would make even Gloria Estefan feel an authentic Miami vibe. And the stylized tango dancers that adorn the walls must inspire some late night fun on the small parquet dance floor in the middle of the dining room.
In short, the whole scene creates a refreshing contrast to the bustling big-box stores and roaring traffic on nearby Interstate 880 — you just have to find it first.
Federicos is a joint venture between two Venezuelan brothers who share both a first and last name, as well as a passion for global cuisine. Federico “Kiko” Rodriguez serves as sommelier, while Federico “Rico” Rodriguez, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, is the chef. The brothers leapfrogged across the United States opening restaurants for others before teaming up for the now-closed Federicos Café in Fremont. Their global tapas and wine bar venture opened last August.
It’s an eclectic place with a seasonal menu that spans four continents. It’s a tall order to develop a menu with offerings as wide-ranging as ceviche ($7), Thai spring wrap ($6), alligator tempura ($11) and house-made potato gnocchi ($5).
After counting more than 15 sauces and dressings on the menu, we wondered how the small kitchen would handle it all. Turns out it did so quite well. Nearly every dish, which arrived one at a time, was plated artfully — and nearly everything was tasty enough to order again.
In addition to enjoying cucumber-infused water, we started with delicious red sangria ($7), loaded with lots of tiny diced fruit. They also offer a white sangria. The wine list itself is ever-changing, but reasonably priced. Kiko buys a lot of small production wines to create offerings as diverse as his wine bar’s food. Right now, he is particularly interested in wines from Paso Robles, which he pours by the bottle or the glass.
Octopuses and towers
But we were here for the food, of course. You can opt for a lunch buffet, for example, of Latin and Italian fare for $7.95, but the tapas menu was so appealing we couldn’t resist the allure of varied, small plates. We mulled the idea of alligator, which is apparently very popular, but opted for some other offerings instead.
A fresh octopus ceviche ($7) arrived first, beautifully served on a bed of bright mixed greens and slightly spicy lime vinaigrette. Shrimp or fish ceviche also are available.
With only two small chicken mole tacos ($4) per dish, diners may want to order a couple of platefuls just for its complex sauce with hints of sweet black chiles and cocoa beans. Kiko says a Pueblan woman comes by daily to prepare small batches of the sauce, using a list of ingredients an arm long.
Also satisfying was a simple eggplant tower ($4) made of sliced eggplant and grilled tomatoes and covered with melted mozzarella. Visually, it almost resembled a mini wedding cake. Sun-dried tomatoes and a sprinkling of dried parsley on top brought color to this summery and tasty dish.
Ravioli is a signature dish at Federico’s, so we selected a stone crab version ($8) with three ravioli covered in a creamy lobster sauce. They are also available stuffed with cheese, and spinach and cheese. These tender pillows deserve their signature status and highlight Rico’s training in Italian restaurants.
I would shy away from the ham and cheese croquettes ($6) — they paled in comparison with their more flavorful menu mates. They were not rolled in breadcrumbs, as is typical, and they tasted a little overcooked. Still, the croquettes, as well as the pizza ($7-$9) and ravioli ($7 for the cheese and spinach and cheese versions, $8 for crab), would be good bets for finicky kids.
Desserts ($5) included a house-made tiramisu with just a tantalizing hint of liquor. The apple strudel was another lovely, house-made dessert, filled with diced fruit and loads of cinnamon
Kiko served us attentively, even pouring our table and others complimentary glasses of port at the end of the meal. As we were ready to leave, the irrepressible sommelier momentarily turned into an art docent, showing us his own bright paintings — still lifes of fruits and fresh produce — in the back.
Federicos has a special authenticity to it. I hope people will seek out this little gem.
WHERE: 30971 Courthouse Drive, Union Landing Shopping Center, Union City.
CONTACT: 510-441-0900; www.federicoscafe.com.
HOURS: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. daily.
CUISINE: Global tapas.
PRICES: $. Each small plate ranges from $4-$14.
VEGETARIAN: Many options, including a spinach salad, ravioli, gnocchi, eggplant tower, risotto and vegetarian pizza.
BEVERAGES: Wines by the bottle or glass, red and white sangria, and beer.
RESERVATIONS: Accepted by phone.
NOISE LEVEL: Loud.
PARKING: Free parking lot.
KIDS: Boosters and high chairs available. The most popular kids items are ravioli, gnocchi and pizza.
PLUSES: An independently owned restaurant in a sea of chains, Federicos offers diverse, fresh, global flavors. Don’t miss the ceviche, chicken mole tacos, eggplant tower and signature ravioli.
MINUSES: Skip the ham and cheese croquettes.
DATE OPENED: August 2010.