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381 15th St. (at Franklin Street), Oakland
A lot has been written on the struggles East Bay LGBTQ+ bars face during the coronavirus crisis, but you wouldn’t know that by speaking with Valentino Carrillo.
The longtime nightlife promoter turned restaurateur opened his first business, East Oakland’s La Frontera Mexican Restaurant, in February 2020. Despite the pandemic, that business did well enough that he was able to use its profits to open his longtime dream: Que Rico, an LGBTQ+ nightclub that caters to Latinx patrons. That new bar and restaurant opens on Tuesday, April 13, with a limited menu of La Frontera’s greatest hits, including its best-selling quesabirria tacos.
Carrillo moved to the Bay Area in 2003, and quickly made a name for himself as an East Bay drag, dance night and club promoter. Most recently, he was the director of operations at Club 21, a Latinx LGBTQ+ bar that shuttered in late 2019 after a landlord dispute. By then, Carrillo had left his position at Club 21, and had launched a wildly successful dance night called “Qué Rico!” at The Port Bar, which at the time was downtown Oakland’s only remaining LGBTQ+ venue.
“Club 21 was the number one Latinx club in Northern California,” said Carrillo (who used the terms “Latinx” and Latin” interchangeably during the course of an interview). “When it closed there was nothing.” According to Carrillo, when he’d throw events at The Port or elsewhere, he’d see former Club 21 patrons, many of whom would ask when he was going to just open up his own nightclub.
Instead, he opened La Frontera, just weeks before the pandemic began. The restaurant was poised to launch a drag brunch on the restaurant’s outdoor patio when the Bay Area’s sweeping shelter-in-place order was issued, which restricted area dining to takeout and delivery only. Carrillo told the Bay Area Reporter that at first, he closed the business completely, but an attempted break-in suggested that it might be safer to keep the restaurant open, even with limited services. To his surprise, business grew and grew, despite the region-wide lockdown.
Eventually, it was generating enough income “that I could start looking around for a place to open a club,” Carrillo said, “and start thinking about my dream again.”
He found a location “a lot sooner than I expected,” Carrillo said, when Bissap Baobab, the Senegalese restaurant/nightclub turned collective kitchen space, shut its doors for good on March 6, 2021, owner Marco Senghor confirmed with Nosh.
“I just couldn’t stay open in this big space, paying big rent,” Senghor said. He started casting a net for someone who could take over the lease, and Carrillo came to mind. “He’s such a sweet guy, and I knew he’d wanted to do something for the Latin gay community,” Senghor said. “I’m really happy about how it all worked out.”
Though the venue’s size posed problems for Senghor, it was exactly what Carillo was looking for. “It’s such a big space,” he said, “it’s just perfect for what I wanted to do.” In fact, Carillo said, there’s even room for a VIP room, once patrons are ready to gather in enclosed spaces once more.
A VIP room isn’t the only post-pandemic plan Carrillo has, and he’s already looking forward to when people will be eager to head out for a night of dinner, drinking and dancing — all in the same place. He envisioned a place where dinner would be served until 9 or 10 p.m., then the space would transform into a packed dance club, complete with theme nights and drag shows.
“I knew that if I didn’t do this someone would,” Carrillo said, so he signed a long term lease (until 2029, the B.A.R. reports, with an option to extend after that) and began the work to transform Que Rico from an occasional pop-up club night to a permanent brick-and-mortar venue.
Of course, a lot of what Carrillo had envisioned isn’t possible right now. Though indoor dining is allowed in Alameda County at 50% capacity, when it opens, Que Rico will seat patrons on its huge outdoor patio on 15th Street, a sweeping space illuminated by sparkling rainbow lights. Keeping service outdoors “is the best way to keep our community safe,” Carrillo said.
Additionally, for now, Carrillo wants to “focus on the restaurant element” of the business, which means serving seated customers a dinner menu of burritos, hot wings, fish tacos and “lots of quesabirria.” According to Carrillo, quesabirria — those trendy braised beef and cheese tacos that have recently taken the Bay Area by storm — are one of the reasons Que Rico evolved from dream to reality.
Almost every order we get at La Frontera includes quesabirria,” Carrillo said, and he credits the popularity of the dish with his restaurant’s growth. “Of course we’ll serve them at Que Rico, too.”
There’s also a full bar, with a cocktail menu that Carrillo says is “still evolving.” The drink he’s proudest of, so far, is the Valentino: Ketel One vodka, 7 Up and cranberry juice, garnished with two cherries and a lime. “I know it sounds sweet,” Carrillo said, laughing, “but everyone loves it. It’s fun, and what people need right now.”
Carrillo’s sense of fun extends to that long-planned drag brunch, which he hopes to get up and running at Que Rico as soon as he can. Eventually, he’s planning on Saturday and Sunday shows in the outdoor dining area, with bottomless mimosas where patrons pick their own juice. Other future plans include an after-work happy hour, once downtown office workers return, and a “really big taco Tuesday,” Carrillo said. Friday and Saturday nights will have a “queer and Latin” theme, and the bar’s other nights will be “really, really diverse.”
Ultimately, Carrillo said, his plan is to make Que Rico a one-stop shop for the East Bay’s LGBTQ+ residents. “We need to keep our LGBTQ community local,” Carrillo said, “instead of having to travel to SF.”
Que Rico will open for outdoor dining on April 13. Current hours will be 4-11 p.m., Tuesday; 4-9 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 4 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday; closed Monday, but the venue may change hours in the coming days, so keep an eye on Instagram for updates.