Tin Can Alley rises from the south side of Alameda like a remote settlement cobbled together from shipping containers, lumber and sheet metal.
The postapocalyptic, “Mad Max” aesthetic, brightened with swaths of color and a mural from street artist Ernest Doty, seems appropriate for a complex of restaurants opening during the coronavirus pandemic. The industry has faced unprecedented challenges the past few months, but there is a sense that the hardest times are in the rearview mirror.
Initial signs are promising. During a recent weekday lunch hour, the shadeless parking lot teemed with cars and trucks. People, mostly of the Generation Z demographic, streamed in happily, finally free to eat out after 2½ months in virtual lockdown.
Also visibly happy was Tin Can’s developer, Roy Solomon, who previously shepherded the shipping container complex Green Jeans Farmery, near Carlisle and Interstate 40. Solomon was standing at the entrance when I arrived, holding the door open and greeting customers.
Inside, the chief difference between Tin Can Alley and Green Jeans Farmery becomes apparent. Whereas Green Jeans is set around an open-air courtyard, the towering atrium at Tin Can Alley is almost entirely enclosed. Lots of natural light and potted plants help to soften the harsh industrial-style geometry. Reminders of the new normal were everywhere. Most of the patrons had masks on, and the ground was marked with circles for customers to stand on and arrows indicating what direction you should walk.
The ground-floor seating area has the noisy ambiance of a mall food court. Upstairs is quieter, with seating options ranging from couches to countertops with stools. A broad patio dominates the east side, with wooden tables suitable for large parties.
Tin Can Alley has attracted an impressive variety of restaurants, including outposts of existing places, such as Amore Pizzeria and SA BBQ, and new spots, including Pho Kup Vietnamese and Flipflops Beach Grub.
I was there that day to try Guava Tree Café, a satellite of the popular Latin American restaurant that opened across from the University of New Mexico in 2010, before moving to Nob Hill four years later.
Guava Tree’s menu reflects the South American and Caribbean island roots of husband-and-wife owners Diego Barbosa and Maricarmen Pijem. Cuban sandwiches share the menu with arepas, cornbread rounds popular in Colombia and Venezuela. Prices are reasonable, with most items checking in at under $10.
The counter person that day was friendly and had a comprehensive knowledge of the menu, although it was sometimes difficult to hear her through her face shield. After ordering at the counter, you take a number and find a seat, and eventually a server tracks you down and drops off your food. My friend and I sat at a table in a shaded area of the outdoor patio. It was warm but not oppressive, thanks to a nearby fan. The food came up quickly, served in red plastic baskets.
Guava Tree offers four variations of arepas, the South American cousins of Mexican gorditas and Salvadorian pupusas.
The arepa pabellón ($9.35) is, essentially, pabellón criollo, the national dish of Venezuela, piled between cornbread rounds. Guava’s Tree’s is prettily constructed, with three fingers of sweet fried plantains rising up from the crumbly corn cakes. Black beans and a generous pile of shredded beef sprinkled with queso fresco fill the insides. The corn cakes provided some textural backbone for a filling that was sweet, salty, and redolent of tropical spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon. Garlic aioli served as a snappy counterpoint to the accompanying tostones, savory fried green plantains. I would have welcomed a larger cup of it.
Guava Tree brings first-rate ingredients and preparation to sandwiches such as the iconic cubano, made with pork, ham and Swiss cheese. The pernil ($9.35) is a slight variation of this, filled with chopped, slow-roasted pork shoulder, caramelized onions and Swiss cheese with garlic mayonnaise on Cuban-style bread that’s crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. The whole thing was pressed together to melt the cheese and create a crunchy pocket of bread around the fillings. It’s an outstanding sandwich. A side of three salty yucca fries ($1.75) paired well with the aioli.
The tropical juices on the menu ($5.25 for a 20-ounce serving) are mixed with either water or milk and blended with ice like smoothies. The guava juice tasted like a tangy twist on strawberry. At some point, a server brought up a sweeter version of the juice for us to try – a kind gesture from a well-trained staff that is clearly invested in the operation.
Tin Can Alley is more advantageously located than Green Jean Farmery, with easy access to Interstate 25 and a couple of large apartment complexes – one recently opened and one almost finished – across the street. Restaurants such as Guava Tree Café further improve its odds for success.