Stepping into the courtyard of Bombera, the acclaimed Mexican restaurant in Oakland, Calif., always feels like arriving at a party. Papel picado in marigold orange and saffron yellow flutters overhead, seemingly waving guests into the space, an airy former firehouse. But the restaurant reaches its full splendor in the fall, when the dining room is decorated in preparation for Mexican Day of the Dead.
Since the chef Dominica Rice-Cisneros, 50, opened Bombera in 2021, her friend the one-named Japanese-born artist Momoca, 47, has decorated an altar annually for Día de los Muertos, and she now visits several times a year to fill the place with her handcrafted paper works. “From day one, she’s been helping us make sure that Bombera’s dressed up in bows,” Rice-Cisneros said. And when Momoca, who is based in Mexico City, mentioned last year that Japan also honors the dead by decorating altars, during the Obon spirit festival, Rice-Cisneros suggested she make one for Bombera, hatching a plan to unveil the installation during a party that would bring together their two communities.
The friends settled on a date in September; Obon marks the beginning of the harvest season, while Día de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2. And for the first time, Momoca installed two altars at the entrance of the light-filled dining room, one white and minimalist, the other vibrant orange and pink. “For me, an altar is a place where I feel connected,” she said. “Every time I sit or stand in front of one, I reflect on where I come from, and where I’ve been.”
On a sunny Sunday, the pair’s guests — a mix of chefs, artists, family members and neighbors — arrived at the restaurant, where Rice-Cisneros welcomed them by burning copal, the aromatic tree resin traditionally used for spiritual purification. Momoca held a craft workshop, so children could try folding metallic paper flowers. Then everyone scrambled to find a seat and passed around bowls of Rice-Cisneros’s red mole, as well as drinks and dishes made by various friends. “We really wanted it to feel like a family party on a Sunday afternoon,” Rice-Cisneros said. “A potluck was definitely the vibe.”
The attendees: The 45 or so guests included chefs — among them Sylvan Mishima Brackett, 47, the owner of the San Francisco izakaya Rintaro, and Ana Castro, 34, of the Mexican restaurant Lengua Madre in New Orleans — and local friends such as Keba and Rachel Konte, 57 and 59, the owners of Oakland’s Red Bay Coffee; the artist Ester Hernandez, 78; and Masaki Asaoka, 74, the produce manager at Star Grocery in Berkeley, whose granddaughter Adora Webb, 24, works at Bombera. Rice-Cisneros’s family was also well represented: Even her 11-month-old nephew was in attendance. “The Mexican American parties when I was growing up were always a mix of babies, grandparents, neighbors and friends,” Rice-Cisneros said. “All ages welcome.”
The décor: Momoca arranged the two altars side by side. The Japanese one featured a white mask, white paper zigzags, white chrysanthemums, traditional sweets and creatures carved from vegetables — Momoca explained that she’d set out a cucumber horse to summon spirits quickly and an eggplant ox to send them back slowly. To its right was the Mexican altar, which included a hot pink skull, colorful papel picado, orange marigolds, pan dulces and skeleton figures. Rice-Cisneros added framed photographs of her grandmother and her favorite saints, plus mole, chocolate and mezcal, whose strong aromas were intended to entice spirits in.
For the meal, the Bombera team had set up one long table, which Momoca decorated with table runners and tangles of ribbons. The floral designer Max Gill, 54, who arranges the centerpieces for the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, added small vases filled with white chrysanthemums, little gem marigolds, pink globe amaranths and orange ‘Persian Carpet’ zinnias. When the guests went to sit down, though, it emerged that there weren’t enough places, and a second table was quickly laid. “That’s always happening,” Rice-Cisernos said, unfazed. “And it’s great.”
The food: In the courtyard, guests snacked on Asian pears, Japanese peanuts and deep-fried corn kernels. The confectionery artist Manami Sano, 46, of the sweets company Studio Miyabi, offered handcrafted nerikiri, chrysanthemum-shaped white bean paste sweets stuffed with black sesame. The chef Anna Osawa, 39, a co-owner of the pop-up omakase Sushi Salon, passed around miso baked oysters and other appetizers. Once everyone had a seat, Rice-Cisneros brought out family-style platters of rich red mole sunk with charred sweet potatoes and red beans, pork adobo folded into fragrant corn tortillas, a salad of fresh figs and crunchy jicama and spicy beets rolled in salsa macha. For dessert, the pastry chef Noelle Malone, 25, served a très leches cake flavored with matcha.
The drinks: Welcome drinks included big jugs of barley tea and aguas frescas. Jessica Moncada-Konte, 37, the owner of the Oakland beverage store Alkali Rye, who consulted on the cocktail menu and mezcal selections for Bombera, crafted a cucumber-aloe spritz for the occasion. The restaurant’s wine director, Syler Silva, 48, poured natural wines from Baja California and beyond. And a couple of longtime regulars showed up with sake, pouring a shot for the Japanese altar before offering the bottle around.
The music: Rice-Cisneros’s husband, the historian Carlos Manuel Salomon, 50, made a playlist of traditional Mexican songs performed by contemporary artists such as Lila Downs and Natalia Lafourcade.
The conversation: Guests reflected on their own Day of the Dead traditions. Hernandez talked about the importance of the paper arts as a way to connect with ancestors, and Castro spoke about how she imagines, after her death, joining her family in a snapshot on an altar one day.
The recipe for Rice-Cisneros’s Harvest Salad: Versions of this dish have appeared on Rice-Cisneros’s menus since she opened Cosecha, her first restaurant, in Oakland’s Swan Market, in 2011 (it closed in 2021). Inspired by the ever-changing offerings of Mexican fruit carts, she swaps ingredients in and out with the seasons, but certain elements are always present: sweet fruit, crunchy jicama, citrus-forward vinaigrette and toasted pepitas. To make it, begin by slicing up fruit, such as mango, grapefruit, persimmon or figs. Next, cut jicama into long, thin matchsticks. Then whisk together chopped shallot, orange juice and zest, lime juice and zest and white wine vinegar, and let it marinate before adding olive oil. Toast pepitas with olive oil, smoky paprika, sugar and salt. Finally, toss everything together with greens such as arugula or butter lettuce.