Owner and promoter Valentino Carrillo in Que Rico, an LGBTQ + nightclub and restaurant opening April 13 in downtown Oakland. Photo: Pete Rosos
381 15th St. (on Franklin Street), Oakland
Much has been written about the struggles LGBTQ + bars face in East Bay during the coronavirus crisis, but you wouldn’t know that if you spoke to Valentino Carrillo.
Long-time nightlife promoter turned restaurateur opened its first store, La Frontera Mexican restaurant in East Oakland, in February 2020. Despite the pandemic, that business was doing well enough that he could use his profits to open his long-standing dream: Que Rico, an LGBTQ + nightclub for Latinx customers. This new bar and restaurant opens Tuesday April 13th with a limited selection of La Frontera’s biggest hits, including the best-selling quesabirria tacos.
Carrillo moved to the Bay Area in 2003 and quickly made a name for himself as a drag, dance night and club promoter in East Bay. Most recently, he was Director of Operations at Club 21, a Latinx LGBTQ + bar that closed in late 2019 after a landlord dispute. By then, Carrillo had left his position at Club 21 and had an extremely successful dance night called “Qué Rico!” in the Port Bar, which was the only remaining LGBTQ + venue in downtown Oakland at the time.
Subscribe to Nosh Weekly
Our newsletter with delicious East Bay food news
“Club 21 was the number one Latinx club in Northern California,” said Carrillo (who used the terms Latinx and Latin interchangeably in an interview). “When it closed there was nothing.” According to Carrillo, whenever he hosted events in the port or elsewhere, he saw former Club 21 guests, many of whom asked when he was about to open his own nightclub.
Instead, he opened La Frontera just weeks before the pandemic began. The restaurant was ready to have a drag brunch on the restaurant’s outside patio when the Bay Area’s Comprehensive Local Protection Ordinance was passed, which restricted food in the area only to take away and delivery. Carrillo told the Bay Area reporter that he initially closed the store entirely, but an attempted break-in indicated that it might be safer to keep the restaurant open even with limited service. To his surprise, the business grew and grew despite the regional lockdown.
The success of Carrillo’s La Frontera restaurant in East Oakland enabled him to open Que Rico. Photo: Mexican restaurant La Frontera
After all, it made enough income “that I could look for a place to open a club,” said Carrillo, “and think about my dream again.”
He found a place “much earlier than I expected,” said Carrillo when Bissap Baobab, the Senegalese restaurant / nightclub, finally closed its doors on March 6, 2021, owner Marco Senghor confirmed with Nosh.
“I just couldn’t stay open and pay high rent in this big room,” said Senghor. He started throwing a net for someone who could take the lease and Carrillo crossed his mind. “He’s such a cute guy and I knew he wanted to do something for the Latin American gay community,” said Senghor. “I’m really happy with how it all worked out.”
While the size of the venue posed problems for Senghor, it was exactly what Carillo was looking for. “It’s such a big room,” he said, “it’s just perfect for what I wanted to do.” In fact, Carillo said, there is even space for a VIP room once guests are ready to gather indoors again.
A VIP room isn’t the only post-pandemic plan Carrillo has, and he’s already looking forward to it when people are eager to have a night out with dinner, drinks, and dancing – all in the same place. He envisioned a place where dinner would be served until 9 or 10 p.m., then the room turned into a packed dance club with themed nights and drag shows.
“I knew that if I didn’t do that, someone,” Carrillo said, so he signed a long-term lease (until 2029, the BAR reports, with the option to renew after that) and began work on the transformation of Que Rico an occasional pop-up club night to a permanent venue.
Of course, much of what Carrillo had in mind is currently not possible. Although Alameda County allows 50% capacity interiors, when it opens, Que Rico will accommodate guests on its huge outdoor deck on 15th Street, a sprawling space lit by twinkling rainbow lights. Maintaining service outdoors “is the best way to protect our community,” said Carrillo.
Although Carrillo plans to open Que Rico inside when it’s safe, he said the venue will initially open with only outdoor service. Photo: Pete Rosos
Additionally, Carrillo wants to focus on the restaurant element of the business for now, which means that seated customers will be served 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 recently took the Bay Area by storm – is one of the reasons Que Rico went from dream to reality.
Almost every order we receive at La Frontera includes quesabirria, ”said Carrillo, attributing the dish’s popularity to the growth of his restaurant. “Of course we will serve you in Que Rico as well.”
In addition to being a nightclub, Que Rico serves food including the popular Quesabirria. Photo: Mexican restaurant La Frontera
There is also a full bar with a cocktail menu that Carrillo says is “still in development”. The drink he’s most proud of so far is Valentino: Ketel One vodka, 7 Up and cranberry juice, garnished with two cherries and a lime. “I know it sounds cute,” said Carrillo with a laugh, “but everyone loves it. It’s fun and what people need right now. “
Carrillo’s sense of fun extends to the long-planned drag brunch he hopes to get up and running in Que Rico as soon as possible. Finally, he plans on Saturday and Sunday outdoor dining shows featuring bottomless mimosas, where diners pick their own juice. Other plans for the future include an after-work happy hour after downtown office workers return and a “really big taco Tuesday,” said Carrillo. Friday and Saturday nights will have a “queer and Latin American” theme, and the other nights at the bar will be “really, really varied”.
Ultimately, Carrillo said, his plan is to make Que Rico a one-stop shop for the LGBTQ + residents of the East Bay. “We have to keep our LGBTQ community local,” said Carrillo, “instead of having to travel to SF.”
Que Rico will be open for al fresco dining on April 13th. The opening times are Tuesday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 4pm to 9pm; Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to midnight; Closed on Mondays, but the venue may change its opening times in the coming days. So keep an eye on Instagram for updates.
Help us keep you updated
Berkeleyside relies on the support of its readers so that we can continue to be freely accessible to everyone in our community. Donate so we can continue to provide you with reliable and independent reports.