Mexican Food Like You’ve Never Experienced — At Californios
If your idea of Mexican food is nothing but bulging burritos and bargain-basement tacos at a sombrero-saturated cantina, prepare to have your mind blown by Californios.
At this nearly year-old Mission District restaurant in San Francisco, Chef-Owner Val M. Cantu and his wife, maitre d’ Carolyn Cantu, serve up a contemporary single prix fixe each evening of, yes, Mexican cuisine. Oh, there are beans. There is menudo. And agua fresca. But reinvented with startling finesse like you’ve never seen.
Together with the new much-lauded Cala in San Francisco, which I’ve not yet visited, Californios is changing perceptions by broadening our definition of Mexican food in a most exciting way.
A few weeks ago, I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant. It’s a very intimate space of only about 22 seats that was designed by Carolyn Cantu. You step inside and it’s as if the restaurant envelopes you immediately in a cloak of secrecy. The street windows are tinted deep gray, the walls are paneled darkly, and the lighting inside is very dim — like that of a movie theater. Your eyes are drawn to the brightest spot — the open kitchen fronted by a chef’s counter, where three chefs, including Val Cantu, work the line. The effect is very romantic even with the classic rock music in the background. The look calls to mind a moody Edward Hopper painting, though it’s not a diner that’s glorified here, but a unique restaurant for the ages.
Not only is the dining room quite dark, but most of the food is served on black plateware. Not only does that make taking photos (yes, I’m talking to you, bloggers) extremely challenging, it often makes it quite taxing to really see the food in all its detail. And believe me, you want to study this food because it is beautiful to behold.
You’re asked if you have any allergies. Other than that, you’re left in the dark because you won’t receive a menu until the very end of the meal.
Over the ensuing months, the restaurant has added courses and more luxurious ingredients, and upped the price. As of January 2016, the prix fixe will be $125 with wine pairings another $75. Expect it to be 15 courses or more.
The restaurant asks you to put yourselves in its hands and to enjoy the procession that unfolds.
For myself and dining companion Food Fashionista, it started that night with that agua fresca, a jade-green liquid of jicama, celery, fennel, cucumber, sorrel, mint and fermented turnip. It tasted refreshing and good for you.
That was followed by a black squid-ink tostada made with Ranch Gordo masa and heaped with guacamole, tender Monterey squid, and serrano. The flavors were subtly familiar but taken to another level.
That was true with the sope, as well, made with black beans and topped with smoked creme fraiche, smoked cotija, pickled onions, pickled watermelon radish, fish roe and popcorn powder, of all things. The salty pop of the roe gave it an almost sushi-like quality. Atop the sope, it was kind of like a festive Mexican blini.
Campechana brought forth a lightly poached Kusshi oyster, so barely cooked that it seemed almost raw. It was as plump as any oyster on the half shell. Sea vegetables added to its umami flavor, and a hint of serrano tickled the taste buds.
A prickly pear sorbet was a dazzling fucshia with cactus coulis, chia seeds and sunflower sprouts to give a burst of herbaceousness. It was very floral and delicately sweet.
The Yerba Buena Fruit Cup was inspired by the produce in the Bay Area — endive, mustard greens, and beets surrounding crunchy pumpkin seeds and a smear of Andante Dairy goat cheese.
Leave it to Californios to turn the humble bean (or three different heirloom ones in this case) into a luxurious sip. This white bean potage was so creamy and flavorful — more so than you think beans could ever be. Again, there was a touch of chile — but used with restraint — adding just enough to spark the palate, not explode it.
Cantu says being in San Francisco inspired him to make his own sourdough. His hearty levain has a touch of cilantro. It’s served warm and grilled, alongside house-cultured, house-churned creamy butter with a slight tangy cheese taste.
It’s accompanied by lobster soup with pieces of the butter-poached crustacean accented with Chinese celery and chile Morita Caldo. It’s light in texture, heavy in delightful shellfish flavor, and with an almost Asian note.
Menudo gets a fanciful treatment here, especially because the tripe comes from a heritage Duroc pig. The offal, in a spicy, rich broth with fermented turnip greens, take on the appearance almost of noodles. They are so tender, they’re almost melty. When’s the last time you said that about tripe? Shavings of Brancha cheese add a nice salty, nutty garnish.
Mexico’s famed Caesar salad (yes, that’s its birth place) gets a star turn with black cod “Caesar” that’s butter poached, leaving it silky and delicate. Baby lettuces are grilled and arranged just so. A large puddle of Guajillo and chile salsa is as smooth and comforting as a favorite tomato soup.
Bone broth makes an appearance next. Only this is made from squab bones with a touch of chipotle. Uncover the black handle-less cup and breathe in the intoxicating aroma of the long-simmered, restorative liquid.
Next come tortillas of a different sort. Puffy, thick and pillowy soft, along with more of that fantastic butter.
Accompanying it is more squab that’s smoked and served with grilled persimmon and aji amarilla salsa. Squab is not easy to get right. The bird is so small that it can be overcooked to over-the-top liveriness so easily; or undercooked with an unpleasant sliminess to it. This one was smoky and incredibly juicy — one of the best cooked squabs I’ve had in awhile.
A morsel of seared Hudson Valley foie gras arrives on a tiny plantain chip with a dollop of tequila-poached banana mousse, a dot of piloncillo caramel, and a gilding of gold leaf. It’s a one-bite wonder that you wish could have been two — or even three — bites more.
I love a good horchata. Here it’s paired with poached sweet rose apples, quinoa pudding and candied almonds. Nutty, sweet and comforting, I could happily eat this for breakfast every day.
That was followed by a dainty scoop of goat milk frozen yogurt sandwiched by coconut tuilles and finished with goat milk dulce de leche, cajeta, cilantro and charred oro blanco. It was bracing, slightly savory, and with a lightness that characterized so much of the food here.
The finale was precious little balls of mandarin and pumpkin semifreddo, deep orange in color and bracingly ice-cold that almost jolts you into acknowledging your time here has come to an end.
And what a time it was. Californios may lead you into darkness, but it surely will open your eyes wide.
More Mission District Eats: Hawker Fare
And: Namu Gaji
And: Flour & Water