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.