Californios is the only Mexican fine dine restaurant in the United States. This restaurant that summatively presents Mexican cuisine plus California produce was an idea conceived by Chef Val Cantu. It first started as a pop-up in 2013 until 2015 where the restaurant sowed roots appropriately in the Mission district of San Francisco. Since then, the acknowledgements to its success has not slowed. Currently, Californios boasts two Michelin stars amongst other recognitions in the food industry. In my opinion, the most groundbreaking work from Californios was how it broadened the minds of fine-diners to accept Mexican cuisine in the space of stars.
📍San Francisco, CA (USA)
I had the pleasure of dining at the Chef's counter for the second time, both times I was accompanied by my friend Chad. He is actually a Californios regular and we all used to refer to him as 'Chad the Scientist.'
Dinner started with many small bites to wet the palate. Included below was an apple agua fresca, divorced oysters, chicharron, and other morsels of deliciousness I cannot name but thoroughly enjoyed.
Most memorable item from the menu, uni taco. U N I should both know by now that I love sea urchin and putting it into a taco for the ease of consumption expresses a level of respect for the diner. The yuca and pine nuts in it breaks up the creamy textures with some balancing crunch.
In Oaxaca, there is a dish called Tetela, which are triangular pockets of corn stuffed with a variety of ingredients. At Californios, they use Hoja Santa, a rare Mexican herb, to wrap purple masa, mushrooms, and cheese before grilling on the comal.
A soft taco next, and inside: squab with a slice of asian pear. I love the game with the sweetness of fruit. If you're interested in Chinese roasted duck with the sweet and sour plum sauce, you'll like this too. The fattiness is broken up with the fruit, not leaving you feeling bogged down. Not to mention, the skin was perfectly crisp.
White Sturgeon is a species that is native to the NorCal region. One way that Californios executes its mission of displaying local produce and personal heritage is made exemplar in this dish. Chef personalizes the caviar by selecting and curing it specifically for the restaurant's use. The caviar sits atop a three bean puree and eaten with a mother of pearl spoon.
The open kitchen is one of Californios's best features. Did you know that Chef Val's wife studied design and was the mastermind behind the entire restaurant space? It's all a family affair here. The open kitchen is outlined by the Chef's counters, which I'll always opt for because it allows me a peek into the process. Here, Chef de Cuisine David Yoshimura cuts the cured yellowtail for the next course.
An ungarnished ceviche allows for the simplicity of the fish to be showcased. This yellowtail ceviche was complemented with a lemon balm and Mexican lime. Without the distractions of other ingredients, the integrity of each flavor is personified.
I can't deny that one of the most interesting aspect of any restaurant is their choice of plateware. Californios is no different. I'm not quite sure what this was, I can only describe it to you as a package of broccoli with cheese, topped with trout roe. It's no coincidence that it is presented to resemble ancient Mexican architecture. A fun one-bite before diving into the heavier courses.
Crispy sea bream skin, flaky flesh, and bright citruses. A mindfully light entry into the entrees for the evening. There were so many courses and I didn't even publish all that we ate. How one fits into their jeans after this is simple: don't wear jeans.
Barbacoa duck breast with smoke pineapple reminded me of the squab at the beginning of the meal. It's served with a mole made with apricot to continue the sweet notes in the dish. Important note: PLANTAIN BREAD. Eat it and be happy. I might have taken Chad's roll too.
The importance of sourcing is clear at Californios. They sourced retired dairy cows for this next dish, meaning the cattle lived an organic life of roaming and grazing. The lifestyle of the cattle contributes to the unique and deep flavors of the meat. This was paired with chanterelles, my favorite mushroom and possibly the name of my future firstborn child.
Arriving at the desserts, there is nothing better than ending a meal on a sweet note. The flan is made from wild vanilla and a pecan caramel. This dessert comes on unique plates, so you and whoever you're dining with probably won't end up with the same design. A tulip for Tina 🌷❤️ If you dine at Californios, I'd love to know what you get!
Probably inspired by the American classic of apple pie a la mode, we ended dinner with an apple empanada with frozen crema. The triangular empanada ties the design of the dinner together, emulating the tetela.
It was Valentine's Day weekend when we came and Californios was celebrating with chocolate covered strawberries and a few extra sweets to take home.
Did you know that Californios has an Instagram account just for their Family Meals? @californiosfamilymeal The day that I came in, they had mapo tofu for lunch. I was lucky enough to taste a modified version during dinner!
Dinner at Californios was a blast. From the interior design to the music to the staff, it's a fun time. It makes me feel proud that San Francisco has this gem for the world to follow suit on what can be considered as fine dining. The atmosphere of the restaurant is family-oriented and it shows in the flow of the kitchen and dining room. I can't wait until my next time back.