April 6, 2021

April 6, 2021
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Minimalist beauty, maximalist flavor at the new Californios. Chilapita: white corn masa tart with smoked sturgeon mousse and Tsar Nicoulai caviar with preserved lemon rind and chervil. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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A corner table in the chic garden patio at the new Californios in SoMa. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The Introduction course. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Beverage director-owner Charlotte Randolph. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Hielo: a palate cleanser of frozen tepache and black lime salt. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Shigoku oyster with cucumber espuma. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Grilled baby banana with savory caramel and cold-smoked caviar. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Californios fish taco. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Arco iris (rainbow) granita over vanilla bean semifreddo. Photo courtesy of Californios.

Back in 2013, I attended one of chef Val M. Cantu’s first Californios pop-ups at Naked Kitchen in the Mission—I sat solo at the chef counter, and got such a kick from the energy of his punchy and creative menu. Fast-forward to 2021, and I am once again dining solo, although this time I’m at an elegant table set with white linen, in a chic and peaceful garden patio with tropical plants and a fountain gurgling in the background, and I’m watching tables of dedicated regulars be served a palette of dishes as they pop bottles of Salon and Pol Roger. The music is still as edgy and irreverent as it was at the very first meal, but when I looked into my water glass and noticed the etching of the Californios abstract C logo in there, which matched the gold C on the menu envelope, I smiled, thinking back on that first meal eight years ago, and the dish that said, “Fuck It. -C” in a housemade ketchup on the plate.

The ~CALIFORNIOS~ team has left their intimate 22nd Street location in the Mission and is spreading their wings in the former Bar Agricole space in SoMa. After a year of not cooking, Val says it “feels like life after death,” and that he has to “pinch himself to be working in this space, to be alive.” They wanted to create something so special for guests after a year of no fine dining and tasting menus, and they wanted to make every guest feel part of the experience. The team decided to focus on serving on the patio while the interior gets finished (and we all get vaccinated)—they’re planning on opening inside dining in May. Val’s wife and co-owner Carolyn Cantu is designing this space as well, and she even designed and planted the entire patio with a friend (her talents are boundless). The interior space will have a bar (a liquor license is forthcoming), with 40 seats inside, mohair blue banquettes, even more plants, skylights, a private dining room for ten, and wine director/owner Charlotte Randolph is excited to be building a cellar of 3,000 bottles (currently at 700 selections).

For now, it’s all about the patio that makes you feel like you’re in the Condesa in Mexico City (Val said it’s like Tulum meets Inverness). There are eight tables, spaced well apart, with some that can host four-six guests (I saw plenty of double dates). It was incredibly comfortable—since it’s enclosed, there wasn’t any obnoxious evening SF wind, and there are numerous heaters that can be turned on as needed. Some guests just dined in their dress shirts, or had a light jacket/sportscoat on. Californios will actually be getting a retracting roof installed very soon so they can open it on warm evenings (we seem to have them more and more). I loved dining there early at the first seating, so you can admire all the details and colors of the dishes in the evening light.

The multi-course tasting menu is such an extensive journey, and continuing to tell and elevate the story of Californian-Mexican food, of Mexican food in the United States, of ingredients, and paying homage to our extraordinary purveyors (Val has partnered with Tierra Vegetables for years, who provide the corn, masa, and many of the chiles on the menu, and they’re featured prominently in the front of the menu booklet).

The Introduction course makes you so excited to be dining out again: the table is suddenly filled with five bites, each on their own black or cream or grey plate, some with gold edges. One of the dishes, the Venezuelan arepa (an homage to Val’s Venezuelan mother) exhibits that playful line that Californios treads: the rustic with the elegant, the humble and the luxurious, pairing Harina P.A.N. (a brand of pre-cooked cornmeal) with Tsar Nicoulai caviar. I also love how much you eat with your hands at Californios—it gets you closer to your food, and keeps things from ever feeling stuffy.

The next salvo of dishes is like contemporary culinary art—I felt like I was photographing a cookbook for a modern museum. (The majority of the dramatic ceramics you’ll see on the table are from Erin Hupp.) There’s the chilapita, a masa tart filled with smoked sturgeon mousse, a rare regional dish from Guerrero given a fine dining shine. The infladita is a masterful bite, a technically tough dish to make: a sphere of fried yellow corn filled with a masa sauce with guajillo chile and topped with blistered urchin. It’s a magical thing to pop into your mouth. Ditto the tostada of green corn with custardy (and sustainably caught) Baja blue fin tuna on top, with a kiss of tamari, Brokaw avocado mousse, and serrano chile. I’m going to pine for this course all over again! I love the storytelling of corn in these dishes.

And then…a palate cleanser of frozen tepache and black lime salt with a wondrous texture, and a zip of finger lime. A scoop of hielo! Since the kitchen team brings out dishes along with your servers, you can compliment the talented pastry chef Sophie Hau (previously Eleven Madison Park), or the sous chef, and your words will make their way back into the kitchen (although they also have television screens so they can monitor how the meal is progressing, or how big you’re smiling).

The ceviche course was exquisite, with a firm Shigoku oyster hiding in a kicky espuma of cucumber in a porcelain oyster shell, while buttery, tender, wild-caught hamachi is enlivened with a rhubarb and blood orange aguachile that will make you lift up the dish for a final shot right into your mouth. You’ll enjoy many moments of acidic brightness or green chlorophyll or spicy ginger throughout the meal, reminding us of health and vibrancy.

Who pairs aged and grilled baby banana glazed in date sauce with a savory-sweet caramel of coconut milk and then puts a quenelle of Californios cold-smoked Tsar Nicoulai reserve white sturgeon caviar (soon to be golden Osetra) on top? Val Cantu does. It’s such a fun evolution of their former bean-and-caviar dish. You’ll ponder the juxtoposition of sweet and smoke and saline. And then you’ll sip the A. Margaine NV demi-sec Champagne and declare that wine director Coco Randolph is a genius.

The next round of dishes is like the street food of your dreams (complete with little dishes of classic pickled accompaniments like carrots and onion): a blue corn tlacoyo with velvety Rancho Gordo pinto beans, the Californios epic fried cod taco in the most pillowy sourdough flour tortilla (an homage to the flour tortillas of Val’s father’s restaurant and tortilleria in Austin), and the kicker: a juicy Devil’s Gulch Ranch squab al pastor taco (brilliant!) on a blistered yellow masa tortilla. Each one of these dishes is a triumph.

At this point, you should be feeling quite full, but then it’s time for a trip to the rancho with grilled Marin Sun Farms lamb chops, with the most restorative cilantro-lamb-chicken broth that you sip. I felt like I was sitting around a campfire on a glamping getaway, and yes, I nibbled every last morsel off the bones. Hey, when you’re eating with your hands for most of the meal, you really should get into it.

Dessert includes such a showstopper: the arco iris (rainbow) of different granita flavors (huckleberry, mandarin, Meyer lemon, kiwi, and pea flowers) on top of a vanilla bean semifreddo—it tastes like a high-end fifty-fifty bar, and all that color will bring you happy vibes. It’s a salute to their new neighborhood, the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District in SoMa. There are some other treats and intermezzos and more I don’t mention—I want you to enjoy some surprises, and the talented team is sure to be evolving and editing dishes daily (you can see the list of the team at the end of the booklet).

For $223, it’s such an abundant meal (the wine pairing is $140). I was honestly quite stuffed, so be sure to arrive with an appetite. This experience is the perfect welcome back party: it’s engaging, delightful, delicious, artful. It’s the best Californios has ever been, and will only continue to enchant and evolve. The energy of the team is palpable—they’re so happy to see you, and as a guest, my heart swelled with so much excitement and hope. It was such a privilege to have this kind of inspiring dining experience after being locked away for a year. Book your table, treat yourself, celebrate the bounty and beauty of California and our Mexican roots and the vision of this team to create something so special as we just begin to poke our heads out of our burrows.

Dinner served Tue-Sat. Reservations here. Valet parking will be coming in time. 355 11th St. at Harrison.

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Don’t miss the res con queso (stewed beef and cheese) pupusa from Estrellita’s Snacks. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The communal corner, with pictures of La Cocina entrepreneurs on top of former mailboxes. Photo: Erin Ng.

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A look into the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace. Eventually, the space will be full of light and people visiting the kiosks inside. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The ensalada de Cesar (Caesar salad) from Los Cilantros. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Teranga’s fantastic Marche Kermel sandwich. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

Back in January, I posted a big update about the ~LA COCINA MUNICIPAL MARKETPLACE~, the country’s first women-led food hall, featuring seven La Cocina entrepreneurs (all working class women of color and immigrant women entrepreneurs) with kiosks in the Marketplace, working with Marketplace manager Jay Foster (previously farmerbrown, Isla Vida). After so much fundraising and planning and permitting and a pandemic, the Marketplace is now miraculously open, serving takeout Mon-Fri 11am-2:30pm, with plans to add delivery, take-home dinners, and on-site dining. Exciting times!

I got a sneak peek of the space and some dishes during a test run a couple weeks ago (and ordered a preview of dishes through the La Cocina Women’s History Month Community Box, what an extravaganza), so I want to share some of the incredible dishes I tried—the Marketplace menu is extensive, so you’ll need to plan multiple visits. (And perfect timing, they are taking part in SF Restaurant Week, starting this Friday!)

Each vendor also offers a nutritious $5 plate to help serve the needs of the Tenderloin community (where 70 percent of housing is single room occupancy, and only 39 percent of residents have access to a stove), as well all of us who are on a budget, especially these days. La Cocina is also working to support businesses by offering food for EBT transactions via the California Restaurant Meals Program. You can order food online in advance and then pick it up at 332 Golden Gate Ave., where they have a dedicated pick-up zone (you can also do walk-up orders).

After trying chef Nafy Ba Flatley’s Teranga baobab drinks and energy bars, it’s such a pleasure to be able to taste her flavor-packed Senegalese dishes! I can’t rave enough about her Marche Kermel sandwich ($12) with ground beef, caramelized onions, potatoes, and chopped egg on baguette with spinach, Dijon mustard, and Dakaroise hot sauce (I can’t wait to try her Dakar muffuletta next, I hear it’s so good!). I have also savored her healthy and satisfying maafé bowl over a few meals: organic, spicy, Senegalese peanut stew with tomatoes, cassava, carrots, turnips, baobab, and Teranga spice blend over jasmine rice—this would be a good one to have on hand in the freezer.

Hopefully, you are familiar with chef Guadalupe Moreno of Mi Morena, who brings her Mexico City guisados, handmade tortillas, and chilaquiles to the heart of SF. You’ll find her guisados available in taco plates, quesadillas, or large portions to bring home for reheating. Also: don’t miss her fish tacos!

Chef Maria del Carmen Flores and her daughter Estrella of Estrellita’s Snacks are serving their stellar (heh) pupusas for $4.50—there are so many fillings, but the res con queso (stewed beef and cheese) was particularly satisfying, and their tamales are truly epic! Pork in guajillo sauce, it’s $5 very well-spent.

Bayview’s Tiffany Carter of BOUG Cali offers a menu of West Coast Creole shack dazzlers, like a chicken and andouille sausage gumbo thickened with a red peanut butter roux. (I tried her okra and tomato stew with shrimp and sausage in the community box, and just loved how balanced and fresh and tasty it was—not too rich, and the vegetables were cooked perfectly.) I’m excited to try her Cali-style po’boys and innovative jerk tacos! If you want some dessert, definitely get her classic banana pudding with vanilla wafers for all the happy vibes.

I enjoyed trying a couple traditional Algerian dishes from chef Wafa and Mounir Bahloul of KAYMA—don’t miss their baked goods, from breads to dessert (Wafa’s mother is a chef, and inspired her daughter to train on pastry and bread-making). Their offering ranges from soups to flatbreads to couscous—you could make a wonderful meal from their sides. I look forward to trying one of their sandwiches next, on their house-baked bread.

Dilsa Lugo of Los Cilantros is serving her Mexican homestyle dishes, including tostadas, enchiladas, tamales, and don’t miss her creative ensalada de Cesar (Caesar salad), topped with a Los Cilantros seed mix. You can also try atol de piña, a traditional warm and hearty beverage with chunks of pineapple sweetened with piloncillo (a molasses), seasoned with cinnamon and thickened with housemade, organic, nixtamalized masa (I loved it warmed up for breakfast).

When they open for indoor dining, chef Bini Pradhan will be bringing her famed Bini’s Kitchen Nepalese momos and stews and more.

There will also be a kiosk for pop-ups and guest chefs, including culinary talent from the Tenderloin. There will additionally be a bar (La Paloma), serving beverages highlighting female distillers, winemakers, and brewers, as well as coffee service—stand by for details on that later.

The 7,000-square-foot space includes the separate kiosks with their own kitchen setups, as well as a large and shared kitchen space, which the entrepreneurs can use to supplement their kiosk cooking. La Cocina hopes and plans to continue to ramp up their cooking for food security community programs, which has greatly helped their entrepreneurs during the pandemic, who lost about 70 percent of their business (they have cooked over 250,000 meals).

Once the Marketplace opens for indoor dining, you’ll be able to see how much La Cocina has programmed the space to really be part of the community, from the library and community corner that will also double as an area for speaking and presentations, and their desire to offer access to computers as well (they need a donor for that program, anyone out there?).

This Marketplace is such an inspiring model for cities everywhere since it “offers a path for low-income entrepreneurs that lowers the barriers to entry, mitigates risk via a shared cost of maintenance, increases equity in business ownership, and creates more assets for the owners, enabling them to pass on lower costs to consumers and make cities more livable.”

Take the time to support this important new addition to our culinary scene and community—order some lunch, tell your friends, and let’s help get this beautiful thing humming. 101 Hyde St.; takeout and pickup at 332 Golden Gate Ave.

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Exterior of Dear Inga on 18th Street. Photo via Yelp, courtesy of Dear Inga.

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Vegan tantanmen from the Ura Mensho pop-up (at the recently reopened Mensho Tokyo SF). Instagram photo via @menya_shono.

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Maize’wich with catira (chicken, sofrito, cheddar). Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Anthony Strong’s SuperStella van, parked for dinner at Spark Social earlier this year. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

File this one under the smart moves category: ~LIHOLIHO YACHT CLUB~ has decided to temporarily move from their Sutter Street location to the group’s 18th Street property (previously Dear Inga, and formerly Farina). It means they can take advantage of the location’s outdoor seating (which includes the fab upstairs terrace!), and Sutter Street can get a light remodel in the meantime. Liholiho will open on Wednesday April 14th for takeout and delivery only (many cult favorites will no longer be available, so get ready to adjust to a new menu), and their plan is to eventually add outdoor seating (with reservations) beginning on Wednesday April 28th. A year later, it’s going to feel so good. 3560 18th St. at Dearborn.

I was very excited to see this post from ~MENSHO TOKYO SF~ that they were reopening as “URA MENSHO, a secret temporary pop-up Ramen restaurant.” They are currently serving toripaitan, vegan tantanmen, and vegan mazesoba (here is the menu). Welcome back! Indoor seating only—a post from @ramen_beast shows some table dividers. Hours are Wed-Sun 5pm-9pm. (They also recently opened in New Delhi!) 672 Geary St. at Leavenworth.

We all love a good comeback story! After closing in the Mission last August (after 10 years of business!), ~PICA PICA AREPA KITCHEN~ is back! Eater reports: “Owner Adriana López Vermut found a new operating partner and was able to rehire eight of the previous 14 employees and unlock the doors once more.” Incredible! Come on by for some Venezuelan (and gluten-free!) arepas and welcome them back. Open Sun-Thu 11am-8pm, Fri-Sat 11am-9pm. 401 Valencia St. at 15th St.

After a year of delays (and a pandemic), Tartine Bakery’s workers have unionized! Via [Mission Local]

Those of you who follow me on Instagram know all about the awesomeness that is chef Anthony Strong’s SuperStella van, and this ultimate in stylin’ private dining-meets-glamping experience is now at the San Francisco Ferry Building, parked on the back plaza. You get to have one of the best views in the City while you tuck into your multi-course menu, which includes peak seasonal ingredients, tasty tidbits from the charcoal grill, and beverage pairings. Private parties of up to four guests can enjoy a unique culinary experience, from dinner to a full evening. Stella’s “glamping” menu is available for $110 per guest for up to four guests, plus a site/travel fee of $120 on weekdays and $150 Fri-Sat. Beverage pairings are offered for an additional $50 per guest. Available Tue-Sat, beginning April 19th. Seatings available at 5:15pm and 7:30pm. (You should also read this SFGATE article about Anthony’s multiple pandemic pivots at Prairie and now with SuperStella.)

I’m a big fan of the ~LIMONCELLO~ sandwich shop in Pacific Heights (owner Jalal Heydari is Mr. Customer Service!) and he will be opening a second sandwich shop and Italian grocery on the corner of 24th St. and Bryant, hopefully by May. [Via Eater]

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The sign at the original Blowfish on Bryant. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The Wagyumafia cutlet sandwich. Photo via @wagyumafia on Instagram.

In Tamara Palmer’s most recent column for 48 Hills, she mentioned how she was unknowingly scammed by a business masquerading as the cult favorite Wagyumafia from Japan on Doordash, supposedly offering their famed wagyu sandwich for delivery for $180 (she opted for a $35 A5 wagyu nigiri set instead). After posting her pictures on Instagram, she was contacted by Wagyumafia that it wasn’t them, and was an imposter! (Wagyumafia was planning to open in SF after running a collaborative pop-up with the Omakase Restaurant Group a couple years ago, but things didn’t move forward and they focused on New York instead.)

My curiosity was piqued, and I took a closer look at the SF wagyu mafia page on Doordash, which listed Blowfish Sushi on Mission as their address. I headed over to the Blowfish web page, which had this message: “Blowfish Sushi Is still closed, The restaurant running at 2193 mission st, is an Fake copy of Blowfish Sushi in our old location. This place is illegal and NOT run or operated by ANYONE from the original Blowfish Company. We are in the proccess of correcting this and look forward to rebuiliding Blowfish Sushi as soon as it is safe and Logical.” So, not only was the Wagyumafia concept a fake, but a business listed as Blowfish Sushi on Mission on Doordash was also a fake? Whut? Things suddenly got very fishy.

Last week, I was able to get in touch with founding Blowfish partner (since 1996!) Jason Teplitsky, who explained this Mission Street location was the second location they opened after closing their original Bryant Street location, and it was only open from November 2019 until the stay-at-home order in March 2020. He said they had to close the business and surrender the lease due to the grim takeout situation and focus on their Iza Ramen staff and business instead—his business partner is Ritsuo Tsuchida, and it ends up Julian Lennon is another partner (some fun trivia for you). Teplitsky said they left the Blowfish sign up, partly because it was the early stage of the pandemic and they couldn’t really find anyone to take it down.

He has been trying to contact the new owner, and paid a visit to the fake Blowfish this last Friday and confronted the staff, demanding to see the owner. Teplitsky, with his blustery Ukrainian manner, ended up scaring the staff and the police were called. (Hey, the guy needs answers.) The team has claimed the landlord was okay with them assuming the Blowfish identity, and even tried to blame Teplitsky for leaving the sign up as an invitation to take over the business. (Yes, these people are crazy.)

Teplitsky told me he even ordered delivery to see how the food was (the menu is wildly extensive)—he said the sushi was poorly cut and not even placed on the rice correctly, so whoever is so keen on stealing his identity doesn’t even have any skilled talent in the kitchen.

Teplitsky is currently contacting Grubhub, Postmates, and Doordash (which even uses the Blowfish logo!), trying to get these fake pages down since he still owns the copyright. He’s also contacting the landlord, and is looking into legal action against the imposters. I’ll keep you posted on any developments. How’s all this for one big caveat emptor if you like to order delivery? 2193 Mission St. at 18th St.