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.
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.