Mexico + California: The Inventive, Engaging, Stunning Food at Californios [Review + Pics]

Thanks for the update. I still dream about my last meal there. Very inspired, delicious and unique.

Looks like reservations are sold out through the end of November. Or they pulled them all if they are going to move to a different platform than Tock.

Reservations are available again and they opened up dates until December 16. Menu price has gone up another $20 to $177/person before tax and service.

Chefs Val and David at it again. Definitely the best bites for me were the 2 tacos: 1) mushroom taco on blue masa tortilla (matsutake, maitake, morels, shredded fried scallions) and 2) squab breast on sourdough tortilla with mole. The matsutake’s pine note and the mushrooms’ smokiness were great with an '89 Sercial Madeira. Very complex moles with the right spice notes. Chanterelles were excellent. I didn’t think the caviar was really necessary in some of the other preps. I’d love it if they did an aguachile/ceviche, abalone soup, or carne asada / barbacoa again. I’ll have to visit again soon. Grabbed a same-day res 3 hours ahead - so check Tock for chef’s counter if you’re at all interested!

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Agreed. The shroom taco has incredible depth of flavor for something so simple. In fact, it’s probably my best bite of taco ever.

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Went twice in the last 1.5 months or so. Very similar menus to yours and as always a truly excellent meal.
Brought my own bottle of sake for the first meal, and the 2nd did the wine pairing of which there were quite a lot of great out of the box selections. You already named one of them, which was the Madeira with the smoked mushroom taco (one of my absolute favorite dishes, the umami alone from that was brilliant with a Junmai).

I enjoyed the lamb quite a lot as well, though they said the season is almost over. I had it twice, the first time they poured me a Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva 1997 to go with it (mostly to give me an idea of their wine pairing, and they were quick to realize the sake was at that point not as happening with the protein course for obvious reasons), and the 2nd time they ran out of that vintage, but poured us something 2005 or younger (forgot to take a picture) from an Alta Gran Reserva 809 that also worked. Though the 97 was phenomenal with its ultra fine and silky tannins, and a very thoughtful gesture on their part.

They ran out of uni for the mini taco dish one time, so I got toro as a substitute.

The strawberry ice dessert at the end was paired with a Marco Porello Birbet that was particularly refreshing and tasted like a sweet dessert sparkling sake.

I also went to their Cinco De Mayo celebration (tickets only appeared a few days before through Tock, most attendees were regulars), and it was a blast with fantastic food (or as they say in millennial speak, “lit as fuq”). I’ll have to dig up the photos for that one.

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Hi @BradFord,

Great report back! :slight_smile: The new menu sounds delicious and I can’t wait to go back next time we’re up there. The mushroom tacos sound lovely as well. (Thanks again for the great recommendation; there’s nothing like that in L.A.)

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Food looks great. I’m sure the mushroom tops my local mushroom taco at BS Taqueria!

Interestingly I recently had both the 1997 LRA 904 and the recently released 2009 in the same tasting with @brritscold and some others. Since we tasted them blind, the 1997 came up first and there’s no way I thought it was the older of the two! Incredibly youthful tasting, this wine has years and years ahead of it. I haven’t had any of the 890 yet though.

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Thanks so much for your feedback on the 904! I’ll definitely pickup some of the 2009s before they disappear and try some soon and then cellar for the future. I don’t recall the exact specifics of the 890 and at the time I didn’t realize 890 and 904 were different, but the 904 '97 was the clear winner. I also want to say I popped open a 904 2010 Alta Gran Reserva a few years ago at a Spanish restaurant and it was stellar, even though it was quite young to drink.

If it was a 2010, it was probably the LRA Vina Alberdi. The youngest vintage available on the 904 is the 2009. Some people actually prefer the Vina Alberdi to the bigger gun 904 and 890 wines because it is less expensive and because it sees less oak during aging (therefore less vanilla flavor on the nose and palate). If I’m only having one heavily oaked wine in the night and it is with a rich beef dish, it tends to bother me less. Last year I had the 2007 904 with a ribeye at home and it was great, though the buttery oak seemed to go with that meal. You might also try the Vina Ardanza which is around $30-35 retail. It is between the Alberdi and the 904 in terms of oak and aging. The 2008 Vina Ardanza has been out for some time, not sure if they are planning to release the '09 or '10 soon.

That is to say, LRA provides pretty good value for money anywhere in the range.

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agree that LRA, and Rioja in general, is great value. those gran reservas are beasts when young, it looks like they can go for decades effortlessly. Great posts, guys.

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Update 1:

One of our best meals we’ve had in recent years has been at Californios. Since our last visit, Chef-Owner Val M. Cantu and his staff have been awarded 2 Michelin Stars (up from 1), and given the quality of our previous meal, it certainly felt deserved. We couldn’t wait to return to see what new creative dishes Chef Cantu would be preparing.

As before, there is no signage on the outside, and once you step inside: Relaxed, quiet, with a pleasant soundtrack as “Under Pressure” from David Bowie & Queen greets you. There’s a small murmur, but nothing like the echo chamber loudness that plagues most of our local L.A. “hot restaurants” nowadays.

(Complimentary) 2000 Alfred Gratien Champagne Brut Millésimé:

Our meal begins with a complimentary pour of the 2000 Alfred Gratien Champagne. The effervescence gives way to honey and fruity notes, but nothing cloying. It woke up my palate. :slight_smile:

When you’re seated, every guest is now presented with a personalized menu of the evening’s tasting menu, for you to take home (with the date and your name printed on the first page, welcoming you - a nice touch).

Agua Fresca - Kiwis (Brokaw Ranch (Santa Paula, California)) + Fresh Young Coconut Juice:

A touch of tart, followed by sweetness; refreshing! :slight_smile:

Taquito de Trucha (Peruvian Purple Masa, Smoked Mount Lassen Trout Mousse, Fire Roasted Carrot and Dill):

Visually stunning, Chef Cantu’s Taquito de Trucha engages your senses immediately with this dish. We couldn’t stop staring at this dish, that’s how visually arresting it was.

Taking a bite, incredible! :heart:

The crispiness from the Peruvian Purple Masa exterior, this ridiculous luscious, smooth mouthfeel as the Smoked Mount Lassen Trout Mousse hits your tongue, and complemented perfectly by the Fire Roasted Carrot and a delicate kiss of Dill! :blush: (@Dommy @PorkyBelly and others, this isn’t like any “Taquito” I’ve ever had before, creative, delicate, delicious.) :slight_smile:

Taro Root Croquette (filled with Queso Oaxaca, set in a Mole Rojo with Crema):

The Taro Root Croquette is fresh-fried, hot, crunchy on the outside, and then you get this wonderful smooth mash, almost creamy interior with the Mole Rojo adding just enough of a unique accent! :slight_smile:

Black Barley “Chicharron” (with Liwa Goat Cheese (Tomales Farmstead Creamery), Fermented Habanero Pepper Salsa):

Absolutely outstanding! :heart:

Besides showcasing a wonderful creativity - taking Black Barley and making it into a crispy “Chicharron” - the flavors that Chef Cantu and his staff are developing here are flavors we’ve never tried before! It’s crunchy, lightly nutty, clean and light (never feeling like it was fried), and the Liwa Goat Cheese and Fermented Habanero Pepper Salsa was like the ultimate Party Dip from Heaven! :heart:

Hokkaido Sea Urchin in a Crispy Yuca Shell (Whipped Brokaw Avocado Mousse with Pine Nuts, Lime Caviar, Serrano Glaze):

Great idea, but the Hokkaido Uni was a touch fishy. :frowning: After the initial fishiness, the rest of the bite was creamy and sweet.

(In Memoriam of Mexican Chef Patricia Quintana)
Chilapita (Dungeness Crab, Radishes in the colors of the Mexican Flag, and Delfino Cilantro. Topped with Golden Ossetra Caviar):

In honor of the passing of Mexican Chef Patricia Quintana, Chef Cantu has prepared a Chilapita, which they mention is a rare regional dish from Guerrero, Mexico. I’m not quite sure what a traditional Chilapita is supposed to taste like (perhaps our Mexican cuisine experts can chime in (@Dommy and others)), but I loved the sweetness of the Dungeness Crab, along with the crispiness of the Green Masa Shell, then touch of Salt and Cilantro notes as well.

Tetela (made from Hickory King Masa, filled with Wild Hedgehog Mushrooms, House Mushroom Mole and Fermented Radishes):

Our friend geeked out for a moment, saying this must be Chef Cantu’s hidden tribute to The Legend of Zelda (game), but I just thought it was delicious. :slight_smile:

The Tetela is a triangular Masa pocket, and it was served nice and toasty hot, deeply earthy and herbal. I loved the Hoja Santa (Mexican Pepperleaf) combined with Fermented Radishes and the Blue Trumpet Mushroom Mole was incredible! :blush:

Bacalao Taco (Line Caught, Wild Black Cod, Secret Batter, Baja Sauce, Bitter Chicories and Key Limes, Sourdough Tortilla):

For many of us on this board, experiencing a mouth-watering, stunning, and outstanding bite of food is what we’re searching for and hope to share with others. Such is the case here:

Is it the crispy “Secret Batter” that gives this seemingly simple Fish Taco this incredible crunch and interesting flavor? Is it the wonderfully seasoned Bacalao (using local, line caught, Wild Black Cod)? Is it their incredible Baja Sauce that puts to shame pretty much every single Salsa or Sauce I’ve ever had on a Fish Taco?

Or perhaps is it the Sourdough Tortilla? Yes, Chef Cantu is so dedicated in his tribute to California and Mexico and the city that his restaurant resides in, that he wanted to pay tribute to San Francisco’s Sourdough Bread heritage in creating his own Sourdough Tortilla(!). :open_mouth: He spent years developing the starter for it.

Or perhaps it’s the interplay of all of those elements, along with a bit of the Bitter Chicories and a touch of bright Key Lime.

Whatever the case it was the:

HIGHLIGHT OF THE EVENING! :heart: :heart: :heart:

Yah, forget Ricky’s. Forget Guerrilla Tacos. This is the most incredible Fish Taco I’ve ever tried! :blush: (@Ns1 @J_L @ipsedixit @BradFord @PorkyBelly @A5KOBE @Sgee @beefnoguy and others.)

I was literally salivating while eating this Bacalao Taco. The Sourdough Tortilla was incredible (something I’ve never tried before), and all of the flavors together made this one example of what “umami” might be. :blush:

Hielo (Fresh Cactus Pear Sorbet, Hot House Rhubarb, Fresh Shiso and Shiso Oil):

Herbal, earthy and clean tasting. This was the palate cleanser and “intermission” before our next round of courses started.

Tres Frijoles (Mousse made with Royal Corona Beans (Rancho Gordo), Moro Beans and Raisins Paste, Dried Cranberry Beans from this Summer. Finished with Reserve White Sturgeon Caviar):

We loved the exploration of 3 different kinds of Frijoles (Beans). I really liked the Cranberry Beans mixed with the Fermented Pearl Onions, Ancho Chile, and the smooth, silky Royal Corona Beans Mousse. Similar to the exacting nature of Saison’s world-class kitchen, Chef Cantu and staff worked with a Caviar producer to select and create their own Reserve Caviar (using special Housemade Seasoned Salt that Californios provided).

Ceviche of Buri Toro (Wild Yellowtail Belly) from Toyosu, Tokyo, Japan (Seafoam Green Ceviche Liquid from Jalapeno and Lemon Balm):

An incredible new interpretation for Ceviche from Chef Cantu and team! :heart: The Buri Toro (Wild Yellowtail Belly) from Toyosu Fish Market (the new replacement for the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market) in Tokyo, Japan was so bright, fresh, luscious, more enjoyable than Ohtoro in many ways, fatty but still with some pleasing meaty qualities. :blush:

I loved the fresh ground Shiso Leaves, Jalapenos and Lemon Balm and Olive Oil (ground by mortar and pestle fresh for each dish that goes out), which accented the Buri Belly without overpowering it.

A Sope Based on Recent Analysis of Fossilized Aztec Masa (Charred Tomatillo folded into the Oaxacan Green Masa, Winter Broccoli Salsa and Smoked Trout Roe. Preserved Meyer Lemon and Mustard Seed Flowers for Garnish):

Gorgeous plating and presentation. The initial bite seems salty from the burst of salinity from the Smoked Trout Roe, but then you bite down further and get the Oaxacan Green Masa with Charred Tomatillo, which instantly mellows out the salt, and together, you get this incredible harmony! :blush:

Just the thought of this dish coming about because Chef Cantu and his team were looking into Fossilized Aztec Masa findings and them paying tribute is a testament to the detail-oriented nature of the kitchen.

Seared Pescado Asado of Bluenose Madai (in a Simple Broth of Charred Ginger, Red Bell Pepper and Fish Bones. Highlighting Winter Citrus):

I could see this dish being misunderstood by diners not paying attention to the server introducing the dish, or by not engaging with the dish properly.

When eaten by itself, the Pescado Asado of Sea Bream features a salty, crispy Fish Skin and tender, flaky, perfectly cooked meat. It might be interpreted as basic or mundane.

But there’s a reason the Chef introduced this dish, pointing out the Blood Orange, Pomelo and Cara Cara Orange. There’s a reason each of the 3 Citruses are beautifully and prominently presented in this dish:

Taking a bite of the Grilled Sea Bream with the Blood Orange and a sip of the Smoked Fish Bone Broth, and the flavor completely changes! There’s a beautiful balance of flavors and it is DELICIOUS! :heart:

We excitedly took a bite of the Pomelo with the Pescado Asado next, and it, too, totally changed the flavor. And not in the obvious way of that it’s “just Pomelo juice” with the Fish. No, something fundamentally changed when all of these elements came together. It was also delicious! :open_mouth:

Finally, the Cara Cara with the Smoked Fish Bone Broth and Sea Bream was also a success and the flavors changed yet again in a distinct way. Brilliant! :blush:

Pato en Mole Manchamantel (Barbacoa Duck Breast from Liberty Farms (Sonoma, CA), with Grilled Hawaiian Pineapple, Plantain Bread and Sapote Butter):

Featuring a 10 Day Aged Duck, it is juicy, beautifully cooked. We enjoyed Chef Cantu’s version of Mole Manchamantel (one of the seven mother Moles of Oaxaca). Ancho Chile and a sweet, spicy note worked well with the Aged Duck.

Their freshly-baked Plantain Bread with Sapote Butter was amazing by itself! Piping hot, freshly baked, high quality Bread and a Housemade Butter? Seriously delicious by itself! :heart:

Caldo de Trufa (Truffle Broth) (Black Truffles from Spain, Dried Porcini Mushrooms, Chilhuacle Negro):

Earthy, fragrant from the Black Truffles, but also really satisfying. There was a real spicy heat coming from this Caldo de Trufa Broth, from the Chilhuacle Negro Chile, which we’d never tried before. I loved the nuanced flavors here. :blush:

Carne Asada (30 Day, Dry Aged Ribeye from Dairy Cows in Petaluma. Foraged Chanterelle Mushrooms, Grilled Deglet Noor Dates (Flying Disc Ranch). Nasturtium, Garlic Chives, Finished with a Mushroom and Chile Chipotle Meco Jus):

Chef Cantu mentions that in gaining the 2nd Michelin Star, he wanted to try to use less showy or expected luxurious ingredients, so he dropped Grade A5 Wagyu from the menu in search of something different and less ostentatious. This was something @beefnoguy @BradFord and others have been discussing with the return of Michelin to L.A. (how kitchens might try and play up to Michelin inspectors).

Here, Chef Cantu was saying he’s trying to not do that; a nice sentiment.

However, the 30 Day, Dry-Aged Ribeye from Dairy Cows in Petaluma are just too lean. Even with a Ribeye cut, and a beautiful medium-rare doneness, there’s a reason Beef from Dairy Cows isn’t as sought after or prized as other breeds. :frowning: It’s a good sentiment, but in this case, the Beef is too lean and on the chewier side.

The Chanterelle Mushrooms and finishing Mushroom Sauce were also too salty. The one miss of the evening.

(Personally, I’d rather Chef Cantu drop Caviar from the menu, and keep A5 Wagyu.)

Time for Dessert!

Cornetes made from Wild Huckleberries (Foraged from the hillsides of Crescent City, California) (Kenne Goat Cheese from Tomales Farmstead Creamery, Marshall’s Farms Orange Blossom Honey, Makrut Lime and Sweet Alyssum Flowers):

I loved the “Huckleberry Glass” made from Wild Huckleberries, which gave this a crispy bite. It was lightly tart and funky (from the Goat Cheese) and yet sweet as well.

A Traditional Flan (made with Vanilla Pompona (the rarest of all Vanillas), from the birthplace of all Vanillas, Papantla, Veracruz, Mexico; with Pecan Caramel):

Seriously.

Ridiculous! :heart: :heart:

Silky, airy, delicate, this has to be one THE best Flan I’ve ever eaten in my life! :blush: :heart:

There was a real, distinct, aromatic Vanilla flavor coming through each bite! Wow. The plating showed off Chef Cantu’s playful side. :wink:

Apple Empanada (Made with Aztec Fuji Apples (Hidden Star Orchards), Mexican Crema Ice Cream, with Marshall Farms Honey, California Fennel Pollen):

Another outstanding Dessert! :blush: I loved the piping hot Apple Empanada, which wasn’t too sweet, and a perfect match with the Mexican Crema Ice Cream.

Dulces (Heirloom Tierra Vegetables Popcorn and Milk Chocolate Bonbon. Coconut and Venezuelan ‘Araguani’ Bonbon. Apple Oblea with Dulce de Leche, and a Digestivo of Lustau Royal Vermouth and Pomegranate Juice (Hidden Star Orchards)):

They were all fantastic; truly outstanding little Dulces to finish off the meal (not just a throwaway “Mignardises” like some other fancy restaurants might just give as an afterthought), but the standout would have to be:

Their “Popcorn Tea” Dark & White Milk Chocolate Bonbon. When you bite into this Bonbon, it bursts open with a “Popcorn Tea” liquid center, which is fragrant and reminds you of Popcorn, but also balanced by a bitter Dark Chocolate and White Chocolate combo. :heart:

Service was ridiculous: In a recent FTC discussion on service (@TheCookie and others), the level of professionalism at Californios (and most SF fine dining restaurants) puts to shame anything in L.A. (and I’m a So Cal native). Every course was perfectly paced. Dishes and utensils quietly, stealthily removed with as little intrusion as possible. You never had to wave your hand for anything. There were Captains and Porters around the restaurant, observing all guests and tables. I once turned my head looking for someone to ask a question about one of the ingredients in the dish that was presented, there was a Captain near us who quietly approached us within two seconds of me turning my head looking for someone.

Everyone there looked like they wanted to be there and took their job seriously, as a professional, as if it was their career. The personalized menus each guest is given, has a page listing every member of the Californios Staff. They take pride in their service and there’s never any hovering either. Just another level entirely.

Californios has progressed and improved quite nicely since earning its 2nd Michelin Star and since our previous meal. Chef-Owner Val M. Cantu and his team continue to impress with some of the most creative, inventive and yet down-to-earth dishes paying homage to the cuisine of Mexico and California.

I’m still thinking about standouts like the Taquito de Trucha (Peruvian Purple Masa, Smoked Mount Lassen Trout Mousse, Fire Roasted Carrot and Dill); the Black Barley “Chicharron” (with Liwa Goat Cheese (Tomales Farmstead Creamery), Fermented Habanero Pepper Salsa) - probably one of the best “Chips & Salsa” I’ve ever had :slight_smile:, and of course the Bacalao Taco (Line Caught, Wild Black Cod, Secret Batter, Baja Sauce, Bitter Chicories and Key Limes, Sourdough Tortilla) and many others.

There is nothing like this in L.A., in terms of food or service, which is a tragedy, but it remains one of the brightest stars in San Francisco, and reason enough to visit.

Californios
3115 22nd Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Tel: (415) 757-0994

http://www.californiossf.com/

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Very nice @Chowseeker1999!

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Thanks @TheCookie. I think this is a place you’d really enjoy the next time you’re up in SF. A really special evening. :slight_smile:

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I love Californios! The missus likes it more than Manresa, Benu, or TFL.

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@Chowseeker1999. Thanks for sharing, the meal looks amazing!

Wonder how Californios compares to the heavy hitters in Mexico city like Pujol, Quintonil etc?

Hi @Sgee,

Thanks. :slight_smile: Have you been to Californios yet? Or did you try Pujol and Quintonil?

Unfortunately never been to any of them.

The only “fancy” Mexican dinner I’ve had so far is Taco Maria. I tried to book the Pujol pop-up dinner earlier this month at Cosme, however the reservations were literally gone in 60 seconds :pleading_face:

I believe Californios has hosted the chefs from either Pujol and/or Quintonil for collaborative dinners in the past, and Chef Cantu has also traveled to Mexico to dine and/or collaborate there as well.

Californios has an absolutely incredible team, and they make it look so effortless throughout dinner and have fun while doing so, and appear passionate and energetic. I’ve been once or twice when Chef Cantu was not there, and the current chef de cuisine David Yoshimura is amazing at what he does (his past experience is quite impressive), in addition to the rest of the kitchen staff and chef de partida, and delievered a world class dining experience. It looks like the previous sommelier Wendy Shoemaker has left (she was awesome too). Definitely world class service; they really give you personal attention and care, and it doesn’t come across as pretentious, no stuffiness, and very very genuine. Plus their interactions are very enjoyable especially if you also engage them and try to pick their brain on wine, sourcing, techniques, pairings, flavors etc.

Pretty much most of the major Californios staff (including kitchen folks) have their wine somm certifications, so they are already thinking about how food and wine go together. That is quite an accomplishment for the restaurant.

There was one time they couldn’t get uni, so they substituted it with toro (and it was not a great piece). Glad you got Hokkaido uni, mine was Santa Barbara when it was available.

Kudos to Chef Cantu for trying to use 30 day dry aged rib eye, too bad it was too lean and chewy. When they did buffalo, squab, a very specific breed of lamb when it was in season, as the animal protein course, it blew away any A5 they tried to use before. Did you give the management feedback about the beef being too dry? We want them to improve and they would be more than happy to listen.

Looking forward to when I return again next!

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Hi @beefnoguy,

Well said! :slight_smile: Yes, the service at Californios is so good; truly world-class, and not stuffy nor hovering, etc.

Yah, we ended up emailing the restaurant afterwards. That was the only miss of the night, even though it was well cooked (as you can see in the pic).

And thanks for pointing out their Chef de Cuisine, I just looked and saw that he served at Michelin 3 Star Ryugin in Tokyo (impressive), as well as Asador Etxebarri (Spain).

Thanks for the rec again. :slight_smile:

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