Californios, San Francisco #TBT

I loooove dining alone.

To celebrate my 33rd birthday, I did just that.

I sat at the curved end of the bar closest to the entrance. The restaurant was cozy—fully occupied, but filled with maybe 20 guests. I was greeted by warm and friendly staff as well as a glass of champagne and a birthday note!

The M.O. of Californios was elevated, modern Mexican. What do you think of when you think of Mexican cuisine? Burritos bursting at the seams, tacos filled to the brim, baskets of tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole? Salt upon salt upon salt, sauce dripping down your fingers, everything spicy, street stands and loud, cramped shops filled with steam, smoke and sweat?

Californios will change your mind. Every dish in this 19-dish menu was a delightful, fun spin on everything you love about Mexican cuisine and none of the things you like less.

First, a shot of apple agua fresca to whet the appetite—bright, lightly sweet, fresh. Then a parade of little bites that wow and surprise your palate: cured wagyu chicharrón, crunchy soft shell crab on a handmade white corn tortilla and lobster in a black bean taco shell.

We all need to appreciate the thoughtfulness of including a few cold plates  mid-way through the meal that are refreshing and uncomplicated: a granité , a chunk of fresh heirloom tomato with a touch of flavored oil and a palate-cleansing ceviche with bits of coconut flesh.

Such refined and beautiful dishes! The black bean tamale was chewy and mild, a savory broth with tiny balls of tomato and a playful three-bean layered concoction (including bean foam) topped with caviar.

More than halfway through the meal and still not full. But here, it began to crescendo with hot, heavier, satisfying trout (complete with flawlessly crispy skin), carne asada-style wagyu short rib and lamb birria served with a stack of warm tortillas.

I’m no expert at wine pairings, but I enjoyed every glass. Each wine perfectly matched and enhanced the flavor of the food, instead of complementing it. I was totally fine with that.

Wine pairings:

  • Espuma de Piedro, MV Blanc de Blancs
    Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico
  • FX Pichler, 2014 Federspiel Riesling
    Wachau, Austria
  • Albert Boxler, 2015 Pinot Gris Reserve
    Alsace, France
  • A & G Fantino 2010 Cascina Dardi
    Barolo, Italy
  • Frank Milos, 2007 Stagnum
    Peninsula Peljesac, Croatia
  • Clos Guirouilh 2012
    Jurançon, France
  • Marcenco 2015 Pineto Brachetto d’Aqui
    Piemonte, Italy

Finally, to send me on my way, a strawberry ice with vanilla ice cream and a little digestif. From beginning to end, I was dining for 2.5 hours and stayed for three to enjoy my wines to the last drop.

THE VERDICT: Dinner at Californios is not cheap, but it’s absolutely worth the splurge. Go and observe a cuisine reimagined yet treated respectfully.

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