If you are up on your American history, you know that California was once part of Mexico and the state boasts one of the largest Mexican populations in the country. Playing off of those two ideas, Val Cantu, chef and owner of Californios, the San Francisco restaurant in the Mission that has garnered some serious buzz, has created an inspired and modern interpretation of the many flavors and ingredients that hail from Mexico and have been embedded in California’s culinary landscape.
Recently honored as one of Food and Wine‘s Best New Chefs for 2017, Cantu’s resume began at Uchi in Texas — where he’s from — with stages at Saison and Benu in San Francisco. After an official move to California, he rose to sous chef at Sons & Daughters, but left the post behind for an opportunity to stage at Enrique Olvera’s Pujol. There, the desire to open Californios began to crystallize. Conceived and honed through a series of pop-ups around the Bay area, Cantu’s vision is vastly different than other modern Mexican menus currently being served in the U.S. It’s also better. His demeanor while overseeing his kitchen during service is rigid and meticulous; his food is wildly unique, playful, and flavor forward. Cantu marches to his own drum and it’s clear that Cantu’s give no fucks attitude is serving him well; after opening Californios, a Michelin star soon followed.
Partial responsibility for Cantu’s success is a respectful lineage rooted in the restaurant industry and he nods to that at Californios. His family is part Venezuelan, part Mexican. The Cantu family, in addition to owning a Mexican restaurant, used to make tortillas for sale, so both tortillas and masa are essential parts of the Californios menu. Like each plate’s attention to small details, Cantu’s sourcing is equally important. Santa Rosa’s Tierra Farms grows four kinds of heirloom corn which result in the four different masas — blue, green, black and red — that are featured throughout the meal. The only restaurant in the Bay area using these various masas, they create standout dishes rooted in Cantu’s heritage, and enhance an already inspired menu. Cantu’s proud of this, “You’re not going to find any of the local taquerias using these masas.”
Since he opened Californios two years ago, Cantu’s dining room has always been tasting menu only. Though they started with five courses (for $57), the current iteration of the Californios tasting is 16 courses plus a starter beverage — which was a seasonal rhubarb soda inspired by Fanta on our visit — and digestif (for $157). The beverage pairings, done by Cantu’s able and talented sister-in-law Charlotte Randolph, are additional but worthwhile, comprised of both wine and beer from Austria, France, and California.
Dinner at Californios, which takes place in a funky, all-black dining room is an intimate affair. The 30-seat space, anchored by eight to 10 tables and a six-seat chef’s counter, is enhanced by camel colored leather banquettes, black leather placemats and a variety of black clay, glass and porcelain serving vessels. Art deco-style chandeliers dimly light from overhead and Zalto stemware is changed out intermittently by Raldolph’s team. A Michelin marshmallow man sits atop a shelf of A-list cookbooks. Colorful modern art pops off the walls. A cool soundtrack of artists like Bruno Mars and Lana Del Rey give the space an upbeat vibe, and the overall effect is clubby swank, like you’re attending a cool friend’s dinner party, overseen by a friendly and impeccable staff. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Keith Richards holding court at a table, sitting next to the Obamas on date night, next to twenty-something foodsters spending their latest paycheck. It’s that kind of place: inclusively exclusive.
The entire operation whirls around the open kitchen/bar, so diners feel part of the action at all times. The host, Cantu himself, is perched at the end of the marble chef’s counter, overseeing it all with aplomb. He doesn’t crack a smile, carefully inspecting all plates before they are served, until the last ticket in (“LTI”) is called at 9 PM. Then, he seems to loosen a bit. And when he does finally smile, it brightens the room. Another job well done; another burst of satisfied diners. Humble, yet ever-focused, this end-of-service body language seems to suggest it’s all worth it. His personal Instagram handle is @therealvalmcantu, and it seems like at the end of the night, he morphs back into that dude. But, just until the next service. And…we’re okay with that.
Here, a look at what Cantu does through the plates that encompass his Spring 2017 tasting menu which we experienced on April 29, 2017.
Honoring his childhood, a flour tortilla has a permanent home on Californios’ menu. Those in Course 5’s flauta (above) are house-made and, to enrich the flavor profile of the tortilla, Cantu adds sourdough to the mix. The filling of the flauta changes, in this incarnation, the season’s first morel mushrooms made an appearance.
With a nod to the original settlement of San Francisco, which was called Yerba Buena, Course 10’s Yerba Buena Fruit Cup (below, right) is inspired by the many Mexican street stands throughout the country selling takeaway fruit cups. Changing seasonally, this one was made from apple stuffed with goat cheese – made by a friend of the restaurant who happens to be a lung surgeon that makes cheese in his spare time (!) – and hazelnuts. Those gorgeous plates seen below are limited edition Robert Mapplethorpe prints.
The Tres Frijoles dish (above, left) is another original plate on the Californios menu and, perhaps, Cantu’s signature. This earthy, fragrant, rich, and creamy ode to beans, a Mexican staple, is a bite of ingredient perfection. The bean trilogy is compromised of a Royal Corona bean mousse over fresh whole cranberry beans, in a broth made from moro beans. A shallot and garlic relish and fermented onions round out the dish. Topped with white sturgeon caviar from Sacramento and sprinkled with edible gold leaf, the presentation plate (made-to-order) alone is worth the price of the entire menu.
3115 22nd Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Price Fixe: $157. Additional wine pairing: $97.