San Francisco's Only Mexican Tasting Menu Is Beautiful

San Francisco's Only Mexican Tasting Menu Is Beautiful

"People were getting upset, saying, ‘This is not enough food, it’s strange, it’s weird, it’s not Mexican. What the fuck is this?’” says chef Val M. Cantu of his restaurant Californios.
December 6, 2016, 7:00pm

If you take a look at chef Val M. Cantu's resume, you'll find a collection of stages at San Francisco's most lauded Michelin-starred restaurants, like Saison and Benu. But when the Texas native was approached to open his own concept, Cantu didn't want to do New American or French.

"I had done all of this fine dining, high-end dining, and it only made sense to come back to Mexican food," Cantu said. "My dad is Mexican, my mom is from Venezuela. I saw nobody was treating this cuisine with elegance and delicacy, really highlighting how special and complex it can be."

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Chef and owner Val M. Cantu in the Californios open kitchen.

Cantu left his sous chef post at Sons & Daughters to stage at Pujol in Mexico City before opening Californios, San Francisco's first Mexican-influenced tasting menu restaurant. Cantu co-owns the stunning 22-seat venture with his wife, Carolyn—who designed the contemporary art-filled restaurant and now works as maitre d'—and his sister-in-law, Charlotte Randolph, who does the beverage program.

The concept really shouldn't be new to the city. Mexican haute cuisine in the Bay Area dates back further than Cantu.

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Carolyn Cantu designed the contemporary art-filled restaurant.

"'Californios' was the name of the Mexican people in the area when it was part of Mexico," Cantu said. "I thought, This word is new to me but certainly other people will have heard it, but I was relatively wrong."

While Cantu studied the history of the region, he learned about the wealthy Mexican population of the Bay Area that had been in the San Francisco area before the United States took California. The gold rush brought an influx of foreign influences.

"There was this history in the 1800s of Mexican people incorporating French technique, pastas, different ingredients into this Bay Area cuisine, even all the way back then."

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The Californios Fruit Cup. Cantu displays some huitlacoche, a rare corn fungus often dubbed a "Mexican truffle."

But the Mexican take on foie gras seemed to die with the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, when American settlers took California from the Mexican government. "All that history gets washed away a little bit. I think that's a natural part of history, of colonization," Cantu said.

Some Mexican cuisine stayed on the American stage.

"Basically every cookbook that was released in the United States for Mexican cuisine was listing the exact same recipes that the other books were," Cantu said of the early 1900s. "It was this mass propagation of the exact same recipes."

Fast forward to modern-day San Francisco, and Mexican food still gets trapped inside of a limited parameter.

"A lot of perception of Mexican cuisine in America gets minimized to simple sauces, chips, and salsa—and those things are great, but there's so much more to explore, so many more exciting avenues to look at."

That minimizing could explain some of Californios' early struggles.

"We opened at $57, and the intention behind that was we were new, we knew we were new, and wanted to introduce ourselves," Cantu said. "But what you realize is that at $57, you can't serve a ton of food. People were getting upset, saying, 'This is not enough food, it's strange, it's weird, it's not Mexican. What the fuck is this?'"

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David Yoshimura rolls the restaurant's sourdough flour tortillas. "We've had a bread starter pretty much since we've opened. We incorporated a little bit of that starter into a standard tortilla recipe," Cantu said. Smoked oyster with finger lime caviar, cactus, and tetragonia spinach, served in custom ceramics by Austin-based artist Keith Kreeger.

With some momentum gained from the opening, the restaurant changed the seven-course menu to a nine-course one priced at $75, and continued to receive good and bad press.

"I get it—it's a weird thing, this forward-thinking Mexican. 'What is that? Who do these people think they are?'" Cantu said. "I'm very pale-skinned. People don't naturally look at me and think I'm Mexican. You try to take the positive things and focus on them, but a lot of times you just get upset by the negative things."

Cantu's early strategy to keep criticism at bay was simple.

"My philosophy from the beginning has always been: Let's make the food as good as we can make it. It has to be absolutely delicious because if it's not, then people will have room to talk shit," he said. "They'll be able to say look, not only was it weird, not only was it not Mexican, it wasn't even very good."

He added: "If it's delicious, if it's undeniably good, then people cannot stand up and shoot us down."

The plan worked, at least to the Michelin Guide scouts. Californios earned a Michelin star for 2016 and 2017.

Cantu believes it'll be a matter of time before we finally see the proliferation of fine dining through a Mexican lens.

"I think nobody's doing it yet just because it is relatively new," he said. "Of course there are people like [Alex] Stupak in New York and Cosme in New York, and you have Rick Bayless in Chicago. I think people are really open to it."