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Californios: Val Cantu’s Reinvention Of The Classics

Witten By: Katarzyna Tarabula

Photographed By: Rene Goldfarb-Ilyashov

Talented chefs give Mexican cuisine a new name by taking what’s best in the country’s rich culinary tradition and completely reinventing it. Sometimes, especially after a few drinks, nothing tastes better than Mexican street food, yet when looking for something more sophisticated — Californios is the place to go. A tiny restaurant located deep in the Mission conceals the fine cuisine of Chef Val M. Cantu. Inside you’ll find a perfect combination of old and new. Modern art and minimal esthetics are interspersed with chandeliers and elements characteristic of an upscale restaurant. The interior is mostly dark with a pop of colors in forms of vivid paintings adorning the walls.

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The restaurant’s interior, designed by the chef’s wife – Carolyn Cantu gives a hint of what shows up on the plates. Just like its design, the cuisine of Californios is a modern twist of dishes deeply rooted in Mexican tradition. Val Cantu grew up helping at his dad’s Mexican restaurant. Later he got a degree at a traditional four-year university and finally went back to cooking. Cantu has worked at Austin’s Uchi, San Francisco’s renowned Sons and Daughters and Pujol in Mexico City. Before opening a full-fledged restaurant, he ran a pop-up for a few years. Owning a restaurant was a logical next step rather than the ultimate goal for Cantu as he grew and kept developing his talent. As the chef states himself, he got into cooking because he simply enjoyed it, “It’s a job where you can be instantly satisfied. You get rewarded, you have the opportunity to be creative, you get to work with incredible ingredients, taste and eat, ” says Cantu.

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The chef offers his guests a fixed price tasting menu. That choice allows Cantu and his team more creativity and control. The tasting menu helps diners to experience a closer reflection of what the chef values. It not only guides but also tells a story throughout the progression of each flavor. What is even more surprising, guests are not able to see the menu until the very last minute of the experience. This provocative strategy is not a part of some “mystery” marketing as one may think. The explanation is quite logical and simple. The idea is that the chef is there to cook for his guests, while they can taste, eat and enjoy good company without any distractions, “It’s as if you were coming to my home and I’ve made dinner, ” explains Cantu. The menu resembles a postcard rather than a typical carte du jour. It comes in an envelope containing a unique illustration and the list of courses without revealing the ingredients.

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Cantu’s professional experience is reflected in the cuisine of Californios. Everything special to the Bay Area can be found in Val’s culinary creations. His clean esthetics and penchant for simplicity are strongly influenced by Japanese cooking and so is his signature interpretation of Aguachile. The chef deconstructed his version of the dish for us. The smoked Hamachi — in this case, a 3-year-old Yellowtail was sliced with Sashimi knives, which technically turned the dish into a Sashimi, rather than a traditional Ceviche. The dish reflects Cantu’s philosophy of simplicity and getting out the most depth and flavor out of the ingredients. The sauce consists of four seaweeds that are local as well as imported from Monterey and Japan. Cantu also adds seagrass from a local farm and obviously some Serrano peppers — essential in Mexican cuisine. A shallot, some basil, and a fresh cucumber are other components of Val’s Aguachile. The fish is smoked over alder wood for additional flavor before being sliced and put on the plate. The rest of the ingredients are simply put next to the fish, creating a simple yet mesmerizing composition.

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The aguachile was ready in only a few minutes, but the effect was truly captivating. Cantu decorated the dish with flowers, creating a savory composition of flavors and colors. The dish combines the richness of Mexican cuisine with Japanese simplicity. Behind these seemingly dangerous combinations lies a rather simple creative process. Californios philosophy is primarily seasonal. It’s all about taking the best products currently available on the market and bringing out all the flavors, which deserve to be highlighted. Next comes the texture, finally followed by the technique. Apparently peas are the star of this season so be prepared to taste some pea-flavored dishes! Californios is a Mexican restaurant, yet Cantu does not limit himself to one particular cuisine. It’s all about the ingredients and their natural flavors rather than creating something completely new and unexpected.

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Californios is still a relatively new place on San Francisco’s map yet it has already earned the respect among the city. The chef opens up to his guests by serving them food, which fully reflects his taste and philosophy. The authenticity, supported by knowledge and years of experience is what makes Californios special. A tasting menu accompanied by a careful selection of rare wines and is a great alternative to Mission’s legendary taquerias.

Val Cantu’s Top Five Ingredients

  1. Lemon
  2. French fleur de sel (sea salt)
  3. Olive oil
  4. Chicken stock for sauces
  5. Peppers, especially Serrano and Thai Chili

Cantu’s All-Time Favorite Dish

The Yerba Buena Fruit Cup, “It’s just a simple fruit salad composed of greens and vegetables that are super local, super seasonal and dressed in honey, lemon, olive oil and a little bit of chili. I think that dish is special because it’s a progression of a famous dish called Le Gargouillou by Michel Bras. This is our version of it, and it’s also meant to be an interpretation of a fruit cup that you would get on the streets of Mexico.”

Californios
3115 22nd St
San Francisco, CA 94115
415 757-0994
www.californiossf.com