Cala is the San Francisco restaurant by noted Mexico City chef Gabriela Camara (Contramar), and it’s opening people’s eyes to what Mexican food can and should be.
It definitely opened mine.
My friends know my often-quoted complaint about Mexican food: To me, it always seems to be the same basic ingredients (meat, beans, rice, tomatoes) served in different packages (tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc.). So it’s not often my go-to cuisine when deciding to eat out. Even dining at upscale Mexican restaurants like Berkeley’s Comal or Oakland’s Calavera didn’t sway my opinion.
But I’m always willing to broaden my horizons. I decided to check out Cala because it’s been buzzing ever since it opened in the Civic Center/Hayes Valley area last September. (Just last month Food and Wine Magazine named it one of the 10 Restaurants of the Year for 2016.) I went for a weeknight dinner last week with my niece Margot, who actually loves Mexican food.
The space is away from all the restaurants on Hayes Street, but close to a lot of the Civic Center venues such as the Davies Symphony Hall, Opera House, and SF JAZZ Center. Inside, it’s an elegant-but-casual space with bronze globe lighting, and white tablecloths covering wooden tables and chairs that were more beach shack appropriate.
New spin on pisco
Margot was running a few minutes late, so I waited at the busy bar and ordered a Pisco Vera ($13), Cala’s version of a Pisco Sour but made with Capurro pisco, fresh citrus with hibiscus (giving the drink a pink color), aloe and egg white foam. It was a little sweeter than a Pisco Sour, but not overly so. There are also other specialty cocktails highlighting mezcal, and a nice wine list with bottles coming primarily from California, Italy and Spain.
Once we were seated, our waiter gave us a thorough description of almost all the items on the menu. Camara continues her reputation of seafood dishes by adding a lot of seafood options, including a halibut ceviche verde to a main course of rockfish a la talla that serves two.
We ordered three appetizers that were all seafood, starting with Margot’s favorite, the grilled oysters with squash blossoms and morel mushrooms (half a dozen for $28). The squash blossoms added color to the plump oysters, but it was the blending of the morels that added a bit of funky-savory flavor to the oysters.
My favorite dish of the night was the trout tostadas with chipotle, avocado and fried leeks as garnish ($16). Four tiny tostadas came on a plate, but they were packed heaping high with raw marinated trout chopped into tiny cubes. I didn’t realize the trout would be served raw, but I totally enjoyed it (I love sushi) because of the balanced flavors and meatiness of the fish meat, set off by the amazing crunch of the tostada.
Overall, Cala’s pricing can seem a bit on the high end, such as what I decided was the splurge order of our dinner: the abalone and oyster aguachile with sea beans and trout roe. For $27, you get two abalone shells filled with chopped abalone, sea beans and trout roe. It was one of the most beautiful plates I’ve seen all year, and the abalone was luxuriously tender. It really did feel like I was eating $13.50, or maybe a bit more.
Options for the main entrees seemed a bit all over the place, from a plate of little gems and nopales with beans for $18 to rockfish for two at $42. Because I love tamales (that is probably the only Mexican food I do crave), I tried the mussel tamal with chile serrano and leeks ($16), which was a huge tamale wrapped in banana leaves. The tender tamal cornmeal wrapped around mussels that were still in their shells. The overall dish was well seasoned, but the flavor wasn’t as complex as others.
Margot wanted shrimp so she ordered the dock shrimp al ajillo, $24, which was a huge platter of fresh head-on shrimp (that seemed on the small side). She enjoyed how the shrimp was cooked, especially when she dipped it in the accompany ajillo sauce that had a mild spicy level.
We ended our meal with a palanqueta dessert plate ($9). Palanqueta is a Spanish type of brittle (or similar to a thin rice crispy treat) that had a fresh nutty flavor from the sesame and pepita seeds, sitting on top of two scoops of house-made chocolate ice cream, a rich and distinctive Mexican chocolate that was a perfect ending to our night.
Side note: Cala also runs a standing-room only taco stand in its alley on the weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. if you want a taste of Cala’s flavors but without the big price tag.
The last bite
I love when restaurants open my eyes to a certain cuisine, and Cala has made me look at Mexican food in a whole new way. Yes, there are tostadas and quesadilas on the menu, but they’re combined with fresh, local ingredients that go beyond beans and rice. It’s a modern interpretation of Mexican food that’ll have you salivating for more.
The rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Cala, 149 Fell Street (between Van Ness and Franklin), San Francisco. PH: 415.660.7701. Open for dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; and weekend brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Note: 20 percent service charge is automatically added to the check. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.calarestaurant.com
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