View of the bar area at Cala.

View of the bar area at Cala.

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.

Grilled oysters at Cala via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Grilled oysters with squash blossoms and morel mushrooms, $28

Pisco Vera at Cala via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Pisco Vera, $13, Cala’s version of the Pisco Sour, is made pink with added hibiscus

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.

Trout tostadas at Cala via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Love this dish of trout tostadas with chipotle, avocado and fried leeks ($16)

Abalone and oyster aguachile at Cala via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Pricey and beautiful dish of abalone and oyster aguachile with sea beans and trout roe, $27

Splurge dish
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.

Mussel tamal with chile serrano and leeks $16

Mussel tamal with chile serrano and leeks $16

Dock shrimp al ajillo at Cala via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Dock shrimp al ajillo, $24

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.

Palanquenta at Cala via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Palanquenta is a brittle served on top of house-made chocolate ice cream, $9

View of the open kitchen at Cala

View of the open kitchen at Cala

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.

Cala Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

10 Responses to A Review of Modern Mexican at Cala in San Francisco

  1. Brenda Ton says:

    What a glowing review! The food looks fantastic, I’ll have to check this out.

    • Ben Ben says:

      Thanks Brenda, I didn’t go in thinking I would be so glowing, but as I described the food and recalled the flavors, they were all so on point. Of course, nothing’s perfect. I did feel the front of house was a bit inattentive (I sat at the bar waiting and no one came to tell me where my table was after my niece arrived, and they told my niece they didn’t have my reservations after I checked in just a few minutes earlier) and the high cost for some dishes make it a pricey affair, but at the end of the day the food made me forget about all that because it was so enjoyable, so that’s why the glowing review. 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience – can’t wait to try it! P.S. I love how you always have an open mind 🙂

  3. Carolyn Jung says:

    That’s definitely on my must-list places to try. Especially after going to Californios, another modern Mexican restaurant that really opened my eyes to how surprising Mexican cuisine can be.

  4. Sandy says:

    yum, I love Mexican seafood dishes and ended up making reservations for brunch for our birthday/anniversary this weekend. I hope they have that abalone aguachile! Glad you finally found a style of Mexican cuisine that you like. p.s. having problems posting this comment from my macbookpro…

    • Ben Ben says:

      Wow, that’s amazing you could get a reservations within a week! I didn’t see the abalone on their brunch menu but you have to get the trout tostadas and I saw suckling pig! Please eat that for me!

  5. Sandy says:

    Yay, it worked! Did you guys eat the shrimp with the shells on, or did you have to shell them?

    • Ben Ben says:

      We were going back and forth about the shrimp and how to eat it, LOL. The shrimp was so small and young, that the skin seemed thin so at times you could just bite through them since they were flash fried. But I would peel them off after pulling off the head. So I think depends on how you typically eat shrimp, but yes, these shrimp had the heads and shells on.