SFReview

Californios review image
8.9

Californios

$$$$415-757-0994
Hours:MONDAYClosed

Californios makes you feel like you’re in the front row of a Broadway theater. The cavernous dining room has high walls painted all black, dramatic lighting, and well-choreographed staff that move around the room like they share a single brain. And instead of that granola bar you snuck in your bag for intermission, you’ll be treated to an extravagant meal that’s a performance in its own right.

The Mexican fine dining restaurant is definitely not a casual place. Californios, which moved to SoMa in spring 2021 after six years in the Mission, does a 16-course tasting menu for $267 per person. It’s practically built for special occasions—the kind you break out your fanciest scarf for, or star ten times on your calendar with a bright red Sharpie.

You know you’re in for a special evening when you settle into your table and open the white envelope containing a 12-page booklet. It includes a directory highlighting the California farms, foragers, and other local businesses that supplied most of the ingredients, from the corn and masa to the wild mushrooms, plus a list of the staff and their roles. The rest is dedicated to the menu, which is split into small bites, larger savory dishes, and two dessert courses. Yes, you can follow along with the book as each course arrives, but the fun here is experiencing the thrill of each incredible dish flowing seamlessly into the next.

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Californios hits you with a stream of precisely-plated dishes that will rewire your brain. You’ve probably had chicharrones before, but have you had them topped with a cloud-like bed of truffle shavings that dissolve in your mouth like snow? And you might know what a grilled banana tastes like—until the Californios version arrives with a huge scoop of caviar and in a pool of savory purple dulce de leche.

The taco course, and our favorite round of the night, is where Californios really succeeds in taking familiar dishes and making them taste like something we’ve never had before. For example, the crispy-skinned grilled squab taco is tucked into a pillowy sourdough tortilla that feels distinctly San Francisco. And we’d gladly get stuck in a Russian Doll-esque loop if it meant we could eat the tlacoyo—stuffed with cranberry beans, melty Oaxacan queso, and wrapped in hoja santa—on repeat forever. You might never have tacos like these again—and that’s precisely why a dinner at Californios is one you’ll want to soak up every minute of.

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Despite Californios having the formal air of a black-tie charity auction, some parts of the night are straight up amusing, in the best way. You’ll do a double take when you hear The Lion Sleeps Tonight playing over the speakers as you dig into a bowl of hamachi aguachile. Your conversation will also be interrupted constantly by a steady stream of servers presenting and explaining new dishes and refreshing your tableware. But hearing about your friend’s latest work drama or their new litter of foster kittens can wait. You’re here for the show.

By the time the trio of bonbons and the choco taco with grape chamoy arrive, you’ll be making a mental list of friends you can convince to take you here on your next birthday or milestone celebration. That is, if you’ve somehow found a way to stop thinking about the spectacular production you just experienced. Don’t forget to give a standing ovation on your way out.

Food Rundown

Californios changes its menu regularly, but here’s a general idea of what you can expect.

Chilapita

A tiny masa chip is the base for the chilapita, a regional dish from Guerrero that arrives topped with a fat swirl of rich sturgeon cream and sturgeon caviar. And it tastes just as luxurious as it looks—a burst of creamy, salty flavor when you pop the whole thing in your mouth.

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Hamachi

Part of the ceviche course, the hamachi gets dressed up with thin slices of gooseberry and tiny leaves of sweet basil. It comes in bright orange habanero aguachile. Drink every last drop.

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Banana

This grilled banana is a fruit, you’ll tell yourself. Fruits are sweet. But then saltiness creeps in, courtesy of caviar and a purple dulce de leche that’s somehow savory. Confusion will give way to bliss—you’re eating a one-of-a-kind dish that’s making your brain short-circuit, in the best way.

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Squab Árabe

The taco course, which comes toward the end of dinner, is packed with hits. But this one, made with sliced grilled squab and a sourdough tortilla, is distinctly unique. Load it up with the lime-soaked onions, smoked crema, and salsa verde it comes with, and you have yourself some of the best few bites of the entire meal.

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Buñuelo

Dusted with sumac spiced sugar and resting on a bed of pear sorbet, sumac ice cream, and silky pepita butter, the buñuelo is the queen bee of all the desserts, and it shows. This is one you’ll be thinking about for weeks after.

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