A great multi-course meal is like a great musical album. The whole experience has to flow. Each course builds on the one before. An item near the end might riff on one from the beginning. A few tracks stand out, but the whole surpasses the parts.
Californios has incredible flow. From the bites at the start to the snacks at the finish, this place brings rhythm. It's a ten-ish course tasting menu of food that shares dish names with simple Mexican food (menudo, queso), but goes way beyond in innovation and execution.
Example: "frijoles." At a normal Mission Mexican joint, this is a side of pinto beans tacked onto your enchilada. Here, it's a three-bean soup-puree that packs incredible flavor. It changed our conception of what mere LEGUMES can achieve.
Second example: "pollo." Typically, roasted taco filling, or a nice chicken leg sauced with mole. Here? A chicken broth steeped for five days, transmogrified into perhaps the most chicken-y chicken soup for the chicken soul in existence.
In short, this meal delivers what you're hoping for when you drop $100+: an unimpeachable roster of hits, with a few absolutely unforgettable dishes mixed in.
So what about the restaurant itself? A random storefront in the Mission is transformed into an intimate, but still relaxed experience. The decor feels pricey, but you never forget you're in the heart of the city. And they play albums — full albums! Our meal was scored by the original XX album, played in order, followed by The Weeknd. If we come back and "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" is on, it may be time to ascend to food/music nirvana.
Californios is, by far, the most fun and delicious upscale meal we've had in San Francisco. If you're bringing parents or Saison regulars, they might not agree — the location is off the beaten path, and the food doesn't employ the most decadent ingredients imaginable. But for everyone else, this should be atop your hit list, for a date, an anniversary, or just a random, incredible night out on the town.
This section doesn't really matter, because you'll take what you get. But here's some hits.
A ridiculous lineup. Trout-roe taquitos. Tomatoes topped with caviar. Oysters adorned with the finest. Pay attention, because these bites be crazy.
"Menudo" in the sense that there's some broth, with lime. The rest is sushi-grade fish with perfect garnish. Insanely fresh flavors.
DAMN, beans are much better than we realized. Beans-on-beans-on-beans are the future of fine dining, we tell ya. Possibly our favorite of the night.
The only competitor would be this. Apparently chicken flavor was steeped in chicken juice with chicken pieces to achieve maximum chicken potential. The chicken potency reached heretofore unheard-of levels.
Fatty as hell — a perfect cut of lamb at this point (late) in the meal. We loved it and devoured it instantly.
There were many other desserts, but this shot of cinnamon-almond milk was perhaps the best. Could we start putting these in cups and selling them on the streets?