“When I was cooking in fine dining, there was almost no one cooking with Mexican ingredients and treating them with the respect I thought they deserved,” says Californios chef and owner Val Cantu. “I thought [Mexican food] was just as worthy of treating with care and respect as any other cuisine.” Thanks to this attitude — and Cantu and his team’s dedication to honoring Mexican flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques — the San Francisco restaurant has maintained its two Michelin star status in the tire company’s California guide this year.
It all starts with fresh corn. Cantu likens the importance of his corn to that of quality sushi rice in a Japanese restaurant. “Corn is an amazing, delicious, and healthful ingredient that has become abused, over-farmed, and genetically modified to not a good place,” he says. “The goal of the restaurant is to preserve ... the vegetables that could be lost if no one is serving them.” Cantu’s chefs prep the corn for the nixtamalization process, which unlocks the vegetable’s nutrients, and prepares it for house-made masa designated for the tortillas in Californios’s taco course.
While the restaurant’s tacos pay homage to Mexican cuisine from various regions, Cantu and his team of star chefs also pride themselves on their inventiveness in the kitchen. “I really try to encourage and mentor a lot of my chefs on research and development, and creating,” Cantu says. “Creativity is something that’s like an exercise, you have to exercise it, you have to practice it, you have to work on it.” Cantu’s team flexes their creative muscles in dishes like puffed pieces of black masa topped with sea urchin, squab arabe tacos marinated in Lebanese spices, and grilled banana in savory dulce de leche sauce served with a dollop of caviar.
“We haven’t been traveling a lot, I haven’t been to Mexico as regularly as I have been,” says Cantu. “So really I miss those flavors, and a lot of the current menu right now is just flavor memories that we miss from traveling.”
See more of what the Californios team creates by watching the video above.