After my memorable Italy trip, I flew almost immediately to California for my law school’s five-year reunion (how time flies!). I had a chance to catch up with an old acquaintance in San Francisco during my stay. I still remember how horrible that day was; I was driving up to San Francisco from my temporary office in Palo Alto and the US-101N highway was shut down due to this stupid RV that caught fire. It took me 3.5 hours to finally arrive in San Francisco and I was quite upset and exhausted when I met the acquaintance at Cala. All my frustration completely went away after a fantastic meal at this Mexican restaurant opened by Gabriela Camara, a star chef in Mexico City who still owns a couple of well-known Mexican restaurants there even after relocating to the Bay Area recently. I really don’t remember having a better Mexican dinner in recent years; Cosme in New York City obviously comes to my mind, but I would give a slight nod to Cala.
What really struck me about Cala is how the kitchen puts together modern Mexican cuisine with California sensibility, focusing on freshness of ingredients and clean flavor. There is no meat dish in Cala, and in a Mexican restaurant, that may sound like an unacceptable blasphemy but I didn’t miss any single piece of meat. The famed trout tostadas with chipotle, avocado and fried leeks were absolutely wonderful with the way the ingredients worked together. Halibut ceviche, wrapped in kohlrabi, also had very balanced flavor that I didn’t really complain about the relative lack of citrusy sensation you typically see in ceviche dishes. Grilled oysters also displayed deeply satisfying flavor, and the mussel tamal with serrano and leeks had rustic quality to it that brings back Mexico’s rich, rural-driven culinary tradition to the modern world.
Instead of chicken or fish, the kitchen put together a tortilla dish with sweet potato and bone marrow salsa negra. It was a profoundly delicious dish, as the sweet potato was cooked to perfect texture and the hint of salsa negra really added another dimension to the potato on top. The only weak dish of the night was masa croquetas with queso fresco, corn and poblano as I was hoping they display more flavor. At the end of the night, it still didn’t matter. Even the desserts were outstanding. Flan that came with pomegranate had elegant but not overwhelming sweetness to it that I very much enjoyed, but I would give a slight edge to palanqueta with chocolate ice cream thanks to the delightful ice cream. What was remarkable about the meal at Cala was, even after sample all of these standout dishes, I didn’t feel bloated or guilty from too much calorie intake. Everything was cooked with affinity to nature, with carefully sourced local ingredients and consistent execution across the board in seasoning and plating.
Cala has long been a hot spot in San Francisco since it opened last year, so booking a reservation in advance is always highly recommended. The dining space is trendy and hip in décor and ambiance, making it ideal for casual dinners with friends and family (maybe a bit too loud for a date, though). There is full bar at the restaurant, and I very much enjoyed the mezcal-based bolvadier blanco here to complement the meal. I recently saw an article where SF Chronicle’s acclaimed food critic Michael Bauer posed a question whether Cala is the best Mexican restaurant in the U.S. I still need to make a pilgrimage to Texas and southern California before making that call, but I firmly believe that Cala absolutely needs to be in the conversation. I would totally be happy to come back and try more dishes here.
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 9.0/10
- Ingredients: 9.0/10
- Flavor: 9.0/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
Address: 149 Fell Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
Telephone: (415) 660-7701