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At Cala, Forget Everything You Think You Know About Mexican Food

Gabriela Cámara gives her native cuisine’s dramatic range the showcase it deserves.

SLIDESHOW 

A spread at Cala.

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Cala’s dining room.

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Orange shortbread.

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Spherical, spiny, and cloven open at the top, the sea urchin shell calls to mind a crash-landed space pod from a distant planet. In fact, it made its way from Half Moon Bay to Hayes Valley courtesy of a woman who has traveled even farther. Born and raised in Mexico and now based in San Francisco, Gabriela Cámara owns four acclaimed restaurants in Mexico City, including Contramar, which set her star ascendant nearly 20 years ago. Cala, her first stateside project, opened on Fell Street in late September; less than two months later, it was joined by Tacos Cala, a window selling tacos de guisados in an alley behind the restaurant. Though both projects opened without the fanfare that typically attends new work from a headline name, Cala is shaping up as an “it” place to eat—a restaurant of easy sophistication that feels familiar even as it breaks from Bay Area norms.

For all the versatility of Mexican cuisine, Mexican restaurants around San Francisco aren’t widely known for their dramatic range. Most tend to adopt one of a few forms: the humble taco shop, the chic cantina, the trend-surfing tequila bar. Cala exhibits elements of all those, but the sum of the parts elevates it well beyond them. Its built-for-sharing menu, while unfussy, is deceptively simple: This is a restaurant that doesn’t overreach but does take risks. Though a bar near the entrance pours high-end agave spirits, happy hour is not what keeps Cala humming. Long after your margarita buzz dissipates, the dining room maintains an electric air.

Like Contramar, Cala draws on sensibly sourced seafood. But whereas tuna tostadas are a Cámara trademark south of the border, the difficulty of getting a trustworthy tuna supplier in Northern California means that at Cala, trout has assumed tostada duty—and it proves more than adequate for the signature role. Glistening ribbons of its pink flesh are set atop a crisp quartet of miniature tortillas sprinkled with fried leeks; dotted, Seurat-style, with avocado; and splashed with chipotle mayo that lends a pleasant kick to every bite.

Pacific mackerel, meanwhile, swims in for Cala’s version of pescado a la talla, or butterflied, whole-grilled fish. The mackerel oozes with delicious oily sweetness, but it has a fiery side. Before being grilled, the fish, which is served with refried black beans, is rubbed with a parsley-based salsa that gently pushes the dish up the Scoville scale to a perfect level of palate-tingling heat.

Cala fills a soaring space that once housed an auto repair garage. The building retains its concrete features, but the walls have been washed white in the style of a sun-bleached Baja backdrop. Skylights smile above, and trellised vines fringe a dining room tricked out with a Meyer sound system that automatically adjusts the music according to the overall sound level. Cala is the first restaurant in the city so equipped, and what a novel concept it is: a place for those of us who still prefer conversing with our tongues rather than our thumbs.

When you first sit down, you’re greeted with a medley of pickled cauliflower and carrots, along with a tangle of vinegary shaved onions set aflame with habañeros. They spring from a kitchen that also knows its way around nixtamalization, which is an exotic term for soaking corn in lime as the first step toward producing tortillas. A stack of those tortillas is what you want—and what you get on the side when you order the huge whole-roasted sweet potato, its charred skin resembling the shell of a fossilized dinosaur egg. It’s accompanied by bone marrow salsa negra that’s been seasoned with garlic. Spread the salsa on a tortilla, pry off a chunk of sweet potato, and behold: What looks like a paleontological relic turns out to be a culinary find.

Even preparations commonly found around San Francisco make room for welcome twists. Kohlrabi lends a crunchy backbone to translucent slivers of halibut ceviche. A delicata squash–and–goat cheese salad, scattered with watercress, initially reads like a page from the Alice Waters playbook, but the sweet-and-spicy interplay of guajillo chili and pumpkin-seed brittle makes it clear that it follows no rules but its own. Then there’s the tamal de cazuela, which is contained within that podlike sea urchin shell. A spoon probed through the open hatch encounters a smooth and crunchy cornmeal bedding, spiked with leek and habañero relish and laden with a strip of creamy urchin. The capsule’s earthy, briny cargo is an otherworldly meeting of land and sea.

Not every item is so captivating. The squid and lingcod frito mixto lacks a certain spark, while an abalone dish is marred by the kitchen’s decision to bury the prized shellfish in a cloud of serrano foam. The foam tastes strangely sweet, almost like dessert—but if dessert is what you’re after, just order it instead.

You’ll be content with what Cala offers, including an orange shortbread with persimmon ice cream—or better yet, calabaza en tacha (squash cooked in light syrup) with yogurt ice cream, an inventive dish whose toasted-caramel notes somehow ring familiar. The same is true of Cala, a restaurant that takes you in a new direction, toward a place that feels like somewhere you were meant to be.


The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Cala

Halibut ceviche verde with kohlrabi, cilantro, and sorrel................................................$24
Tamal de cazuela with sea urchin and charred habañero and leek relish.....................$20
Delicata squash with goat cheese, watercress, palanqueta, and guajillo vinaigrette.......................................................................................................................$15
Pacific mackerel a la talla verde ....................................................................................$38
Sweet potato with bone marrow salsa negra .................................................................$19
Black cod mixiote with red chili adobo and collard greens.............................................$36
Calabaza with yogurt ice cream......................................................................................$9
TOTAL.............................................................................................................................$161

Cala
149 Fell St. (near Franklin St.), 415-660-7701
Three stars


Originally published in the January issue of
San Francisco

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