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Have Tostada, Will Travel: Mexico City’s Gabriela Camara Comes to SF

Trout tostada at Cala (photo by Chloe List)

Trout tostada at Cala (photo by Chloe List)

For those of us who travel to eat, there’s an irrational compulsion to attempt to bring the best food experiences home. I say irrational because trying to recreate a culinary revelation had in another country—or another state for that matter—generally leads to wah wah wahhh (that’s the sound of disappointment). Or, at worst, the discovery of a treasured salami smuggled in from Tuscany, forgotten and now wretchedly molding in your suitcase.

That cold bottle of sake that you had at 2 am in a Tokyo izakaya will never taste as good in your living room. The pork floss you couldn’t get enough of in Taiwan now seems kind of weird. Your rendition of spaghetti alle vongole inhaled ecstatically at a restaurant on the Amalfi coast falls flat. Obsessive cooks, trying to fabricate food memories, will chase the right flour for the pasta dough, or the hunt down what they deem a close-enough variety of tiny clams. But, it’s never quite enough, because momentous eating experiences don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re enhanced by everything around you, which, when you’re traveling, is spiked with that addictive bit of lost in translation.

This isn’t to say you heed your own advice. Anyone who knows me or Joe has heard us wax on about Contramar, one of Mexico City’s most famous restaurants. In fact, we fell so madly in want with Contramar’s signature dish—a tuna tostada topped with a spicy chipotle aioli, buttery avocado, and crispy fried leeks—that we put it on our own menu as an homage.

The thing is, though the “tuna tostada Contramar-style” at Tacolicious is incredibly delicious, for me it will never taste like it did the first time we had it at Contramar, a sweeping lunch-only, Mexican seafood restaurant with white tablecloths and a swath of signature azure blue, buzzing with a well-heeled bunch of Mexico City’s who-who. The first time I took a bite of that tuna tostada, it tasted like the best thing I’d ever eaten—like my first taste of modern, urban Mexico.

The genius behind Contramar is the dynamic and stylish Gabriela Cámara, a celebrated restaurateur who has a number of establishments. Perhaps it was in the stars, but at the end of last year, Gabriela chose to move her family from Mexico City in order to open a Contramar-esque restaurant named Cala in Hayes Valley. I’ve been waiting excitedly for it to open, which it officially did last week.

Cala's beautiful interior (photo by Chloe List)

Cala’s beautiful interior (photo by Chloe List)

Of course, Joe and I, along with Mike and Pajo (Tacolicious’ new director of operations), were some of Cala’s first customers. We walked in just as the doors opened one evening, which meant the late-afternoon sun was still filtering through the skylights making the space feel even more lofty and beautiful then it is when the sun dips. Like Contramar, Cala has white tablecloths (a design element that’s gone the way of the dinosaur in San Francisco), upright wooden chairs, and that signature azure blue, now on the facade. A wall of green trellised plants make for the only real pop of color. Gabriela, her speech inflected with a pretty lilting accent, was there to greet people. Her young son was eating at the communal table with some family friends, and her father who lives in Mexico was visiting too.

We ordered the simple but deliciously tender two-bite sopes playeros with midnight black beans, smoky-sweet fire-roasted sweet potato with bone marrow salsa negra, an amazing ling cod salpicon with tomatillo, and, of course, Camara’s signature tostada, which at Cala is now made with raw trout instead of tuna. Maybe it’s the connection I will always have to Contramar—sort of like a first love—but that night, biting into the tostada, I was transported momentarily from San Francisco. I felt that joyous little spark of being somewhere different, somewhere new.

[Originally published on]


Mission High: The School, The Mural, and Now, The Book!

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Since we opened our Valencia Street location in 2011, all signs have pointed to Mission High.

It started with the mural. When the restaurant was under construction, Joe and I decided to ask our resident artist Paul Madonna to paint Mission High to go along our patio wall—after all, the school is the Mission District’s most beautiful and iconic landmark, not to mention the oldest comprehensive high school in the city. So Paul sketched and painted and blew it up to be wall-sized and our mural turned out to be amazing.

Note to self: Paul scribbled little words in the mural and one of them, on the grounds of Dolores Park, says “pot smokers.” Foreshadowing to my son’s future?

If it wasn’t enough to have an illustration of the high school as the backdrop of Tacolicious, last spring, our older son Silas was assigned by the public school lottery system to Mission High. While my heart said do it—it’s walking distance from our house and Pizzeria Delfina!—my mind wasn’t made up. Mission High is not a high ranking school; it’s the kind of place people like to call “up-and-coming.” On Great Schools—a popular site which ranks schools based on their test scores—Mission is given a 641 (API) and a 3 out of 10, while its community-based star rating is four out of five.

While I was waffling about this decision, as chance would have it, I invited Richard Carranza, the superintendent of the Unified San Francisco School District, in for lunch. In an effort to promote the Tacolicious School Project, I intended to bribe him with tacos. While polishing his plate, he told me his daughter was attending Mission High in the fall. He had great things to say about it. It was at that moment I decided fate had spoken: Silas was meant to be a Mission High Bear.

Superintendent Richard Carranza: Member of the clean plate club.

Superintendent Richard Carranza: Member of the clean plate club.

With Silas enrolled, the icing on the kismet cake came in August when Kristina Rizga, a former education reporter for Mother Jones magazine, released her book: Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It and the Students and Teachers Who Made it Triumph. I felt as if the book was published just for me—266 pages written to assuage any of my “up-and-coming school” concerns.

Rizga, who entrenched herself for four years at the school—and focused her eye on specific students and teachers—discovered a place with an exterior image that belied what was going on inside. She writes that Mission High is a school unfairly judged for its low-performance testing (not taking into account its large immigrant, ESL population), yet not properly evaluated for its high graduation and college enrollment rates, its small class sizes, its commitment to teaching critical thinking rather than to a test, and its generally happy and successful student population. As someone who practically flunked my SAT test and is still scarred years later, I’m all about not being judged on one’s ability to take a standardized test.

I’m happy to report that Silas is a month into Mission High and very happy. And I love that I can wave to Principal Guthertz when I see him in the neighborhood.

I’m also excited to remind you all that as of this Monday, the Tacolicious School Project is back in effect. From now until May, every one of our locations (including our sister restaurant Chino) will be giving 15 percent of a month’s worth of its Monday proceeds to a neighboring school. Click here to see which schools are the beneficiaries. To date, the Tacolicious School Project has raised $593,295.58. Help us reach our goal to raise a total of $850,000 for public schools by the end of this school year. If you’re interested in bringing together a large party to celebrate education on one of these Mondays, email us at Personally, I think teachers and tequila make a good mix.


It’s Tequila Day! A Cheat Sheet for Armchair Drinkers

Soaked in Mexican history and lore, tequila is a subject matter than can be deliberated by spirit geeks until the bartender shouts, “Last call!” But not everyone needs to nerd out about agave. Sometimes one is interested in acquiring just enough intel to get them through the dinner party. For that, may we present our Tacolicious Tequila CliffsNotes excerpted from our cookbook Tacolicious: Festive Recipes for Tacos, Snacks, Cocktails and More (Ten Speed Press). Come into any Tacolicious or our tequila bar Mosto to soak up a little spirit. As always, we’ll be pouring flights, serving up excellent tequila- and-mezcal cocktails, and great street food to boot (including, yes, fish crudo: see number 7).


1. Tequila isn’t made from a cactus. In fact, it’s made from blue agave, a beautiful, pale dusty blue-green succulent that resembles a giant aloe plant. In the tequila regions of Mexico, you’ll see spiky rows of agave grown everywhere, just like you see grapes being grown in wine regions of the world.

2. The piña is at the heart of it all. The source of tequila is the pineapple-looking heart of the agave plant that grows underground and takes six to 12 years to come to maturity. The piña can weigh up to 200 pounds, which is why a jimador—the agave farmer who harvests the agave using a lethally sharp tool called a coa—is such a stud. To make the tequila, traditionally the piña is cooked in an oven, at which point its flesh almost tastes like a sweet potato (take a whiff of tequila and sometimes you still detect this yammy aroma). Then it’s normally crushed or milled in a roller mill. The juices are fermented, distilled, and sometimes barrel aged.

3. The mixto is worth nixing. The stuff you’re going to want to avoid as you develop into a tequila snob is mixto tequila, often labeled as “gold.” Mexican law requires that a true tequila is made with at least 51 percent agave. Anything else is called a mixto which often has corn liquor, sugar liquor, sugar, and caramel coloring added to it. And yes, this includes the Jose Cuervo Especial you did body shots with in college.

4. The top shelf stuff is all agave. The best tequila will always be labeled “100% Blue Agave.” One reason to search this out is to be a true connoisseur. Another reason is because it gives you less of a hangover. Within this category you’ll find four choices:

Blanco (aka Silver, White)
Easy to detect because it’s almost always clear, this tequila can only be stored up to 60 days in stainless tanks. Blanco tequila provides a great chance to truly taste the origin of the tequila, and the style of the producer.

This translates to “rested” tequila—or kicked back, as we like to think of it. This tequila is aged for 2 months to a year in virgin oak, giving it a mellower vibe but not as distinctly oak-flavored as the anejo. Providing a happy medium, it tends to be our most common go-to (though we like it all).

Aged a minimum of 1 year. It’s smooth and its complex, rich, and often pricey. For this we definitely don’t recommend it for cocktails. This is what you drink when you truly just want to sip. It’s great to drink the winter, preferably fireside.

Extra Anejo
This is the newest category of the four and it applies to tequilas that are aged in a barrel for a minimum of three years. If you’re a bourbon drinker, this one’s for you.

5. Yes, there is tequila terroir. Almost all tequila is produced in Jalisco, Mexico, which is near the beautiful city of Guadalajara. Within this area there are two regions. The lowlands (aka The Valley of Tequila) and the highlands (aka Los Altos region). The lowlands produces a deep, rich, and herbaceous tequila while the highlands tend to produce something much fruitier and spicier.

6. Sipping is better than shooting. In Mexico, and amongst tequila cognescenti all over, good tequila is enjoyed neat and generally sipped, just as you would any quality spirit. The whole lick of salt and big suck of lime thing should be left to spring breakers. Tequila is also traditionally served with a small glass of sangrita (which we serve with our tequila at Mosto).

7. Raw fish is its friend. Though we’re not proponents of specific pairings of any cocktails or spirits with particular dishes, but we do think tequila goes incredibly well with raw fish dishes, especially ones with a hint of chili. Think ceviches and aguachiles, of course, but we love a glass of tequila with preparations as simple as a few slices of good-quality raw fish served with nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil, a sliver of a jalapeno or two, a shake of sea salt, and a squeeze of lime.