Chef Gabriela Cámara's Cala Brings Coastal Mexican Food to San Francisco

Chef Gabriela Cámara in her kitchen on opening night.
Chef Gabriela Cámara in her kitchen on opening night. (Kim Westerman)

Chef Gabriela Cámara is known throughout Mexico for her refined command of seafood, at both Contramar and MeroToro. The former is arguably Mexico City’s best landlocked seafood restaurant, and the latter is a deep exploration of the cooking of Baja, both surf and turf.

Cala is Cámara’s first restaurant in the U.S., and it opened softly last night in San Francisco’s outer Hayes Valley on Fell Street at Van Ness.

Cámara was in the kitchen this evening the whole time I was marveling at the gorgeous space, preparing course after course of deeply satisfying food. At one point, her five-year-old son waltzed in to the dining room and began charming total strangers.

The menu is currently very small to allow the staff to get their bearings. Any confusion that arose was handled graciously and gracefully by a warm and welcoming crew. It’s clear that they are part of the mission to bring Cámara’s bold seafood recipes to the northern California coast.

The bar and communal dining space.
The bar and communal dining space. (Kim Westerman)

While she arrives with accolades from other luminaries, including Diana Kennedy and Alice Waters, it is Nicholas Gilman, Mexico City-based blogger and author of Good Food Mexico City, who argues that Cámara is one of a handful of women who have kept the culinary traditions of Mexico alive while innovating and exploring her own style.

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I started my meal with a margarita made from Mezcal Amarás with citrus cane syrup, lime juice and orange bitters. It’s a wonder how the simple shift from tequila to mezcal skews the classic drink in an altogether new direction, with its essentially phenolic quality. (In lay terms, it has a fresh Band-Aid aroma, but that doesn’t make it sound nearly as good as it is.) This flavor is ideal with the high-acid foods on the menu, including the escabeche of vegetables that came out as a little snack at the beginning.

Mezcal margarita and vegetable escabeche.
Mezcal margarita and vegetable escabeche. (Kim Westerman)

Then I ordered three dishes off the menu of 11 items. First up was a plate of four mini-tostadas topped with silky raw trout, a creamy chipotle sauce and fried leeks. It’s a perfect starter to share, each just a few hand-held bites and light as a feather.

Trout tostadas with chipotle sauce and fried leeks.
Trout tostadas with chipotle sauce and fried leeks. (Kim Westerman)

A colorful, glistening halibut ceviche arrived next, with sea beans and avocado, redolent of lime and served with homemade tostones. The tomatoes are chopped more finely than is typical, giving the dish careful composure.

Cala's Halibut ceviche with sea beans and avocado
Halibut ceviche with sea beans and avocado (Kim Westerman)

Finally, the best dish of all appeared in a string of excellent dishes: Bay shrimp with habañero scooped into homemade chicharrónes, which were crisp around the sides and meltingly chewy under the shrimp mixture. What looked like minced cucumbers were, blessedly, little pieces of celery; they gave the sweet shrimp an unexpected and welcome earthiness.

Chicharrónes and bay shrimp with habañero.
Chicharrónes and Bay shrimp with habañero.
(Kim Westerman)

While seafood is the kitchen’s focus, sustainability is its mission. Cámara has worked hard to source sustainable fish that will work for her style of cooking. Based on what I saw last evening, these local choices translate seamlessly to the Mexican flavor profiles.

I should have ordered the cucumber sorbet and lemon granite with mezcal and sal de gusano for dessert. It was a warm night, and it would’ve completed the agave circle, echoing back to the lovely mezcal margarita I’d started with.

But alas, I was too full. But I was satiated by the aesthetic pleasure of the room: distressed white walls; a fiddlehead fig tree growing up through the center of the room; a wall of vines along the side; the city’s first restaurant with a Meyer sound system. I can’t wait for the full menu to be available, along with the taco truck Cámara is planning to put out back.

The fiddlehead fern in the center of the dining room.
The fiddlehead fern in the center of the dining room.
(Kim Westerman)

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Cala
149 Fell St. [Map]
San Francisco, CA 94102
Ph: (415) 660-7701
Hours: Daily, 6-10pm
Twitter: @g_camara_b
Price Range: Small plates, $-$$ ($7-$18); larger plates, $$$-$$$$ ($19-$38)

The entrance to Cala on Fell Street.
The entrance to Cala on Fell Street. (Kim Westerman)

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