If Don Day tipped too much tequila one evening and ran into a genie on the way home, right after wishing her name was Barbara Eden and then wishing she respond to every request with “Yes, Master”, I would use my third wish to patch a great big hole in San Miguel de Allende. Don Day would wish for a good Japanese restaurant.
Now I know what you might be saying. San Miguel already has a pretty good Japanese restaurant. And Don Day would even argue that Delica Mitsu is not just a pretty good restaurant but a very good restaurant. But Delica Mitsu isn’t a very typical and traditional Japanese restaurant. Delica Mitsu doesn’t serve ramen, it doesn’t serve sashimi and it doesn’t serve sushi made with raw fish. And a Japanese restaurant that doesn’t serve Don Day traditional sushi just isn’t the Japanese restaurant that Don Day’s always been wishing and hoping for.
So Don Day was excited, very excited, when someone told him that there was a new Japanese restaurant in town (but disappointed it didn’t require an evening with Barbara Eden). In fact, Don Day was so excited that he went to lunch there the very next day.
The new restaurant is called Cafe California. Nice logo. But strange name. To Don Day, Cafe says French. And a place for lunch. But not for dinner. And California. I’m not sure what that means. Unless it’s that cuisine eaten by people with slim waists and slim chances of ever understanding Don Day’s daily diet.
Cafe California is located in that plaza near the top of Salida a Queretaro, the one on the south side between where the street levels out and the glorieta. That plaza that no one knows the name of because it’s a plaza no one ever goes to.
Plazas become successful because they have a strong anchor and all of the other tenants can play off the success of that anchor. But Plaza Primavera (Don Day only knows the name because he lives just down the street) has never ever had a strong anchor and Don Day has seen a lot of restaurants already come and go.
I was the only person at Cafe California. The only one except the owner and his server. My first question, well two questions. Why here and why Cafe California? Why there, I instantly understood. The owner, who introduced himself as Hahn Cheo, had been the owner of the Japanese restaurant in Plaza Luciernaga, and because the restaurant was on the walk between Liverpool and Soriana, it did get some of that valuable anchor effect but not enough apparently to justify the big rent that usually comes with a big mall.
Hahn explained that now he was not interested in “just feeding shoppers” but giving San Miguel the “best Japanese food they’ve ever tasted”. I liked Hahn right from the start and I really wanted the Japanese food to be the best I’d ever tasted.
There was also a reason, though not a very good one in Don Day’s opinion, for calling the place Cafe California. It was a bit of a tribute. Hahn Cheo had come to California from Japan with his family when he was 12. He’d lived in San Francisco for a few years and then a lot more years in Palo Alto, the home of Stanford and a lot of people willing to spend big bucks on food, before ending up in San Miguel de Allende.
Hahn gave me a menu and I looked around.
I’m not sure how many restaurants that were started on a tight budget haven’t had their furniture provided by the brewery Cerveceria Modelo but Don Day would have trouble naming them. A low end…even a mid range…restaurant in San Miguel without a Corona logo on the back of the chairs seems darn right un-Mexican. I’d love to know how the brewery decides who gets what level of quality but Cafe California somehow rated the top of the line wood and chrome tables and chairs. There’s seating for about 20 inside and four out on the little patio. Though the wood versions of the furniture are a lot better looking than the plastic, and they go very well with Cafe California’s striped hardwood floor, the chairs are not very comfortable unless you have perfect posture which Don Day lost, if he ever had it at all, a couple of decades ago.
Tchaikovsky was playing in the background. Which also isn’t exactly Japanese but did add a little class to the joint. It was the kind of music that makes you want to start a revolution. It made Don Day very hungry.
The Japanese love minimalism but Cafe California is a little too stark. A little too cold. There is a decorative fan on the wall. A vase of dried flowers. But not much else. As cliched as they may be, I would have liked to have seen some of those Japanese prints of Mount Fuji on the walls.
Don Day was probably paying more attention to the room than the menu for a reason. I couldn’t find anything that was making My mouth water. Nothing was tempting. Nothing tantalizing. And I knew why. There was no ramen on the menu. And though there was sushi, it wasn’t traditional sushi, it was what Don Day calls Mexican sushi. It was what the Japanese call maki and Don Day calls rolls. The same kind of rolls that you find in two or three other so called sushi restaurants in San Miguel. Rolls with cooked fish or no fish at all. And extra added but not welcome attractions like mayo and cream cheese.
What was missing was what I really was wishing for from that genie. I wanted what the Japanese call nigiri and what Don Day calls those delectable little cubes of vinegared rice with a titch of wasabi and the freshest of fish on top.
But no. There was a list of maki on the menu but no nigiri. And no raw fish at all.
I wondered why. It’s certainly not availability. Don Day regularly purchases and Don Day’s Wife regularly prepares fresh maguro, saki, hamachi, even toro. What Don Day calls yellowfin, salmon, yellowtail, sometimes even bluefin are all regularly available from San Miguel seafood retailer, La Isla. And if more than 90% of the sushi restaurants in Toronto are selling previously frozen fish why don’t San Miguel restaurants sell it.
I was stumped trying to choose something from the menu and when Don Day’s stumped he turns to other people for the answers. I asked Hahn to choose the two things on the menu that he was most proud of.
From an interesting list of soups, I was surprised at his choice. He chose a dish that was not even Japanese but Chinese. Hahn chose the hot and sour wonton soup. It was not very hot and not very sour (light on the chilis and the vinegar) but it was still very good. The base was a hearty broth that tasted like it had come, not from a jar or box, but directly from a chicken. The pork inside the noodles was finely ground and well-spiced. The noodles were, as best as Don Day could tell, fresh not dried. And zucchini slices and shaved carrots were an original and nice finishing touch.
For the second choice, Hahn chose a Japanese classic based on the staple of almost all Japanese cuisine, white rice. CafeCalifornia‘s chicken teriyaki had moist and flaky rice and juicy and tender chicken. The teriyaki had a hint of ginger and garlic and, thankfully, not too much sugar. It was attractively and appetizingly decorated with toasted seaweed and sesame seeds. I liked it but wished that Hahn had chosen something a little more out of the ordinary for me.
One thing that came through in Hahn Cheo’s cooking was the pride, the confidence and the desire to please. I could see him sneaking glances to see if I was enjoying his creations.
“I make everything or I show my people exactly how to make it”, Hahn said. ”I want people to like my food and I’m going to do everything to make sure that happens.”
Cafe California had only been open for one week when I went for lunch but it didn’t seem to have any start-up jitters. Josefina, Cafe California‘s server was as pleasant and efficient as you could ever want a server to be.
But there was still that hole. That big gaping hole. No fresh fish. Cafe California has an opening in the wall into a typical sushi bar. Don Day sat as his table wishing there were stools at that sushi bar. Wishing he was sitting at that sushi bar. Wishing he was watching Hahn and Josefina make his wish come true. But until there’s fresh fish I don’t think Don Day ever will be sat there.
I just hope I haven’t run out of wishes.
Café California is located in Plaza Primavera, Salida a Queretaro in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.