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The California Connection

This week I am heading out to San Francisco with planned stops at the Manresa, Quince, Incanto (to feed my growing obsession with nasty bits), and a possible detour to Bacar for some mid-afternoon bone marrow snack. It’s an ambitious itinerary, but I am on a mission. San Francisco has always puzzled me as a city considered in the top echelon of restaurant destinations. I’ve never had terrible food there, but it was never especially memorable either. It all seems to taste safe, healthy and full of Zen. Something you eat on your way to yoga class. I am hoping this, heavily researched, trip will set me straight.

Last time I was in the Bay area several years ago I visited a Mexican restaurant called Colibri Mexican Bistro, which was similar to Hugo’s in Houston and Frontera Grill in Chicago in aspirations. I was interested in seeing if California was going to infiltrate the central Mexican dishes on the Colibri menu. Only later did I realize that the chef at Colibri had a strange connection to Houston, but more on that later.

Colibri is a popular spot in San Francisco, with a good review from SF Chronicle and top honors in the Mexican category on Citysearch for a couple of years running. Although Colibri wasn’t quite in the Hugo’s or Frontera league, it was better than most Mexican restaurants I encounter outside of Texas. The salsas served before the meal had a good chile flavor, but lacked a deep kick of heat or seasoning. My wife hated her Chile Relleno, which came out tasting rather sterile, but my Pipian was good. The chicken breast was poached to right consistency, green mole had good texture and pumpkin seeds were roasted just enough to bring out their flavor. Although the dish was under seasoned, it was generally executed with competence and care.

I walked away with a feeling that Mexican food at Colibri was made by a classically trained French chef with a major crush on Diana Kennedy. The ingredients and preparations were Mexican, but the soul and flavors were somewhat French.

I was surprised to hear that a new head chef from San Francisco named Alex Padilla was taking over the kitchen at Ninfa’s on Navigation. Surely, we have enough proper Mexicans and Texans to cook our Tex-Mex. Turned out Alex learned to cook from his mother, who cooked at a local restaurant called "Nympha’s" in Houston. Alex Padilla, it seems, has come full circle.

I was even more surprised that in San Francisco, Alex Padilla trained in classic French technique under Nancy Oakes, of Boulevard fame, and was the man behind Colibri Mexican Bistro before heading back to Houston.

Ninfa’s food under Alex Padilla has mostly taken a turn for the better. I have visited the original Ninfa’s several times over the years and had very uneven meals. Some were good, some were as lackluster as what you expect from Serrano’s. Under new ownership Ninfa’s has added some new dishes, mainly seafood, which seem to coexist with the old time favorites quite nicely.

Padilla’s best move was making no moves at all – most of the old menu is intact and the off-the-menu specials that only regulars knew about are now on the menu in full view. Best of all, the ingredients seem to now be carefully sourced and the kitchen is a lot more consistent. You can taste the difference in everything from tortillas to the green salsa, which has finally lost its mild soapy aftertaste.

In my several visits to Ninfa’s since Alex Padilla took over I detected no hint of French or California influences, so the sovereignty of the Texas republic is secure. The only major misstep is the Chile Relleno. The pepper is now roasted, as it was at Colibri, rather than fried in egg batter. The result is rather limp and cali-fresh. I hope Alex Padilla comes to his senses soon and realizes he is back in Texas, where we like our Chile Rellenos as unhealthy as possible.

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