Huevos con chorizo, the artful presentation
MEXICO CITY in SF: La Urbana
Photos and article by Virginia Miller
LA URBANA, Western Addition (661 Divisadero Street at Grove, 415-440-4500)
La Urbana’s muse on chairs…
After a preview a few months back and a visit to Mexico City exploring some of the city’s stellar restaurants (read about it here), I was excited to see La Urbana open in Western Addition this September. Having already dined there three times in the roughly five weeks it has been open, I can vouch for the usual “finding itself” struggles a new restaurant faces. But the vision of Mexico City (also based in SF) owners, Eduardo Rallo and Juan Garduño is clear: bring a Mexico City-style restaurant to San Francisco with the most extensive mezcal selection on the West Coast. The design of the space is inventive and playful, with mezcal bottles lining mismatched shelves from Mexico hanging in a colorful patchwork on the wall.
La Urbana Margarita
La Urbana’s next door garage is about to open, a laid back space where tacos, smoothies, beers, sangria, and margaritas will flow against a backdrop of black and white over blue, Aztec-esque graffiti art that was their temporary construction covering outside when they were building out the restaurant. I previewed the garage space a couple weeks ago, appreciating the yin-yang contrast of the neighboring spaces.
In the restaurant, they are still exploring how experimental they want to be (experimental would be fully in line with Mexico City, Mexico’s most cosmopolitan dining city), and what they want to save for upstairs, where tasting menus will be de rigueur
when that space opens.
Upcoming cocktail: Gulf of Mexico
I am drawn towards their most experimental expressions, first, because that is what lacking in the endless excellent Mexican restaurants around, and as this is where Chef Benjamin Klein and Chef de Cuisine Julio Aguilera shine. Consistent with my impressions at the restaurant preview, huevo con chorizo ($6) remains my favorite dish. Twice I’ve had it in artful form: inside a delicate egg shell, the top cracked off. But for greater approachability, in the restaurant it has evolved to a mini bowl of eggs and chorizo whipped with light potato puree, lime crema, dotted with pickled jalapeno and tortilla chips. It’s savory, textured, gorgeous, even if the egg shell is the more dramatic presentation.
Preview of Mercado Urbano garage
Ceviche ($11) is so ubiquitous, I passed over it on my first visit, but in the interest of trying everything on the menu by the second meal, I ordered it. Surprisingly, it’s one of La Urbana’s best items. Using fresh fish of the day, like California sea bass, tossed with avocado, orange chunks and a smattering of cucumber “dust,” it’s a fine ceviche. But the presentation sets it apart from every other version: it arrives in a blue-tinted mason jar, the lid removed to a billowing release of mesquite smoke, which infuses the fish and the air with delicate smokiness.
Huevos con chorizo, the still fantastic restaurant version
The kitchen hand grinds their own corn every day, utilized in blue corn mini-quesadillas “Tijuana” ($9). More like mini-empanadas, these warm bites ooze Manchego cheese and okra, delightful when dipped in a smoked crema and smoky salsa. Sides are unexpected standouts, whether roasted, summer-fresh corn/esquites ($7), accented with Meyer lemon aioli and Manchego cheese, or oregano-tinged squares made of paper thin slices of potatoes/papas ($5). Entrees don’t always wow, but a silky salmon or halibut al huitlacoche ($24) accompanied by cauliflower, gains complex flavor from the corn fungus funk of huitlacoche, artfully touched with citrus corn foam and nasturtium petals.
Chocolate cremeaux in mezcal gourds
Salads can be freshly gratifying, like an ensalada verde ($12) of bright fava beans, avocado and frisee, in a cilantro dressing. Another salad, betabeles y chayote ($11), is bright with roasted beets, carrots and habanero jam, but had an excess of rather tasteless chayote, made more exciting on first visit when a salty smattering of chapulines (grasshoppers) was on the salad – they are now using a popped wild rice to simulate that texture and flavor (bring back the grasshoppers, please!) Desserts are strong, particularly a fluffy Oaxacan chocolate crémeux ($9) over vanilla ice cream, served in a traditional mezcal gourd with mezcal gélée, punctuated by canela (cinnamon) crisps.
Luis Ranzuglia lights a volcano bowl
Lucas Ranzuglia oversees the cocktail menu, bringing bar experience from his native Buenos Aires, cocktail mecca London, and Mexico. A number of his drinks from the preview remain the best on the menu, like a mezcal-tinged Margarita ($9), and particularly Mezcal & Cacao ($9), an icy blend of mezcal and Oaxacan cacao in a coffee mug, touched with rose water, lavender flowers, vanilla, orange peel and spices.
La Urbana’s Day of the Dead skeleton
Playful themes occur in the likes of The Mexican Dude ($10), a take on The Big Lebowski and White Russians, going the Mexican route with house horchata and mezcal, a bit of Belvedere vodka and espresso coffee liqueur. From the extensive mezcal collection (including a number of rarities), there’s 1.5 oz. pours of mezcal or trio flights of 3/4 oz. pours. Mexico City’s common after-dinner drink, a Cafe Royal ($8) – aka Carakillo or “Con Piquete” – is on offer, with espresso on the rocks sweetened by citrus-vanilla-tinged Spanish liqueur, Licor 43.
Recently I had a preview of drinks Ranzuglia is about to launch in the restaurant, with his unique vision that starts first with a concept shaped into a cocktail recipe. Currently, he’s creating cocktails themed around different locations in Mexico. Sure to be a crowd-pleaser is the Gulf of Mexico, a cocktail inspired by visions of sand, Gulf winds, and vacation: Bols Genever mingles with coconut water, ginger tincture, finished with frothy-sweet-spicy guava-habanero foam. It’s complex yet utterly approachable and refreshing.
Mexico City cocktail
The tortilla water (which tastes like fresh tortilla chips) in the fantastic, nonalcoholic tortilla lemonade I sampled at the restaurant’s preview is now thankfully going into a cocktail, Mexico City. The drink combines Casa Noble blanco tequila, mezcal, tortilla water, lemon and guava puree, then Ranzuglia dips a lavender and chile-laden tea strainer infused with dry ice into the glass which smokes and bubbles, meant to resemble MX earthquakes, imparting a hint of carbonation. Ranzuglia covers the drink with a cement-like disc that holds in the vapor, representing the cement covering of the massive city built into a water basin, bubbling underneath. He describes it as: “A glass of pure surrealist city, the flavors of Mexico City’s valley.”
… and La Urbana’s muse on the building’s exterior
Back dining area under agave plant map of Oaxaca
Pyrotechnics come into play with shareable volcano bowls inspired by the volcanoes of Pubela, lit with incense and filled with boozy, shareable cocktails reminiscent of Tiki volcano bowls, soon to be on offer. A more classic off-menu cocktail is a twist on a Hemingway Daiquiri, subtly mixing mezcal, cilantro, lime, grapefruit, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur and Luxardo Maraschino.
If this sounds fussy, it isn’t. Drinks taste alternately sweet, agave-rich, smoky, whatever the elements may be, enriched by stories behind them for those of us who care, merely tasting good for those who do not. Ranzuglia’s vision is refreshingly unique, welcome in a city that has long mastered cocktails and could use a fresh perspective.
La Urbana will hopefully unfold to a fully realized expression of Mexican food unlike any other restaurant in a state that has long perfected Mexican food. Offering a range of experiences and tastes from garage to mezcal bar, one hopes La Urbana will evolve along with the exciting dining scene of Mexico City.
Eclectic Urbana bar shelves from Mexico