I am back after a lengthy absence, all thanks to the impression that this little delight of a restaurant made on me. Here I was, thinking that nothing of real interest is left unsampled in the Bay Area, and lo, I am mistaken.
Las Camelias in San Rafael is difficult to find, it being on a side street in the less impressive part of town. It was well worth the search, as it turns out. The grungy street dissolves into an adobe as you walk inside, and some really remarkable artwork greets your eye as you wait the nanoseconds that it takes for the hostess to seat you. It was the relative emptiness of the place on a Tuesday night, really, that prompted me to write this, on the theory that if I want the place to stay in business then Id better spread the word. The art is good enough to rate a review on its own, but this is Chowhound and I will stick to the important subject.
We usually think of Mexican food in the Bay Area in a rather set way: tacos, burritos, chile relleno, fajitas: the normal taqueria fare, sometimes dressed up with a mass of refried beans for dinner. Nothing could be further from the menu at Camelias. I was greeted by a short special menu of Pollo al Honguito, a whole Cornish game hen marinated in tequila, ginger, and a little garlic and then deep fried and steamed in a warm-spicy chile sauce, and a burrito of salmon and red snapper. This was only the beginning: a Chile Relleno Encuerado (nothing at all like what you are used to), tequila-marinated shrimp, Sopitos (masa bowls filled with chicken, guacamole, salsa verde and queso anejo), Sopa Guadalajara (like tortilla soup but without the tortillas) just for starters. I am told that the chef is from Jalisco, which explains the unusual for California menu, and that he trained in the Bay Area, no doubt a disciple of Ms. Waters, because the absolute, religious freshness of the ingredients stood out.
As soon as the two of us sat down we were served a large basket of still-steaming fresh-made tortilla chips, the thick and crunchy kind, and a big bowl of generously spiced red salsa. I ordred a Bohemia, my girlfriend -- a glass of wine. For starters we had the Chile Relleno Encuerado, which turned out to be a poblano stuffed with vegetables, simmered in a cream sauce and served in two sauces: tomato and chile. The soft texture of the pepper contrasted nicely with the chunky filling and was complemented perfectly with nicely spiced sauces.
By the time we finished with the starter we needed a wine refill. Since the merlot originally selected did not satisfy, it being on the sweet side when paired with the spices, we asked for recommendations. In response, our server brought out every bottle that they had for tasting, so we may sample every offering. We settled on a nice Paso Robles cab, the only wine on offer with enough body to stand up to the rich seasoning.
Service rating: *****
Wine rating: ** (stick to beer)
For main dish I selected the Pollo al Honguito (surprise) and was impressed with the contrast of textures and flavors on my plate. The Cornish hen was crispy on the outside, firm and juicy on the inside, paired with a spicy chile sauce that tickled the palate in just the appropriate way. The hen was paired with refried Great Northern (!) beans, for a deliciously light complement to the well-seasoned dish.
My girlfriend chose Camarones Grand Fonda En Salsa de Tomatillo, the tequila-marinated shrimp in green sauce. We thought that the shrimp would be a nice complement to the game hen, the dish descriptions being almost identical. The shrimp was, however, completely different. The tomatillo sauce was creamy with only a suggestion of real heat, the shrimp cooked perfectly, the vegetables completing the dish texturally.
We did not have room left for dessert, and no one tried to talk us into looking at the little menu for a nice change. We will definitely be back, and I hope that you will check it out so that when we do it is still there.
Overall rating: ****