For those of us who travel to eat, there’s an irrational compulsion to attempt to bring the best food experiences home. I say irrational because trying to recreate a culinary revelation had in another country—or another state for that matter—generally leads to wah wah wahhh (that’s the sound of disappointment). Or, at worst, the discovery of a treasured salami smuggled in from Tuscany, forgotten and now wretchedly molding in your suitcase.

That cold bottle of sake that you had at 2 am in a Tokyo izakaya will never taste as good in your living room. The pork floss you couldn’t get enough of in Taiwan now seems kind of weird. Your rendition of spaghetti alle vongole inhaled ecstatically at a restaurant on the Amalfi coast falls flat. Obsessive cooks, trying to fabricate food memories, will chase the right flour for the pasta dough, or the hunt down what they deem a close-enough variety of tiny clams. But, it’s never quite enough, because momentous eating experiences don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re enhanced by everything around you, which, when you’re traveling, is spiked with that addictive bit of lost in translation.

This isn’t to say you heed your own advice. Anyone who knows me or Joe has heard us wax on about Contramar, one of Mexico City’s most famous restaurants. In fact, we fell so madly in want with Contramar’s signature dish—a tuna tostada topped with a spicy chipotle aioli, buttery avocado, and crispy fried leeks—that we put it on our own menu as an homage.

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The tuna tostada Contramar-style at Tacolicious

The thing is, though the “tuna tostada Contramar-style” at Tacolicious is incredibly delicious, for me it will never taste like it did the first time we had it at Contramar, a sweeping lunch-only, Mexican seafood restaurant with white tablecloths and a swath of signature azure blue, buzzing with a well-heeled bunch of Mexico City’s who-who. The first time I took a bite of that tuna tostada, it tasted like the best thing I’d ever eaten—like my first taste of modern, urban Mexico.

The genius behind Contramar is the dynamic and stylish Gabriela Cámara, a celebrated restaurateur who has a number of establishments. Perhaps it was in the stars, but at the end of last year, Gabriela chose to move her family from Mexico City in order to open a Contramar-esque restaurant named Cala in Hayes Valley. I’ve been waiting excitedly for it to open, which it officially did last week.

Of course, Joe and I, along with Mike and Pajo (Tacolicious’ new director of operations), were some of Cala’s first customers. We walked in just as the doors opened one evening, which meant the late-afternoon sun was still filtering through the skylights making the space feel even more lofty and beautiful then it is when the sun dips. Like Contramar, Cala has white tablecloths (a design element that’s gone the way of the dinosaur in San Francisco), upright wooden chairs, and that signature azure blue, now on the facade. A wall of green trellised plants make for the only real pop of color. Gabriela, her speech inflected with a pretty lilting accent, was there to greet people. Her young son was eating at the communal table with some family friends, and her father who lives in Mexico was visiting too.

Cala's beautiful interior (photo by Chloe List)

Cala’s beautiful interior (photo by Chloe List)

We ordered the simple but deliciously tender two-bite sopes playeros with midnight black beans, smoky-sweet fire-roasted sweet potato with bone marrow salsa negra, an amazing ling cod salpicon with tomatillo, and, of course, Camara’s signature tostada, which at Cala is now made with raw trout instead of tuna. Maybe it’s the connection I will always have to Contramar—sort of like a first love—but that night, biting into the tostada, I was transported momentarily from San Francisco. I felt that joyous little spark of being somewhere different, somewhere new.

Cala, 149 Fell St., San Francisco, 415-660-7701