FOOD Roughly a month after Sabrosa opened its tinted doors to flocks of the rarer type of Marina patron — one hungry for trend-pushing, flavor-forward cuisine — word got out that the plates outshine the cocktails at this upscale Mexican restaurant and bar.
With Chef Jose Ramos of Nopalito at the stove, braising up a mole-darkened storm of costilla de puerco, it's easy to taste why. The confit pork short ribs slid off the bone with more ease than it took to scoop up mashed plantains. The Veracruzan Xico mole intertwined spices sweet, savory, and earthy all at once, imbibing the meat with a moisture so viscous (and I say this with only the highest compliments) that I mistook myself for an earthworm and the mole for luscious mud. I wanted to bottle it and drink it through a straw.
Ramos' dishes manifest from memories of growing up as a child on a small farm in Guanajuato, Mexico. Recipes taught by his mother, aunt, and grandmother surface on the menu, recast as gourmet. The food captures a cultural authenticity of various regions of Mexico while contributing to the newest trend in local eateries: high-end Mexican. Much like the decades-old "California Cuisine" pioneered by Alice Waters, this modern twist on Mexican cooking conjures up a vision of authenticity while keeping a cactus-like claw on top of the fine dining scene.
Take the salpicón de jaiba, where Dungeness crab, chayote squash, carrots, onions, and watermelon radish meld in a kindling of colorful citrus slivers over a turf of guacamole. The dish contains recognizably Mexican elements (guacamole, lime) and familiar American favorites (crab, squash). Yet it also carries hidden flavors — or perhaps creates new ones — through the pairing of exquisite ingredients and techniques.
Chef Ramos was busy the night I was invited to visit. The most I glimpsed of him appeared in the bright green of my salad, which masqueraded briefly as bell peppers, until a slight squish between teeth gave way to delightfully slick, cured nopales amid buttery avocado and sprinkles of cotija cheese. The fresh flavor combination reminded me of my own father's home-style Mexican cooking — though neither my home nor my father are Mexican.
Matt Stanton, the bar manager, sat down to chat. After opening El Dorado Cocktail Lounge and the Noble Experiment with his brothers in San Diego, Stanton took on the challenge of playing matchmaker between drinks and food at Sabrosa, a position that could be likened to the role of connective tissue in a human body.
First, Stanton had to match the precedence of cocktails set by the previous booze-focused venues of owners Hugo Gamboa, Adam Snyder, and Andy Wasserman. Next, he needed to create a drink menu that would highlight Ramos' cooking — even create a sort of alcoholic baptism between the varying topographies of the aperitivos, barra fria, tacos y quesedillas, and entradas. Trickiest of all, he hoped to push past the boundaries of swinging saloon doors and run with his ideas, all the while holding hands with the traditional taste buds of the Marina.