By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Curadero, the newest ground-level restaurant at Kimpton Hotel Palomar, is named informally after Latin medicine men and women (curanderos) who over the centuries used herbs, tobacco and hallucinogens to treat a range of physical and mental illnesses.
While the playful theme may be lost on some, the menu should strike familiarity among San Diegans — and less so to tourists.
Empty stomachs are healed with tacos, ceviche and other soulful dishes native to Mexico City and outlying coastal regions. Though commonplace in the ongoing surge of local restaurants serving the same things, Chef Brad Kraten joins the newer wave of kitchens introducing complex twists and high-quality ingredients to the cuisine.
Kraten transitioned from Saltbox, which operated here to the tune of gastropub fare until closing last year. The space is still defined by oversized doors and a stylish cocktail bar, although now it features a crudo station and bold murals reflecting curandero folklore.
With years of experience working also in Bay Area restaurants, he taps into a variety of purveyors for sourcing such provisions as prime flap steak, farm-raised Baja sea bass, Venus clams, heirloom pinto beans, and a variety of edible flowers and Mexican chilies used across his menu.
From the crudo bar, the Vuelve a la Vido combines clams, oysters, octopus and shrimp in a thin tomato sauce that’s brighter, sweeter and far less ketchup-y than what’s normally served with American-style seafood cocktails.
Citrus in the recipe adds enough power to “cook” the ingredients to tender, opaque doneness.
As my companion sipped on a margarita-like “salty chancho” made with reposado tequila, mango puree and Serrano bitters — and served with chicharrones — we proceeded to a more aggressively spiced crudo featuring yellowtail.
Known otherwise as hiramasa, the slightly torched fish is seasoned with ancho chili and tucked into a curled, crispy tortilla with an emulsion of hoja santa, a leafy herb with an addicting licorice essence that’s native to central Mexico and South America. Only recently have I encountered it on a few local menus, and I’m betting we’ll begin seeing more of it very soon.
Kraten does a marvelous job making sopes. Served three to an order, their fried masa bases weren’t as dense and rock-hard as some, but rather in textural sync with tender pinto beans and savory pork on top.
The latter is actually “pork asiento,” which captures the fatty drippings and small pieces of the meat as it roasts. It’s similar to gravy and seeps decadently into the sopes along with crema, queso fresco and marinated onions that he mixes into the scheme.
We also tried the flautas packed with crab and shrimp. They were punctuated with chipotle-peanut salsa that tasted great on its own, but it somewhat dominated the seafood.
Then came a tuna tostada, which despite its clean ruby-red fish accented with “secret sauce” containing Tabasco and Worcestershire, it struck me as a “been there, done that” creation. Though as my companion reminded me, for those visiting San Diego from places far removed from our border, the dish holds potential novelty.
Eager to try the carne asada using the aforementioned flap meat, we ordered it in a trio of tacos topped with fresh guacamole, roasted tomatoes and fresh cilantro. If only my neighborhood taco shop would use these beefy, tender sirloin tips in their carne asada dishes, I’d put them back into rotation of the Mexican meals I regularly consume while gladly shelling out a few extra bucks for it.
The beef is also available as an entrée with chilies, nopal asado, grilled green onions and avocado. Other full-plate options include braised pork shank with fried plantains, roasted half chicken with black bean sauce and goat cheese-stuffed hoja santa, and charcoal-grilled fish.
We shared a dish of flan for dessert, which escaped blandness because of bourbon in the recipe and a nutty topping of toasted Marcona almonds that did wonders to offset the custard’s usual, abundant sweetness.
With dishes showing off layered and sometimes bold flavors, and a drink list flaunting Baja wines, Mexican craft beers, tequilas and mezcals, Curadero is quickly gaining momentum as a place for delving into modern Mexican cuisine since opening two months ago.
Note: The remodel also gave way to an upstairs game lounge called The Arriba Room, where cocktails and tacos are served amid arcade games, shuffleboard and foosball. It’s open from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., Thursday through Saturday.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.