Photos: John Storey
The Cadillac was always a party. The rollicking, margarita-fueled Mexican restaurant and bar originally opened more than three decades ago in a SoMa alley, but closed in 1999 to make room for the Moscone expansion.
Now, the Cadillac is back, 16 years after it went dark.
One of the three partners in the original, Michael Rodriguez, returned to open a 21st century version on the ground floor of the Twitter building.
The Deco building, one of the most prominent symbols of the San Francisco tech culture, is an apropos setting for the resurrected restaurant. Like the original version — a barebones warehouse — it’s a large 8,000-square-foot space with concrete floors, unfinished ceilings and a bar that dominates the room.
I’m sure Rodriguez hopes this will become a center of drinking culture, much as it once was. Even though the Cadillac never had the best Mexican food in the city, it always promoted a bustling atmosphere, thanks in large part to pretty good margaritas.
Yet things have changed dramatically in the last decade or so, and the Cadillac has adapted. While it shadows the ghost of the original, the look of the massive space, which has seating for more than 250, is a cleaned-up rendition, and the menu has a fresher touch. It’s clear that Rodriguez, who doubles as executive chef, cares about what’s coming out of the kitchen.
Gone are the tacos and tamales that used to be the backbone of the menu, although the puffy tacos ($12-$14 for two), made famous at the ’80s version, have a place of honor on the menu. The bready folded masa pockets are filled with fish, turkey chorizo, carnitas, fajitas or grilled vegetables. While they are very good, they now pale by other things on the menu crafted by chef Kelvin Ott.
The crowd continues to be fueled by margaritas, professionally made by bartenders in bow ties and white jackets behind the 50-foot bar. The house margarita is $6 with Sauza Gold Tequila and a fresh lime mix; and the Cadillac margarita is $10 for Arette Reposado Tequila with Grand Marnier and Cointreau.
Both the chips and guacamole ($8) are exemplary. So is the ceviche ($11) with chunks of halibut, rock fish or whatever is fresh blended with citrus and precise dices of tomatoes that actually taste vine-ripened.
The food, in fact, offers a big upgrade on such items as grilled snapper Veracruzano ($18) that I’d put up against just about any preparation in the city. The smoky fish is accompanied by a fluffy mound of seasoned rice and half-moons of grilled squash. The fajitas are also carefully grilled over mesquite; the steak comes out crusted and just cooked through ($14 for half-pound/$24 for a pound), as does the chicken, which is the same price. Both are cut into strips and tossed with sautéed onions and served with rice, beans, guacamole and steamy tortillas.
I was reminded of Zuni Cafe when taking the first bite of the whole-leaf Caesar salad ($8) with its creamy dressing and shavings of Parmesan cheese. The image of that restaurant emerged again with the whole mesquite grilled chicken ($28), which comes with excellent beans, rice, tortillas, guacamole and pico de gallo.
Sure, a few items are reminiscent of the old place, such as the greasy, gooey queso Flameado ($9), but even this melted-cheese concoction nods to the current era. It’s made with turkey rather than the traditional chorizo.
Rodriguez could have settled for a knockoff and probably done just fine, but he didn’t. The service is so caring it borders on solicitous and the waiters know the menu and what’s behind the bar. They are quick to split salads and even the spicy, rich posole ($12) without asking once they realize the table is dining family-style.
Still I wonder if the restaurant will capture the same cult status it had in its heyday more than a dozen years ago. The first iPhone wasn’t even produced until eight years after the original Cadillac closed, and most of the employees who work for Twitter were years from legally having their first margarita.
However, with its reasonable prices, convivial atmosphere and upgraded food, I have a feeling a lot of workers in the area will be stopping by and creating a party for a new generation. After all, when was the last time you saw a $6 margarita?