Mexican meal in a California restaurant, circa 2008: Screamingly hot salsas. Regional specialties. Decor either bold-but-sophisticated (e.g., folk-art-made-au-courant) or emphatically absent. No bullfight imagery; few if any allusions to giant sombreros. Aggressive assertions of authenticity. For example, the menu specifies chile varieties — serrano, arbol, pasilla negro — and throws in a few words that might stump your average diner: rasas, bolillo, queso cotija. In the trendier places, assertions of eco-chic. Organic produce. Hormone-free meat from creatures raised humanely, albeit eventually slaughtered. The screamingly hot, sustainable relleno.
Mexican meal in a California restaurant, circa 1978: Mellow salsa. Saddle-sized platters spread with standards so infinitely familiar — taco, tostada, enchilada — that you could order in your sleep, but so unapologetically abundant, so agleam with cheese and sour cream that you wake right up wondering how you’ll ever fit it all in. Piñata-party decor all watermelon-pink, antifreeze green, canary yellow, Sea of Cortez blue. Music to match. Framed pictures of bullfights, cacti, Pancho Villa clad in giant sombrero. Giant-sombreroed cartoon man (and sultry ruffle-skirted señorita) on front of menu, saying Bienvenidos, amigos: Welcome, friends.
That was a Mexican meal in a California restaurant, circa 1978, and it is still a Mexican meal in the same California restaurant right now. That restaurant is Celia’s, a chain of Mexican restaurants where generations of diners grew up gently believing — over mountainous nachos, sweet golden-crowned flan, and celebratory margaritas, because this is a celebrative kind of place — that south of the border, azure skies smiled upon merry mariachi bands, serape-swathed burro drivers, and movie-star-hot matadors. (Which they actually do, but still.) And although Celia’s in Berkeley relocated two months ago to the Northgate neighborhood from the digs it had occupied near the foot of University Avenue for 31 years, it has arrived absolutely intact, plush booths and candles-in-glasses and world’s-creamiest-refried-beans and all. And gracias a Dios for that.
Cuisine evolves along with everything else. So the basic stateside concept of “Mexican food” has morphed to suit changing affinities and sensitivities. In a brave new Berkeley whose typical resident might very well, as a tourist, have eaten chapulines grasshopper tacos in Oaxaca or marched with Subcomandante Marcos’ Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas, Celia’s meals and mien could be called imperialist. They could. But they could also be called ebullient, engaging, and even authentic. That is, authentic in terms of flavor — the enchiladas verdes, soft fish tacos, carne asada, tortilla soup, and many other items on Celia’s extensive menu taste pretty much exactly as they would if you ordered and ate them in Mexico itself, albeit a bit milder, and the fajitas and chimichangas are pretty much as you’d get them in Texas — but authentic in a subtler, more poignant sense as well. This is a venerable venue that stays true to itself, and thus true to a long-beloved but now near-obsolete type of dining experience: the restaurant that strives neither to scare nor dare you.
In a sense, this is the original California cuisine.
As we settled into a booth near the back, flanked by an eggplant-purple wall and a turquoise one overhung with a flowery tissue-paper festoon, our waiter briskly brought us bowls of chips and mild cilantro-speckled salsa that come free (and are refilled continually) with every meal.
Our orders arrived swiftly, spanning their plates and platters with a bodacity that scoffed take that! at the pee-wee portions so ubiquitous elsewhere in town. A cheese quesadilla was elegantly simple: vast flour tortilla folded in half over thick blanket of Monterey Jack, slashed diagonally thrice, garnished with tennis-ball-sized dollops of sour cream and guacamole. From fork to plate enroute to face, that melted Jack spun foot-long strands. Stuffed with delicately spiced eggs, black beans, and rice, a brick-sized huevos Mexicanos burrito shared its platter with a scoop of — what the heck? — cole slaw. Yet it worked, the slaw in its slightly sweet vinaigrette a crunchy acerbic counterpoint to the burrito’s protein-packed carbo-softness. The burrito was served “wet,” which means swimming in what the menu calls “our famous red sauce.” No name-checking of chile-species there. No, it’s their sauce. And it’s famous. Which means — and this is the old-fashioned part — just trust us. Another anachronism is the menu’s “North of the Border” section: burgers and fries for those who, one imagines, in some long-ago era actually were afraid of fajitas.
Over the speakers, salsa tunes and cha-cha alternated with Nat King Cole crooning in funnily accented Spanish: Y cuando el milagro. … A candle inside a frosted glass flung pulsing flashes across our table, sparkling in the ice in the cups an extremely attentive waiter kept refilling with water. The extravagantly juicy pepper comprising our chile relleno was grilled to a velvety softness, filled to bursting with cheese and topped with mole sauce. A Spanish omelet, folded into a perfect square, made fast friends with fluffy, savory Spanish rice. Most intriguing of all was the chimichanga, a deep-fried burrito whose origins most likely lie in the American Southwest. Crunchy outside, moist and emollient if a bit too salty inside, it’s Tex-Mex’s answer to the eggroll. Ours was the vegetarian version, stuffed with chopped carrots, potatoes, onions, and peppers: Across its top, an homage to Mexico’s flag: broad stripes of salsa, sour cream, and guacamole.
Our server was considerate to the point of kindness. This is rare — and granted, it might have had something to do with the fact that we had his attention practically all to ourselves: Only two other tables in the roomy restaurant were occupied. This is always worrisome. Establishing itself over the decades as a haven for family repasts, office bashes, and retro candlelight romance, Celia’s took a big risk by relocating half a block from the UC Berkeley campus, where nearly all diners are students seeking cheap quick meals and who, bless ’em, maintain neither memories nor loyalties for that part of the past. But all those who love kitsch, hark: This is not reconstructed retro. This is not new miming old. This is not faux. Celia’s is that most exceptional of artifacts: vintage yet still very much alive.