Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
For Fernando Rodriguez, five is a very lucky number: Rodriquez was born in May, the fifth month of the year, the fifth child born to a family of twelve who would eventually assume part ownership of the fifth Celia’s Restaurant. This one, located near the harbor in San Rafael, California, was launched in 1971 and is the centerpiece of the family-owned chain.
Celia’s Restaurants are known among diners in San Francisco and beyond as places to get first-rate Mexican cuisine at affordable prices. The first Celia’s was launched in 1965 on Judah Street in San Francisco by Perfecto and Celia Lopez. This eatery, which is still in business, was an instant hit – customers immediately drawn to the clean atmosphere and the friendly staff; almost over-night, Celia’s became known as the place to get a great margarita and enjoy an authentic Mexican meal.
And during these last four decades, not much has changed: Celia’s is still the place to go if you are hungry for a big plate of food cooked and served up by real people.
“After my aunt and uncle opened Celia’s number one, my brother Rafael and I immigrated from Mexico and went to work for them,” remembers Rodriguez. “My uncle taught us to cook, and showed us how to run a restaurant. From that, we opened Celia’s number two in San Mateo, that was around 1968.” Rodriquez pauses, staring into the kitchen when countless vats of fresh tortilla chips sit and cool; finally, he continues: “We keep going, opening new places, because you have to keep going and try and do the best for yourself and your family. That’s what Celia’s is about: trying to do the best we can for ourselves and our customers.”
In addition to the food, what is best about Celia’s is the homey feel: this is not so much a typical bay area restaurant as it is a cantina you’d find in Mexico or El Centro – this place is about home style Mexican cooking in a rustic atmosphere. For Rodriguez and his crew, the focus is on the food and service – their goal is to please the customer. Big platters and quick service means you walk out full and satisfied, and not feeling as though you have been cheated by the “dining experience.”
Big menu, the standouts are many, but try the Crab enchiladas first – filling is made with chopped mushrooms and plentiful crab and the green sauce accentuates the taste nicely. Also great grilled garlic-glazed prawns. And the best Carne Asada I’ve ever had. For this dish, Rodriguez’s marinates pieces of skirt steak in an array of herbs. The big platter comes complete with tortillas, rice, beans and some first-rate guacamole. Other high points include the Camarones Especiales, consisting of jumbo shrimp stuffed with jack cheese and wrapped in smoky bacon. Carnitas de Pollo is a wonderful chicken stir-fry (chicken breast, white onion and bell pepper in Celia’s special sauce: this is a perfect choice for the diet conscious diner who will savor something tasty with this dish while still watching calorie intake). Also high quality from the typical Mexican menu — with very good burritos and excellent beef enchiladas (notable for their sauces and the well-seasoned fillings).
DESSERT: Desserts are limited, but what’s here is quite good. The centerpiece is a traditional Mexican dessert called Sopapillas — deep fried flour-tortilla chips topped with honey, cinnamon and vanilla ice cream. The Flan is also note-worthy, a homemade vanilla custard creation that’s delicate and light but not overly sweet.
BAR: Full bar. Large selection of tequilas. Authentic margaritas in tall glasses which are the big hit here.
STAFF: Quick service. Courtesy. Non-pretentious with an eye towards customer satisfaction.
ATMOSPHERE: Very clean. This big place can sometimes get very loud on weekends, so it’s hard to carry on an intimate conversation at the Saturday night dinner hour.
OVER-ALL: Great choice for Mexican food. Outside of the Mission District in San Francisco, Celia’s is the place to go if you want to enjoy a night on the town over a burrito and beer.
COST: Inexpensive to moderate; two can drink and dine nicely for $40 or under.
Notwithstanding the fact that our original review (published February 2004) discussed Celia’s in terms of dinner, the place is also a great option for lunch – and one which should be considered before opting for that greasy fast-food burger.
Celia’s (serving lunch between 11 AM and 3 PM) has a varied and extensive lunch menu that is rich on flavor, but light on the wallet. When you take into account that the typical fast-food lunch runs between five and six bucks, the reason to seek out Celia’s seems obvious: fresh home-cooked food in heaping portions served for only a fraction more than any one of the burger chains.
We sampled many items from the lunch menu (Mexican specialties and a couple of hefty burgers), and found the lunch fare consistently good. Highlights abound, but the Expresso Burrito stands tall. For $7.15, you’ll get a huge flour tortilla full of rice, beans, cheese and chile verde pork — topped with guacamole, onions, tomatoes, parmesan cheese and the house red sauce. Even the biggest eater will have enough here.
The Fajita Burrito ($7.65) is also quite a meal: a giant flour tortilla crammed with rice, beans, onions, bell peppers and your choice of chicken or steak (topped with guacamole and tomatoes) makes for an elegant Mexican “sandwich.” On the healthier side, the Tostada Salad or the Seafood Salad offer flavorful alternatives – satisfying meals built around fresh crisp vegetables.
Whether you happen on Celia’s for lunch, dinner or a mid-afternoon snack, you’ll find a warm and welcoming dining room with quality food priced affordably. We especially recommend the lunch fare to workers on their meal break or students wanting a respite from the typical cafeteria grind.