Our chile en nogada, however, was horrible. The traditional recipe calls for room-temperature, meat-stuffed poblano peppers, swathed in a ground walnut-cream sauce, with pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top. This dish (from Puebla) is served for Mexican Independence Day in September, when all the ingredients are in season. I'm happy to encounter it any time of the year, but not in Tesoro's rendition. In the best versions I've had, the chiles were filled with shredded braised beef garnished with fruits, herbs, and spices. Tesoro uses lean, dry hamburger meat, which tastes as if it's been boiled in water and drained to remove all fat, then minimally amended with minced onions and raisins. The final blow is the substitution of harsher and hotter chiles pasillas for gentle poblanos. Chef Martinez later verified that he prefers the pasillas, to counter the sweet flavors of the filling and toppings. (Well, some like it hot.) Officially, the chef includes both ground walnuts and pine nuts in the cream sauce, but we couldn't perceive any nuts. It tasted like chiles no-nogada, and that's no good-a.
Our coffee was weak and served tepid; the desserts were simple and sparing of effort. A pastel de crepas ("crêpe cake") had layers of "chocolate crepes" alternating with chocolate whipped cream, piled atop a pool of raspberry sauce. Not too sweet or chocolatey, the effect was pleasant, although the crêpes had a texture closer to tortillas than their French namesakes. Simpler yet are plátanos machos, ripe plantain slices robed in caramel sauce. Plantains have a starchy texture, so this dish won't be to all tastes. (I'd prefer regular bananas, myself.) In summer, I might go for the Michoacán-style Mexican popsicles in tropical flavors. The final dessert choice is the inevitable flan, which I didn't try.
With Tesoro, the Gaslamp is now home to three restaurants-with-attached-nightclubs serving alta cocina mexicana (Mexican haute cuisine) -- the Latin Room and Candelas are the other two. Tesoro is promising, and many dishes are delicious. Overall, though, it still can't hold a candle to Candelas, the oldest and best of the trio (if also the priciest), where every dish comes complete with all its necessary parts.
ABOUT THE OWNERS AND THE CHEF
Rosie Vera, the primary force behind Tesoro, was raised in San Diego. Her mother is from Zacatecas, her father from Michoacán. "The restaurant has been a long time in the planning," she says. "I grew up in the kitchen with my mom and grandma. I was fascinated by the cooking. So I always wanted to open a Mexican restaurant and serve the authentic dishes that we serve here -- with the modern twist, of course. I didn't want to do the traditional presentation, so we added a little French twist to it, which is very good."
She started saving for her own restaurant back in high school, working two jobs at a time. There was a two-year delay in construction of the restaurant, hassling with the permit process. "I couldn't have gone this far without the support of my family -- my mother, who often does prep in the kitchen, and my brother Ricky, who comes to our rescue whenever and wherever we need him. He's washing dishes right now."
Tesoro's opening chef, Hawaiian-reared David Salgado, moved back to his home state sometime in February, leaving former sous-chef Fernando Martinez in charge of cooking the menu both chefs devised in concert with the owners.
"My family in Acapulco has a couple of restaurants there," says chef Fernando. "They've been cooking for the last fifty, seventy years. They cooked for the governors of the Guerrero state of Mexico. That's how I discovered myself in the kitchen. They taught me how to cook and all about Mexican food." Seven years ago, his father moved to Southern California. "I visited him, and I decided to stay for a little while.
"I have a number of dishes on the menu that are my own recipes. Pollo en tequila [chicken with tequila and tamarind sauce] is my recipe, and so is shrimp and chipotle chiles with creamy rice. The filete mignon al chipotle [filet with chipotles] is from my family, and so is halibut with almonds. I have a lot of my home plates that I want to show to everyone."