The menu at Karina’s Cantina and its sister restaurants in and around the San Diego, California, area have always centered on seafood: a variety of fresh ceviches and Sinaloan aguachiles served with crisp tostadas and mayonnaise; plump, sweet grilled prawns doused in garlic butter; fish tacos bursting with texture and spice.
“My dad was a perfectionist in every aspect,” says co-owner David Contreras Curiel. “And obviously the preparation and the quality of the product is something that he always made sure we had the best of. You pay a little more, but we’re in business for the long run, and we’re gonna give the best to our consumers. It’s something we’ve always done.”
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David’s parents, the late Don Arnulfo Contreras and his wife María Inés Curiel, opened the original Karina’s, which they named after their daughter, in 1981. Except for a brief attempt to make it as a professional singer in his early twenties, David has spent most of his life in the family business. “I was basically born into it,” he says.
“We worked in the restaurant since we were kids, me and my siblings. You know, cleaning the parking lot, peeling shrimp. My dad always instilled this work ethic. At the time, maybe we didn’t like it—my friends were playing soccer and baseball, and I had to work on the weekends—but I understood it. And I appreciate it now, obviously.” He recalls his dad teaching him to make umbrellas with palm fronds to shade the outdoor patio seating. “Those were our weekends.”
The restaurant’s design has shifted over the years to suit David’s taste and is something he’s particularly proud of. “We show our roots with our colors, our music, and our food, but in a tasteful way,” David says. At the newest Karina’s Cantina in the Gaslamp Quarter, the walls are filled with curated Mexican art and colorful tile work. An imposing portrait of the artist Frida Kahlo hangs above the bar keeping a watchful eye on the dining room. And in the evenings, a DJ booth looming overhead on the second floor lays down the soundtrack for diners. David describes his design as “eclectic modern” and anything but cliché.
San Diego Fish TacosThese delightfully complex tacos are a family affair at Karina’s Cantina.
There are now seven Karina’s restaurants throughout San Diego County. David and his brother Arnulfo have also expanded their business empire to include a wholesale seafood business; a seafood market, which they are currently building a restaurant inside of; and three non-Mexican dining concepts.
“My dad would tell us, ‘You can’t just stick to one thing, because you never know what’s going to happen in life.’”
After sampling the menu at the Gaslamp location, I join David in the kitchen for a fish taco demo. In the San Diego taco vernacular, tacos cooked on a flat-top griddle like these are referred to as “grilled,” even though they are essentially sautéed. Most restaurants—Karina’s included—follow this naming convention, likely to differentiate them from the ever-popular Baja-style, deep-fried variety. (According to David, fish tacos are frequently sautéed when served in Mexican homes.)
At Karina’s they fill the tacos with cod because it’s flavorful and sturdy and goes well with the zarandeado sauce that gets slooshed over the fish as it cooks. However, most any whitefish of similar texture and flavor would work fine. Red snapper is commonly used in Mexico.
The cod is cut into strips just big enough to occupy a standard 6-inch corn tortilla and then seasoned with salt and pepper and dredged lightly in flour. The chef lays down a small pool of oil and butter on the griddle before adding the fish, which he allows to brown on the first side for a couple of minutes. Just before flipping, the chef grabs a squeeze bottle and squirts a healthy dose of a piquant zarandeado sauce on the fish.
The sauce—made with a combination of mayonnaise, sour cream, mustard, and a variety of chiles, among many other ingredients—reduces on the fish, imparting its light orange color and complex heat. The cooked strips of cod are transferred to waiting corn tortillas, where they’re topped with shredded cabbage, diced tomato, cilantro, a final squirt of zarandeado sauce thinned with more mayonnaise, pickled red onions, and thinly sliced avocado.