By David Nelson / Photos by Sara Norris
It's not supposed to happen this way. Suburban restaurants that play to family audiences don't leap from cozy neighborhoods to the beating hearts of great big cities.
If the Karina's group of restaurants has mushroomed from the mom-and-pop original in Spring Valley (which opened in September 1981), then the family-operated, increasingly adventurous firm nonetheless has taken 33 years to dance the distance to downtown San Diego. Along the way, the performance has acquired flash, daring, sophistication and a cast of bold new eateries, and seems as ready for Broadway as downtown is for Mexican cuisine garnished with fantasy and wit.
"X" marks the spot at the intersection of 10th and B Street, where, in January, Karina's will open an eye-popping showcase for its unique style of entertaining with more than food and drink. A pair of giant concrete struts crisscross the street-facing sides of the building, and the restaurant intends to paint them pink. Startling pink. Chula Vista." src="http://www.pacificsandiego.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Screen-Shot-2014-09-24-at-10.48.31-AM.jpg" alt="Inside Savoie in Chula Vista." width="370" height="260" />
Drop by the zoo and check out the flamingos - that kind of pink. The message that Karina's Downtown has raised its curtain will be unmissable, audacious, unabashedly theatrical.
David Contreras Curiel, the youngest of six siblings and spokesman for the group, was only two when his parents, Arnulfo Contreras and Maria Ines Curiel, opened the original Karina's. They named it after their eldest daughter, worked endlessly and commuted daily from Tijuana, where the family lived until all the sweat bred prosperity.
Today, David, his brother Arnulfo and other relatives control an expanding empire that has begun employing the family's third generation.
"We're excited to come downtown," says David, a quiet-seeming 35-year-old whose gift is an imagination that runs around the rims of the known universe each time he designs a new restaurant. "We've waited this long and think we're in the right place at the right time. We're stepping away from our comfort zone and want to be the staple Mexican restaurant in downtown San Diego.
"To transform desire into certainty, David dumped his unique bag of tricks on the concrete floor of a space with room for 150, with more seating planned for a patio that will be surrounded with gardens of cactus and greenery.
"Our concept can work here," says David, referring to the boundlessly imaginative environments created for Karina's newest establishments: the French-Italian themed Savoie in Otay Ranch Town Center; the pop-culture Enamorada in Eastlake and the just-opened, highly entertaining La Tequila on Bonita Road in Chula Vista. (At this one, dessert can be a paleta, or sweetened, frozen fruit juice on a stick, enjoyed with an optional shot of tequila.)
"We try to bring good food that is true to Mexico to a great space where you feel like you're in Mexico," says David. "You forget you're in downtown San Diego. You step in here to our colors, our music, our culture - everything 'Mexico' pops [a word he uses often and expressively], it's exaggerated. We make Mexican culture into something people can enjoy with our food."
This might seem a tall order, until you see how David employs fanciful art to narrate interiors visually. He creates comfortable but unusual settings that transport guests to other places and times, even while they dine on tart ceviches, comprehensive selections of seafood dishes and, at La Tequila, specialties like carne en su jugo, a tangy, Guadalajara-style dish of thinly sliced carne asada (spiced steak) served swimming in its broth.
The flagship Karina's in Chula Vista (there are two others) shows how David has developed his vision. Inside a broad window etched with a marlin sailing above tumbling waves, the dining room travels from an entry hung with a collection of elaborate crosses to large, formal portraits of 1930s and '40s Mexican movie stars. All appear to be posing for the camera, in sepia tones and in character- a handsome lover with a guitar, a mustachioed cowboy pouring tequila. An actress who stares boldly into your eyes brings to mind the waitresses at all the restaurants. Collectively known as the "Karina's Girls," they are uniformly well dressed, with perfect hair, perfect nails, perfect makeup and perfect smiles, and for many years have published a pin-up calendar to benefit charities.
David routinely hides mysteries and messages in artworks, and employsan artist who creates everything to order. At Savoie, an elegant, lively place that serves flavorful Italian fare and truly "pops" most nights, a reproduction of a famous French painting replaces the original faces with those of family members. The Mexican flag and eagle always appear somewhere in David's décors, and fanciful details are endless - including upside-down cows grazing on the men's ceiling at Savoie.
At Karina's Downtown, David says a 20-foot-long mural will focus on "Los charros, the bullring cowboys, and los toreros, the bullfighters." The painting of the inside of an arena will draw diners into the spectacle. Scenes from Mexico will be hand-painted on the bar, and the rainbow of colors applied everywhere will burst in turquoise, green and radiant pink.
That the menu combines elements from Karina's, Enamorada and La Tequila poses the question, "Why 'Mangada' mañana when you can drink one today?" Sly and understated, the blend of tequila with mango, pineapple, agave and lime slips coolly over the teeth but swings by later to deliver a punch. One of the nine specialty margaritas created for La Tequila, the Mangada romances dishes like crisp carnitas and spice-rich mole enchiladas every bit as fervently as wine and beer.
David envisions Karina's Downtown as something of a Party Central, with DJs Thursday through Saturday keeping the crowd popping. Yet, as fancy and fanciful as the place will be compared to the Spring Valley original, he doesn't forget his family's beginnings.
"The restaurant business is what our parents taught us, and we cherish it," says David. "We try to bring a piece of Mexico into each of our restaurants."
Spacious, gracious and superbly decorated with whimsy and references to famous artworks, Savoie explores the sunny cuisine of the Savoy region of France and Italy in an unforgettable milieu.
2015 Birch Rd., #720, Chula Vista
The flagship of this home- grown chain of Mexican restaurants, Karina's emphasizes the bounty of the sea on a menu famous for ceviches and seafood "cokteles," celebrating the culture of Mexico with bold, engaging décor.
Karina's Mexican Seafood Cuisine
1. 986 Broadway, Chula Vista, 619.476.8648, karinasseafood.com
2. 820 Jamacha Rd., El Cajon, 619.588.4119
3. 1705 Highland Ave., National City, 619.477.8877
4. 925 B St., Downtown - Coming Soon
La Tequila Mexican Cocina
Fun, lively, casual and enhanced by a broad terrace, La Tequila delights the eye with details like a metal tree sculpture that continues with a ceiling mural of spreading leaves. The menu highlights robust Mexican favorites including carnitas and shrimp with garlic sauce. Frozen fruit ices, if desired, are served in a snifter of tequila.
La Tequila Mexican Cocina
89 Bonita Rd., Chula Vista
The other-worldly interior at Eastlake's liveliest restaurant is the setting for an extensive menu of traditional seafood dishes and other specialties - and for hearty partying with DJs on weekends.
866 Eastlake Pkwy., Ste. 110, Chula Vista