San Francisco’s Californios restaurant has been described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “refined,” “luxe” and “Mexican food in a fresh light.” Thrillist said it provided “a take on Mexican food unlike any you’ve ever tasted,” and the Michelin Guide called it “brilliant” and a “luxurious oasis” in the city’s bohemian Mission District.
Ever since its 2014 opening, Californios has inspired paeans like these from critics and diners alike. And while it may feel far away, there’s a little pinch of Brownwood in every dish — head chef Val Cantu, his wife Carolyn and sister-in-law Charlotte Randolph co-own the restaurant and are all graduates of Brownwood High School.
Randolph, who graduated from BHS in 2006, spoke to the Bulletin on Tuesday afternoon from her San Francisco home. She is the middle child of the five Randolph girls — Carolyn, Martha, Charlotte, Helen and Grace, all BHS grads.
Randolph said her family moved to Brownwood when she was in middle school because her father owned Randolph Chrysler, which is now Stanley Chrysler. But when her father died in a 2002 plane crash, Randolph’s whole world was suddenly turned upside down — and her high school experience suffered because of it.
“That was a hard time for me. I ended up dropping out of high school,” she said. “It just felt like a hamster wheel of high-school negativity. I didn’t have time to grieve.”
Randolph ended up taking correspondence courses before returning and, ultimately, graduating on time.
“I know a lot of high-schoolers struggle for a lot of different reasons, and it’s definitely something that molded me into who I am today,” she said.
When she finally left Brownwood, Randolph spent a year with a relative in central Mexico and then started applying for colleges. She enrolled at the University of Colorado where she studied Spanish literature, then went to graduate school in Spain.
But Randolph said she has been around restaurants since her Brownwood days. “My first restaurant job was at Section Hand [Steakhouse],” she said, “and my sister Helen worked at the Runaway Train in high school. So I’ve been in the industry in the front of the house, and Val’s food really propelled this idea that maybe we should host a few dinners and gauge reactions.”
Val and Carolyn Cantu were high school sweethearts, and had moved to San Francisco to pursue his cooking and her interior design passions. A year after they arrived, Randolph followed. She said they started doing “pop-ups,” or temporary restaurants, around the city to show off Val’s food.
“It was very unsure, very scary and financially devastating,” Randolph said of that time. “I just had confidence in his food and the concept behind this cuisine.” Her confidence paid off — when the trio found the right location in 2014, they took the plunge and traded the pop-ups for a permanent location. Dozens of glowing reviews later, the restaurant is going strong.
Carolyn designed the Californios interior, drawing on her days working for world-renowned designer Ken Fulk. Charlotte specializes in the beverage program and wine pairings — the Chronicle said she’s “good at bringing the elements together.”
Their little sister Helen even opened up a lifestyle shop called The Human Condition across the street.
Now, Randolph said she hopes to be an example of what’s possible for the Brownwood students who feel marginalized and alone. “I’m trying to be the role model that I never had,” she said. “I feel for all the high-schoolers going through such a transition period in their lives, and I hope that I can be a beacon of hope for some students that find it hard to get through.”
More information about Californios and its owners is available at www.californiossf.com.