Atalaya Cafe offers casual twist in Marin By Vincent Leo

Upon entering the bright turquoise door of Atalaya Cafe, one can easily see why the establishment isn’t a typical Marin fine dining experience. Natural light floods the room through multiple large picture windows, creating a lively atmosphere. Conversations are energetic and chatter fills the air. The open kitchen and tiled floors add to the relaxed cafe style. Where one expects to find a dimly lit, formal environment filled with pristine tablecloths and beautiful works of art, Atalaya Cafe trades this image for a more casual and vibrant setting.

The Santa Fe-style restaurant, located in downtown San Rafael, has been open for less than two months but has already seen remarkable success. With chef and co-owner Sam Gallegos originating from Santa Fe, the cuisine highlights the combination of the rich flavors of his roots with fresh, seasonal ingredients. The menu is distinctive and innovative, providing a diverse range of options that appeal to all ages.

Fluffy and pillowy, the Santa Fe style native fry bread was sweet, rich and addictive.

Setting the bar high, the native fry bread is an exceptional start to a meal. Laid delicately in a wire basket and protected with a paper napkin, the three warm, pillowy loaves looked almost too perfect to touch. In a separate container on the side, a small square of warm butter began to melt and blend into a pool of golden honey.

As I took my first bite, the ingredients combined perfectly. Abundant amounts of sweet honey-butter spread seeped into the bread, complementing the crispy, fried crust and permeating the fluffy center. Each morsel was addicting, and I was lathering new pieces before I could even eat them. This complimentary item was without question my favorite and I was even tempted to order more for dessert (four for $6).

Warm and hearty, the spring vegetable salad displayed a mixture of colorful vegetables topped with a creamy poached egg.

For appetizers, the warm spring vegetable salad ($16) contained a colorful mixture of lightly cooked yet crispy vegetables. Each was delicately cut into miniaturized pieces, which made the dish look small at first, but it turned out to be a hearty portion. The sauce was light, and didn’t overpower the fresh taste of the salad. Perched atop the vegetables, a creamy poached duck egg provided just the right amount of protein. Albeit an unexpected combination of ingredients, the dish was pleasing to both the palette and the eye.

Simmering in a savory broth, the clams and mussels were sweet, plump and rich with flavor.

Following suit, the clams and mussels ($16) were equally as appealing. The dish was creatively served in a clay pot, with the seafood simmering in a savory broth. Plump mussels and sweet clams filled their shells, supplying a buttery and rich taste. Braised fennel and tender pork belly infused the broth with additional flavor. Once finished with the shellfish, the light crostini can be dipped into the tasty broth.

Ready to be assembled, the Santa Fe style “folds” included house made corn tortillas, pork belly, spicy pork shoulder, cabbage slaw, fire roasted salsa and chunky guacamole.

In terms of main courses, the “folds” are a house speciality. These dishes are Santa Fe style tacos, which are served with small, warm homemade corn tortillas, salsa and guacamole ready for assembly. The pork belly “folds” ($19) featured tender and rich pork belly alongside braised pork shoulder and cabbage slaw seasoned with apple cider vinaigrette. The pork belly ended up being overpowered by the kick of the shoulder and salsa, however this dish was redeemed by the satisfying crunch of the tortilla and the smooth texture of the guacamole. On the second taco, I was able to achieve the perfect ratio of spicy pork to cool guacamole by eliminating the salsa.

The pan seared Mt. Lassen trout ($27) was the only disappointment. Although the presentation was delightful and showcased a large piece of fish on a bed of colorful vegetables, the dish was lackluster. The fish was slightly dry and dense, making it difficult to finish the plate. Some of the leeks were too tough on the outer layer, making them inedible. On the positive side, the fish had a pleasant flavor and was seared to produce a crispy skin, while the vegetables were coated in a refreshing meyer lemon butter sauce.

Succulent and tender, the braised short ribs were mouth watering and filling.

By far the most delicious entree, the braised short ribs ($35) were well worth the cost. Two very large, succulent slices of meat sat on a bed of smooth, creamy mashed potatoes and spring vegetables. Each bite of the beef was tender and juicy. It felt as if the meat had been dumped into the clam and mussels broth and left there to braise for hours. The portion was exceedingly generous and I already felt full after a few minutes of digging in. Hands down, this dish was the best short ribs I have ever had and I highly recommend trying them.

The restaurant is definitely outside of the average teenage budget, with most appetizers averaging $12 and entrees ranging from $17 to $35. Cost aside, the portions were plentiful and the quality was exceptional, matching that of any fine dining experience. The servers were polite and attentive, frequently checking in and taking care of every detail efficiently. The only downside, ambiance wise, was the awkward acoustics which made the room quite noisy and a bit difficult to hear the person sitting right next to me.

Atalaya Cafe offers a superb culinary experience that combines high quality food with a comfortable environment. Relaxed yet dynamic, this restaurant provides a local fine dining experience that appeals to those who favor a more casual setting.


Photos and video by Vincent Leo

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