Two for the Road

Posted on December 3, 2019

Living and dining around the globe can have a major influence on what you crave once home. For Mario and Morgan Guerra, those dishes are translated on the menu at Valentina, the cozy Leucadia eatery named for their three-year-old daughter. Steak Frites and Beef Tartare aim to rival the Paris brasserie; a meatball starter and Midwestern mac-and-cheese will silence the prickliest aficionados; oh, and the motherlode of mole. They’ve got that too.

“We wanted to it be approachable with a community vibe,” says Morgan, an Encinitas native and longtime jewelry designer.

Mario and Morgan Guerra at their family’s ranch, a source of inspiration (and lemons!) for the couple’s Valentina restaurant

Having grown up with a big extended family in Mexico City and later Coronado, Mario knows a thing or 200 about entertaining. His mother, Charo, has an open-door policy at her sprawling nine-acre Rancho Santa Fe ranch, where the couple married back in 2015 and where all of the family’s birthdays and holiday celebrations take place. And ¡Salud!: The family produces its own mezcal, Bruxo, busted out for all occasions (including our photo shoot).

¡Salud! The Guerra family produces its own mezcal, Bruxo, as well.

The estate features tennis courts, a barn utilized for exotic cars (“It’s for horsepower,” laughs Morgan), as well as citrus groves where the restaurant sources its trademark lemons that adorn tables nightly. It’s one of the homespun touches that make Valentina so beloved by locals.

Designed by fifth-generation San Diegan Alexis Garrett, the Guerras’ indoor-outdoor restaurant makes a decided understatement. Here, the batten-board walls recall nearby beach cottages while custom art adds curiosity. Fixtures are crafted from motorcycle helmets, a nod to Mario’s fast-lane hobbies, while a ubiquitous flower mural by S.D.’s Mollie Marigold femmes up the space. Even cozier? When the sun dips down, servers dole out blankets by local company Gunn & Swain.

Famous for her lamb mole, Chef Lisa Ortiz also features lighter fare like beet and Brussels salads, oysters du jour, charred pulpo, and the house fave: salmon with cashew pesto. In the spirit of the couple’s travels, Sommelier Derry Van Nortwick has created Leucadia’s most evolved wine list to date. There’s Vinho Verde from Portugal, Rhône Grenache Blanc, two kinds of Champagne, and a long list of Vino Tinto from Gran Reserva Rioja to pinot noir from both the Sonoma Coast and France.

Valentina’s salmon

Valentina’s salmon, broccolini-quinoa, cashew pesto

After the pair replaced Mario’s original Moto Deli concept with Valentina earlier this year, local fans of the motorcycle-themed sandwich shop took their protests to Yelp and Instagram. “There were thousands of messages,” says Morgan. “We had no idea there was this fan base.”

Moto Deli’s Turketta sandwich

Moto Deli’s Turketta sandwich

So, they did what any good local business owners do: They listened. The original Moto Deli chef Andrew Halvorsen is back at the helm of a new space (located in the former Yotopia space), churning out the house-cured Turketta sandwich made with smoked turkey breast, bacon, avocado, apricot mostarda, arugula, aged white cheddar, and house “moto spread” on squaw bread.

While the revived Moto Deli is open for lunch, Valentina has the dinner crowd covered. Here, keep eyes peeled for the wee blonde hostess and restaurant namesake. She might just recommend a favorite dish. motodeli.com, restaurantvalentina.com   Gillian Flynn

Guerra family: Photography by Vincent Knakal   Valentina design: photography by Madie McKay     Moto Deli: courtesy photo     Valentina food: Photo by Pinpoint Photography/Brent Worley