Samba Grille and Its Chef, David Guerrero, Are About More Than Just Steak

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A few months ago, I watched as mouth-watering photos of ceviches and tiraditos and steaks and seafood came marching through my Twitter stream. They were all from Samba Grille, where the downtown steakhouse with a strong South American twist was doing a media tasting.

The photos from my friends attending the tasting were wholly different from those I saw the last time the steakhouse did a media tasting back in July 2011. Our own Christina Uticone covered that one, and I relished the pictures of the yucca-bolstered crab cakes, the cubes of roasted pork belly with a tamarind finish. No other restaurant in town uses tamarind to quite the effect Samba does; its inventive tamarind-glazed salmon gives me hope that one day we'll never see a trite teriyaki glaze on any piece of fish, anywhere, ever again.

The most recent tasting showcased a different side of the restaurant, however: its raw fish treatments, which plumb the depths of South American -- and specifically Peruvian -- cuisine far more than the restaurant's initial churrascaria roots would have belied. Greg Morago at the Chroncle praised the stunning, modern plates of sea bass carpaccio and scallop tiradito as "inventive, beautifully plated dishes shot through with vivid flavors."

And much of this new acclaim is thanks to Samba Grille's new chef, 29-year-old David Guerrero.

When it opened a year and a half ago, Samba Grille was a much different place. It was a restaurant that offered rodizio-style service, with various cuts of meat carved off skewers tableside. Its a la carte dishes only offered a hint of what was to come.

In this week's cafe review, we take a look at the drastic ways in which Samba Grille has changed since then. Guerrero has been helping to create and implement changes to the menu since being promoted from sous chef to executive chef this past May, only a year after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

Even before his promotion, the Ecuadorian native was suggesting newer and sleeker dishes for the steakhouse, dishes like rugged strips of grilled beef heart or elegant tiraditos. Those dishes eventually made the menu and are what make Samba Grille the knockout it is today -- and Samba was already a heavyweight to begin with.

The gut-wrenching story of Guerrero's battle with brain cancer has been well documented by Mai Pham both here and at the Examiner, where Pham hoped to get Guerrero nominated for Examiner's "America Inspired" contest. Guerrero has no medical insurance and his cancer -- while currently in remission -- is incurable, and will likely recur. He's hoping to raise the $35,000 needed for experimental treatments, which the America Inspired cash prize of $100,000 would have helped him accomplish. Unfortunately, the chef was not named a finalist in the contest.

Guerrero is undeterred, however. The chef, who Tweets from an account that combines his name with that of Samba Grille, is wholly devoted to the restaurant. When he's not busy cooking, he keeps his Twitter account updated with shoutouts to other chefs in town and his own nightly specials.

On Sunday night, the special was a deconstructed tuna "encebollado" with sous vide tuna, jumbo shrimp, yucca puree, and a sour orange consomme. There's no telling what Guerrero's specialty will be tonight, and that's half the reason to eat there.

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