MEXICAN TALES: 5 New Mexican Spots
Article & Photos by Virginia Miller
Mexican food of all regions and categories is not only commonplace in California, it’s essential to our culture, intertwined as we are with our Mexican heritage. One can find Mexican food of every stripe across this massive state, whether San Francisco’s vibrant Mission District taquerias, the farming communities and eateries of hot, inland Central California, to the rich cuisines of LA’s 50%+ Mexican population, which I grew up with.
In an already dense sea of choices, the past year has brought yet another wave of new Mexican restaurants to the Bay. Theres been high profile openings, like Joanne Weirs sunny but hit-and-miss (in terms of food and service) Copita in Sausalito, or trendy cocktail haven, Comal in Berkeley. Popular Nopalito opened a second location in the Inner Sunset, though Ive never been obsessed with Nopalito as many are. Despite appreciating its ultra-fresh approach, I’m somehow left wanting, craving a little greasy authenticity (i.e. flavor).
New York chain Rosa Mexicano attempted the potentially crazy: bringing their version of upscale Mexican to California. It hasnt exactly been a hit among foodies despite being bustling during workday lunches. Though overpriced at $14, their seasonal guacamole prepared tableside can be deliciously unusual, like a fall rendition with pear, pomegranate seeds and toasted hazelnuts.
Amidst the newcomers, these five stand out for varying reasons – whether one shining dish or strong food/drink menus – in settings as varied as hole-in-the-wall sandwich joint to a Cole Valley hotspot.
PADRECITO, Cole Valley (901 Cole St. at Carl, 415-742-5505)
My favorite new Mexican restaurant in SF is Padrecito. Nevermind that its crazy-difficult to get a reservation even at 5:30pm on a Tuesday (hint: arrive during opening hour on a weeknight when there’s seats at the bar and eat there instead).
Padrecito wins in quality across the board: food, drink, decor and service. A warm tone is set with relaxed service and elevated cantina décor colorful tiles, navy blue walls in the bar, Mexican art, booths. Most importantly, Executive Chef/Owner Luis Contreras, Sous Chefs, Antonio Rivera and Juan Hernandez, and Bar Manager David Roark Ruiz, ensure the star is the food, cocktails, tequila and mezcal selection.
Tacos are reason enough to go. Gourmet, yes, but authentically flavorful slow-cooked meats, housemade tortillas and salsas. Im a sucker for crispy calamari ($9) juicy, in this case, with chimichurri aioli and chipotle-chayote slaw. Another winner? Goat barbacoa tacos ($10) topped with avocado and kale sprouts (essentially fried kale, also as a $7 side), are both gratifyingly meaty and “green”.
But the most superb, unique taco is the irresistibly tender duck enmarmalada taco ($10). Shredded duck is textured with a smear of refried black beans, lush with arbol chili marmalade and manchego cheese.
I have yet to find a dud on the menu, comforted by breakfast-worthy smoked bacon chilaquiles ($13), layered with sweet peas, salsa amarilla, pumpkin seeds and cojita cheese, or colorful salads, like ensalada fresca ($9): a mound of jicama, chicories, kumquat and spiced pepitas in lime-agave vinaigrette. Head out blissful after a finish of homey churros dipped in mocha/coffee mascarpone ($9).
Drink is equally destination-worthy here, starting with a strong tequila and mezcal selection. Ruiz’ approachable tequila/mezcal-heavy cocktail list ($8-11) sets the standard with a Padrecito, their rendition of a margarita, a tinge of mezcal adding whispers of smoke. The cocktail star is La Copa Verde, a savory yet refreshing imbibement of mezcal, cilantro and lime doused with chipotle powder – vivid green in a coupe glass. Though there are many worthwhile cocktails on the menu, the Verde stands out like a memorable dish: layered with spicy, vegetal notes.
EL TECHO de LOLINDA, Mission (2518 Mission St. between 21st & 22nd, 415-550-6970)
While Lolinda downstairs is a more exciting, consistent menu in food and cocktails, El Techo de Lolinda, Lolinda’s upstairs rooftop lounge, is about two things: that fantastic rooftop bar and view – which were grateful to have access to again – and the house chicharrones de carne. These are not your crispy, chip-like chicharrones. This is more like chicharrones Ive downed roadside in Peru: roasted pork shoulder (half lb. $12, 1 lb. $18, 1.5 lbs $29), falling apart, with a crisp exterior dusted in cayenne and sugar. Wrapped up in tortillas and squeezed with lime, its groan-worthy good. Being an obsessed chicharrones fan, Ryan Farr has long reigned with the best local pork cracklin’-style versions at 4505 Meats. But for the braised/roasted meat kind, El Techos are pretty damn great.
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Additional dishes dont come close to the chicharrones, but guacamole ($7), elote ($5 – corn on the cob, replacing traditional mayo, its smeared with sour cream, chili, lime), and chuzos (skewers, $6-29) make for solid snacking. Similarly, cocktails ($8-12; $30-45 pitchers) arent particularly memorable, especially compared to Lolinda downstairs, but a tall Pina Colada or Pisco Apricot Tropical (pisco, lime, apricot liqueur, pineapple, bitters) are solid and far better than options in the spaces former incarnation, Medjool.
Foodies will want to try those chicharrones at some point – they’re almost worth having to check in with a doorman downstairs (someone has to monitor the crowds flocking here for that view).
La CIUDAD de MEXICO, Inner Richmond (200 6th Ave. between California & Clement, 415-422-0636)
Only open a few weeks, Im delighted to grab sandwiches and snacks from the family that runs this closet-sized, takeout-only shop. They hail from Mexico City, hence the name.
Huitlacoche (corn fungus) quesadillas ($4.25) are a highlight, dotted with fresh, white corn, while theres other interesting quesadillas that happen to be vegetarian-friendly, from squash blossoms to grilled cactus.
Breakfast sandwiches ($4.25) are cheap and packed with ham or chorizo and egg, while the menu includes tortas/Mexican sandwiches ($5.25-8.50), breakfast burritos ($4.75) and alambres, a melange of bell pepper, onion, bacon with choice of meat ($7.95). My favorite torta is the Cubana ($6.50/8.50), jam-packed with generous amounts of ham, pulled pork, chorizo and egg, lathered in mayo, refried beans, onions, cheese and avocado. Its so rich I go for the pequeno (small), which is still quite filling.
COSECHA, Oakland (907 Washington St. between 9th & 10th Sts.; 510-452-5900)
Oaklands best new-ish taco joint is actually approaching the 2 year mark. Cosecha in the Housewives Market in Old Oakland, is a foodie destination. Specials change daily and ultra-fresh, yet authentic, Mexican dishes interplay with healthy, flavorful additions like mango kumquat salad ($6.75) tossed with cucumber and pumpkin seeds, in a citrus dressing.
Though I miss the proliferation of fish tacos essentially ubiquitous in SoCal, one has to know where to go in the Bay Area for the best, and I’d count Cosecha’s fish tacos among them. They are a “Blue Plate Special” on Wednesdays and Thursdays, typically using California cod, fried Baja-style. There’s chicken, beef or pork Torta Ahogada ($7.95-8.95), hearty sandwiches smothered in a chile guajillo sauce, and quesadillas ($7.75) melted in Oaxacan cheese and filled with roasted yams or pasilla peppers.
Their happy hour (Monday-Wednesday, 2:30-7pm, Thursday 5-7pm) offers $4 agave wine margaritas, $4 pints of beer, $5 house Napa wines. Mexican-American owner, Dominica Rice, and staff strive for authenticity while remaining conscious of quality and source. The common to source locally in the Bay Area, Cosecha lists local farms from which each of their ingredients (produce, fish, meats) come from on a board.
After downing tacos at a communal table, I never leave the market without stocking up on the still awesome Louisiana-influenced (the best Louisiana boudin blanc this side of the Mississippi) sausages of Taylor’s, next door to Cosecha.
NIDO, Oakland (444 Oak St. at Fifth; 510-444-6436)
Visiting Oaklands Nido a few times has been a pleasure first and foremost due to its charmingly decorated interior and cozy, rectangular bar. Rustic woods, white lights, even soft pinks, make it an atypical Mexican food setting. Cocktails arent mind-blowing but are well executed mezcal and tequila classics, sticking mostly to a margarita or Paloma format, ideal with house chips and guacamole ($6).
Chef Silvia McCollow (formerly at B Restaurant and Cosecha) goes ultra-fresh with organic or locally sourced ingredients when possible, elevating a Chuleta de Puerco ($16), aka grilled pork chop, with toasted almond chile mole, accompanied by butternut and calabazita squash. A ceviche crudo ($12) of wild caught shrimp marinated in agua-chile and accented by cucumbers, red onion, jicama, avocado is clean and bright.
Tacos – on housemade tortillas – are a highlight and my dish of choice here, available all day and during the happy hour lull of Tuesday-Friday (3-6pm).
Bonus: Pietisserie serves their pies inside the restaurant (eat in or take out), in mini or large format, irresistible in daily-changing flavors like banana chai or Okinawan sweet potato.