If Bay Areans—polyglot bunch of mutts that we are—were asked to claim one cuisine as our own, Mexican would be a top contender. Dissect the average Alta Californian’s brain, and you’ll find that the hippocampus has hardwired cravings for the toasty smell of a warm corn tortilla, the smoky sting of chipotle in adobo, the buttery bite of guacamole. Burgers? Pizza? Hardly! We are a taco and tamale people.
Indeed, our love of Mexican food can be traced back to the founding of California. We were all Mexican once, even if the flag of the United Mexican States only flew from 1821 to 1846. Brief though that was, our state’s proximity to Mexico, and the food that Mexico’s emigrants have brought here, has made our hankering for salsa bone-deep.
In fact, long before the “tamale lady,” Virginia Ramos, started crowdfunding her way to a brick-and-mortar shop in the Mission (coming this spring), there were tamale men who roamed the city’s streets in the 1890s. It took about 50 more years for the Mission district to shift in makeup from Polish and Irish into the epicenter of Mexican culture that it remains today—the new wave of South and Central American restaurants, $18-a-bowl pasta spots, and Google bus stops be damned.
What’s the news flash, then? Well—and with all due respect to the 200-plus taquerias that exist in San Francisco alone—we’re happy to report that Mexican food is emerging from the behemoth shadow of the burrito joint (something more grounded here than in Mexico, anyway). Today, the Bay Area is witnessing an explosion of Mexican restaurants on an unprecedented level—the kind that serve delicate fillets of fish topped with huitlacoche foam; the urbane sort of joints that you might find in the trendier precincts of Mexico City (aka DF, or de efe to the locals). Starting in 2009 with Nopalito and Tacolicious (which, full disclosure, is owned by the husband of the editor of this story), the past few years have seen a bevy of such restaurants open, including Cosecha, Comal, Copita, Padrecito, La Urbana, and Sabrosa (the latter, in Cow Hollow, opened too late to be considered).
Add to this the Bay Area’s usual selection of killer taco trucks and comforting mom ’n’ pops serving up lusty bowls of birria, and we find ourselves so rich in Mexican restaurants that it took two preeminent food writers—San Francisco–based Jonathan Kauffman and Oakland-based John Birdsall—to divide and conquer them. Fearlessly, and in separate cars, the two roamed to eateries as far north as Healdsburg and as far south as Redwood City. (San Jose’s trove of Mexican spots merits its own feature, which we may tackle one day.) They ate a heck of a lot of corn tortillas, slurped an inhumane amount of pozole, wept a bit from the heat of the chilies, and ultimately emerged victorious with their picks. Read on for 22 of their must-do Mexes, plus our favorite old-school joints, a couple of cities worth a road trip, and a short list of mezcal cocktails. And just to prove that we have nothing against the silver bullet, we asked a few noteworthy chefs to anoint their top burritos, too.
If we’ve overlooked any of your favorite spots, let us know (email@example.com). Like all good San Franciscans, when it comes to Mexican food, we can never get enough. —Sara Deseran
Our Big, Hot (Sometimes Fancy, Sometimes Not) Mexican Moment
The 22 Best Mexican Restaurants in the Bay Area
The Best Mexican Food in Redwood City
Richmond Is the New Fruitvale
Try Today's Four Coolest Mezcal Cocktails
Where to Find the Best Food Trucks Right Now
Classic Mexican Restaurants
The Secret Burrito Cravings of the Bay's Top Chefs
The No Cooking Solution for Your Next Diner Party
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of San Francisco.