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The 22 Mexican Restaurants Not to Be Missed

John Birdsall and Jonathan Kauffman | January 16, 2014 | Story Restaurants

San Francisco

La Torta Gorda (Mission) La Torta Gorda ably produces tortas on both ends of the Mexican sandwich spectrum, oscillating between simple ham-and-cheese and two-pound Mexico City–style tortas cubanas. But Armando Macuil’s restaurant isn’t just a hoagie shop: It’s more of a Mexican diner, complete with a short-order griddle, a counter, and Formica tables. While the sandwiches are superlative, make sure to check out Macuil’s menu of much rarer Puebla-style antojitos, including a giant taco placero stuffed with cheese, nopales, and your choice of meat; enchiladas coated in sweet, dense mole poblano; and a quesadilla with huitlacoche (corn fungus). The tlacoyos al albanil, football-shaped tortillas stuffed with black beans and topped with avocados and runny-yolked fried eggs, make the perfect breakfast any time of day. 2833 24th St. (near Bryant St.), 415-642-9600

La Urbana (NoPa) La Urbana proves that the internationally inflected food of Mexico City has a place in the home of the slab burrito. The space seethes with color and form (not to mention crowd noise). So do the best dishes, which have three, four, and five layers: an aguachile of white fish, tomatillo, and a dose of cold mesquite smoke; seared halibut with corn-citrus froth, crumbled cauliflower florets, and an inky smear of huitlacoche purée; a flocculent chocolatecinnamon mousse with crema ice cream, mezcal gelées, and crisped rice. If reading these descriptions exhausts you, eat elsewhere. 661 Divisadero St. (at Grove St.), 415-440-4500

Los Yaquis (Mission) Bordered with vats of carrots, cactus, and pickled pigskin, the counter at the Aguirre family’s Jaliscan restaurant looks like a mad scientist’s apothecary. It’s your first hint that the marigoldcolored restaurant goes beyond standard-issue fare. Your second hint: the aguachile—shrimp, avocados, and cucumbers bathed in a green salsa as spicy as a slap on the arm. Your third: the Guadalajara-style torta ahogada, upgraded from its fútbol-stadium origins. Pick your sandwich fillings—the waiter suggests pork loin and queso blanco, plus pickles from the jars—and the kitchen will saturate the bread in a fiery tomato sauce. Get out the knife and fork. 324 S. Van Ness Ave. (at 14th St.), 415-252-8204

Nopalito (NoPa/Sunset) Now with two locations, in NoPa and the Sunset—both under the culinary leadership of Gonzalo Guzman—Nopalito floats seasonal specials such as butternut squash taquitos and salads of beets, oranges, and pomegranates over the core classics: totopos doused with salsa de árbol and crumbled cotija cheese; a quesadilla roja, a tortilla of mulato chili–dyed masa filled with pork belly meat; and the restaurant’s relentlessly appealing carnitas braised with orange juice, beer, and bay leaves. 306 Broderick St. (Near Fell St.), 415-535-3969; 1224 9th Ave. (near Lincoln Way), 415-233-9966

Padrecito (Cole Valley) Opened last spring by the team behind Mamacita in the Marina, Padrecito has found its strength in hearty California twists on Mexican flavors: lamb meatballs braised in a guajillo chili mole, or sloppy, smoky chilaquiles with duck and chipotle mole (arguably the best dish in the house). The decor, with its rich woods and intense colors, could be called Mexican lumberjack. The crowd is very Cole Valley, which means early-evening toddlers, babysitter-liberated parents self-medicating with mezcal-spiked margaritas, and young workers fresh off the N-Judah who can’t motivate themselves to go home. 901 Cole St. (at Carl St.), 415-742-5505

Pisto’s (North Beach) Yes, you can get Pete Mrabe’s famous hamburguesa at Don Pisto’s casual offshoot on Grant Street. But more important, here you can get a seat. Waves of baseball-capped drinkers and bleached blondes regularly crash against the bar, tacos and bottles of Modelo in hand. Skip the dishes featuring the rubbery handmade tortillas and go for the composed plates: Mexican sashimi of salmon shocked with lime juice and a slice of serrano chili; ridiculously tender grilled chicken leg and thigh, their achiote rub taking in the smoke; and sweet corn smothered in mayonnaise and canned parmesan. 1310 Grant Ave. (at Vallejo St.), 415-317-4696

Playa Azul (Mission) With tables bluer than the Gulf of Mexico and a quietly erudite tequila selection, Playa Azul has become the rare Mission restaurant where you can still find Mexican families congregating after Sunday mass. The warm seafood platters (shrimp in mushroom cream sauce, whole fried fish) can’t compare to the ceviche tostadas and the cold seafood cócteles served in glasses big enough to double as Renaissance Faire goblets. The bright-red broth is ketchup-sweet and served with the traditional heap of plastic-wrapped saltines. In the baroque hangover cure known as vuelve a la vida (return to life), you’ll find giant Gulf oysters, the creamiest of octopi, and tiny bay scallops, crab, and prawns, all immaculately cooked. 3318 Mission St. (near 29th St.), 415-282-4554

Poc-Chuc (Mission) Even though half the kitchens in San Francisco’s restaurants are staffed with cooks born on the Yucatán Peninsula, Yuco restaurants in San Francisco don’t have a great following. However, Poc-Chuc endures, partly because its thoughtful decor appeals to middle-class diners. Order tacos with achiote-braised pollo pibil and poc chuc—thin slabs of marinated pork grilled until the edges blacken and finished with a squirt of lime. Or try the chimole, turkey braised until it shreds into an earthy black mole, which couldn’t be more true to Mayan cooking. 2886 16th St. (near S. Van Ness Ave.), 415-558-1583

Taqueria Vallarta (Mission) There is no point in crossing the threshold of this 24th Street taqueria. Inside lurks a realm of vegetarian burritos and middling seafood platters. But in the doorway, a cook mans a proper street taco stand resembling an oversize steel drum ringed with mounds of meat. This is who you’re looking for. order the buche (neck meat), suadero (shredded beef), or cumin-spiked chorizo, and he maneuvers it onto the griddle’s domed center to sizzle, flopping a few tortillas alongside to brown in the fat. To dress the tacos, take a scattering of chopped onions, a shake of a cilantro-filled spoon over the top, and a splash of brick-red chili salsa. 3033 24th St. (near Treat Ave.), 415-826-8116

Page two: The East Bay

The East Bay

Comal (Berkeley) This sleek, industrial restaurant is contained in a beast of a space. There are multiple vantage points from which to dine, but the lofty canopied patio, blessed with space heaters, is prime real estate. Within the restaurant are two bars—a subtle hint that you should put in an order for one of Matthew Campbell’s beautifully balanced mezcal- and tequila-based cocktails, such as the house margarita made with blanco tequila, orange-scented agave syrup, and lime. Chef Matt Gandin honed his skills at Delfina, and his point of view drifts to the California side of Cal-Mex. A plato fuerte of roasted turkey with three moles can taste as out of place as some Irish dude looks hitting the Cabo playa. But with antojitos—such as tripe guisado and albóndigas in fierce, dark adobo—Gandin finds his truest calling. 2020 Shattuck Ave. (at University Ave.), 510-926-6300

Cosecha (Oakland) As a rambling market café with shared tables, Cosecha is part of the revival of old oakland’s Swan’s Market. For the evening’s plato fuerte, chef-owner Dominica rice-Cisneros cooks up concentrated pozole verde and braised pork shoulder—dishes that pay tribute to Mexico’s old-school loncherias, the casual food counters in markets and shopping arcades. yet rice-Cisneros, who emerged from Chez Panisse’s stable, cooks from a modern point of view. her persimmon and pomegranate salad is astonishing. Most nights, the revival of Swan’s Market still feels like a work in progress, but Cosecha has already arrived. 907 Washington St. (at 9th St.), 510-452-5900

Mariscos La Costa (Oakland) The chilled-out Fruitvale location of this local seafood-cocktail joint actually has a parking lot, which makes life easy. La Costa’s ceviche tostadas and cocktails are nowhere near as plush or oceanic as those at prototypical coctelerias on Mexico’s Gulf Coast (the imitation crab here is wispy, the octopus rubbery). But the aguachiles are good, and they come with a bonus: the sharp tang of Fruitvale itself. 3625 International Blvd. (at 37th Ave.), 510-533-9566

Molcajete (Oakland) Mexican food in the Bay Area tends to be bipolar: Either it’s the food of immigrants, made by Mexican-born cooks for customers with deep ties to the motherland, or it’s Cal-Mex, made by chefs working in a Mexican genre, crossing over for a broad spectrum. Molcajete— Manuel and Rosy Torres’s place at the Oaksterdam edge of Uptown— pleasantly blurs the lines. Manuel may be from Guadalajara, but his menu is pan-Mexican: Oaxacan molotes de tinga, chanclas from Puebla, and a Yucatecan cochinita pibil with a resiny brightness from achiote and citrus. The couple also owns Antojeria Mexicana El Chilar, a very good taqueria a few blocks away. 1734 Webster St. (near 19th St.), 510-466-6652

Nido (Oakland) At the warehouse edge of Jack London Square, Silvia and Cory McCollow’s contemporary Mexican restaurant and bar nestles up against 880. The young owners have made their location into a point of gritty Oakland pride, with decor that embraces shipping container panels and wooden pallets. Silvia McCollow’s kitchen interprets classics from Puebla, Jalisco, and Nayarit with a sincerity that results in amazing dishes, like a coconut flan that falls somewhere between a solid and pure silk. Nido’s chicken pozole, made with dark pasilla chilies, serves as a tribute from Oakland’s new generation of Mexican cooks. 444 Oak St. (near 5th St.), 510-444-6436

Tacos El Grullo (Oakland) The six-block stretch of International Boulevard from Fruitvale Avenue southeast to Otaez is Latino Oakland’s plaza grande, a Sunday promenade to swag out with your primos. But a lot of locals do their serious eating half a mile north of International on quieter Foothill Boulevard, at spots like El Grullo, which feels like a hot dog stand—and probably was. If the women here don’t make the Bay Area’s best tacos, they’re certainly bracket finalists. Fans of soft chunks of cabeza will love the salsa verde it’s served with, and the shiny guajillo salsa makes the most of the offal-ness of the tripitas (chitterlings). If you order the pozole, steel yourself: El Grullo’s is delicious but intensely rich. 2630 Foothill Blvd. (at 27th Ave.), 510-261-6091

Tacubaya (Berkeley) It might have been 11 years ago that Thomas Schnetz, the chef-owner of Doña Tomás, doubled down by adding Tacubaya to his stable of restaurants (he also has Xolo, a burrito joint in Uptown Oakland). But this taqueria, situated on Berkeley’s Fourth Street, is still turning out some of the most soulful Mexican food in Berkeley. Go at noon on weekends for a bowl of menudo, tinted tobacco-brown by ancho chilies, and a lovely plate of revueltos norteños (scrambled eggs with cactus). Pork al pastor—spinning on its pineapple-topped trompo— is often on offer, ready for shaving onto house tortillas for tacos. 1788 4th St. (near Virginia St.), 510-525-5160

Taqueria Campos (Oakland) Since 2006, Ana Maria Campos has been making Fruitvale’s best pozole, menudo, and goat birria—the triad of Jalisco rancho soups—from her small kitchen in a Popsicle-orange taco stand next to a park. The four-table dining room hunkers behind a sidewalk taco window. With luck, you’ll be served an antojito-size gnarl of chicharrón and warm mashed beans for dipping, a prelude to birria that’s as plush as velour. As for Campos’s menudo blanco, its broth is as clear as day. The service crawls, but the food is worth the wait. 3659 Foothill Blvd. (at Harrington St.), 510-261-4260

Page three: The North Bay

The North Bay

Agave Mexican Restaurant (Healdsburg) Finding good Oaxacan food north of Los Angeles is a Mexican food lover’s version of comet spotting— which is why Octavio Diaz’s restaurant, hidden away in a strip mall in Healdsburg, feels like such a find. Though Agave doesn’t delve deep into the region’s eloquent cuisine, it does stock mezcals by the dozen and serve a couple of Oaxacan classics: tlayudas, for one, crisp tortillas the size of a vinyl album, smeared with avocado-leafscented puréed black beans and adorned with shredded cabbage, tomatoes, avocado, cheese, and tasajo (beef). Diaz’s mother makes her own mole negro, slathered over chicken or chicken-filled enchiladas. It’s sweeter than most versions you’ll taste in the southern Mexican state, but its flashing layers of spice are elegantly balanced. 1063 Vine St. (near Westside Rd.), 707-433-2411

La Gran Chiquita Taqueria (Oakland) This taqueria, at the axis of Fruitvale’s comida central, hustles on weekends. Late Saturday morning, the kid working behind the steam-fogged glass at the taco station up front is filling steamed tortillas with cabeza and tripitas, while dudes in A’s caps, stuffed four to a booth, are ravaging pambazos—mighty orange sandwiches filled with chorizo and potato, dipped in guajillo chili salsa, and griddled crisp. But what you’ve come for is a foil packet of weekend barbacoa, the version called pancita: beef, including tripe and small intestine, roasted down to a suave mash. 3503 International Blvd. (at 35th Ave.), 510-533-6484

Tortas Ahogadas Mi Barrio (Oakland) Random banquet chairs, linoleum floors, and an all-female staff with beehive hair exist in laid-back country diners all over America. But at this homage to the Jalisco region of Mexico, there’s a wall map of Guadalajara and the TV is stuck on Mexican pop videos. Tortas ahogadas, “wet” sandwiches, are the thing: thin shingles of roasted pork on a crusty Guadalajara-style roll called a birote, ladled with thin orange salsa (it comes with a spoon for basting at the table). Finish with a plastic ramekin of jericalla, flan’s rustic cousin. It has a lovely dark top skin, as shiny as buffed rancho boots. 4749 International Blvd. (at 48th Ave.), 510-434-9454

Copita (Sausalito) When it opened in spring 2012, it took a while for this restaurant owned by TV personality Joanne Weir and restaurateur Larry Mindel to find its bearings. Today—under its second chef, Gonzalo Rivera Jr., who spent six years as executive chef of Michael Mina and Nemi Restaurant in Mexico City—it’s on solid ground. Rivera studies traditional dishes and then rewrites them from the inside out. Among his most successful creations are tacos with crunchy cubes of pork belly and pipián; fritter-like quesadillas stuffed with braised chicharrones; and a birria with a potent salsa macha dabbed onto the goat meat. The best example of Rivera’s approach may be the chicken enchiladas with a graceful manchamanteles mole that blends dried chilies, Christmastime spices, and autumnal apples and pears. 739 Bridgeway (at Anchor St.), 415-331-7400

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of San Francisco.

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