One of the perks of living in California is its close proximity to Mexico. Another advantage is regular sunshine that allows avocados and other produce commonly used in foods south of the border to flourish. The result? An impressive amount of wonderful Mexican restaurants — especially in San Francisco. Delicious meals can be found all over the City by the Bay, but if you’re looking for a truly exceptional and authentic experience, we recommend you check out one of the following places pronto.
Nopalito is a sustainable Mexican kitchen from the team behind another beloved SF hotspot, Nopa. According to local folklore, the owners of Nopa loved Latin cooks’ authentic Mexican family meals so much that they decided to launch a Mexican spinoff. When it opened in 2009, Nopalito was an instant success. The unfussy space remains that way today mostly due to its show-stopping food. Instead of chips and salsa, Nopalito offers totopos con chile, tortilla chips covered in a slightly spicy red salsa de arbol and a mountain of freshly grated, buttery cotija cheese. The crispy deep-fried empanada is filled with beef, tomato and queso fresco, but it’s not heavy like you’d imagine; instead, it’s flavorful and savory. Still, Nopalito’s signature dish is traditional carnitas made with pork that’s slowly braised in a mixture of orange, milk, cinnamon and beer and served with housemade tortillas. The cocktails at Nopalito are also stellar: we love to order El Diablo, a fizzy tequila concoction with cassis, ginger beer and lots of fresh lime.
Over in the Castro on Market and 15th streets is Hecho. It ran into some growing pains with chef shuffles and a name change, but now, seven months in, the restaurant has found its stride. With walls of open windows, rope details, exposed beams and a tall tequila- and mezcal-filled bar (over 60 types of tequila and 30 kinds of mezcal), Hecho feels like a beachside haunt in Mexico. There’s a large (and usually crowded) bar area and booths that make it ideal for a group outing. The vibe is hip, the waitstaff attractive and attentive, and the scene rambunctious. The chips are crunchy and decadently salty while the queso with chorizo is so creamy and cheesy you’ll want to eat it by the spoonful. Expect a menu filled with updated Mexican favorites such as tacos filled with everything from duck mole and fried avocado to shrimp with chorizo. The saucy, fragrant chicken tinga that’s served on a puffy, deep-fried tostada is another must order.
At Val. M Cantu’s recently opened Mission district restaurant Californios, diners are treated to a luxurious 11-course tasting menu. The food is an incredibly modern take on Mexican cuisine: there are miniature taquitos filled with goat cheese and salmon roe; an elevated potato puree that’s enhanced with chipotle and topped with a crispy potato croquette and paper-thin potato chip; an oozing yellow egg yolk with fresh English peas; a rich chicken soup with intensely flavorful, soul-nurturing broth. It’s refreshing to see the presentations at Californios because they clearly illustrate Mexican food as much more than the traditional burrito. With dark black walls, brown leather banquettes and abstract artwork gracing the walls, the restaurant is cool but inviting. Art deco accents (a crystal chandelier, intricate sconces and vintage crystal plates) add a touch of whimsical sophistication. The service is impeccable and the wine pairings — on a recent night, a memorable Sauvignon Blanc, a frothy, hard-to-find Spanish beer and beautiful Riesling were served — are highly recommended.
If Californios is calm, quiet and elegant, Loló is brash, loud and colorful. The first thing you notice is its eclectically vibrant décor. One wall is painted orange and covered in small paper boats made from magazine pages. Another is hot pink with circular Mexican doilies making an intricate pattern. Yet another is painted charcoal and covered with old car doors. The bar is lined with palm tree ocean prints. You may have to wait for a seat at the popular artsy space, but the Jaliscan-Californian-inspired food and agave-heavy cocktails prove worth it. With super creamy avocados and cotija cheese, the guacamole is one of the most scrumptious around. The menu is rounded out with dungeness crab croquetas filled with melt-in-your-mouth crab and a smooth white sauce; fresh ceviche made with rock fish and shrimp; insanely tasty calamari black sopes with blue corn masa, avocado puree and habanero crema; and fat, finger-licking good gorditas topped with mezcal-barbecued pulled beef short ribs. As for the drinks, you can’t go wrong with a smoky mezcal margarita, a passion fruit pisco sour or classic fruity and fizzy sangria.
With an adjacent garage bar, mezcal classes and contemporary Mexican menu, walking into La Urbana almost feels like you’re stepping into an upscale restaurant in Mexico City. The airy space has a wood-lined bar, map of Mexico covering one wall, black tiled floor and interesting Latin art-adorned walls. There are no chips and salsa on the menu, but rather an assortment of dishes from chef Julio Aguilera that are innovative and flavor-packed. His take on pozole, a Mexican soup associated with curing hangovers, is smoky, spicy and laden with pork. The grilled octopus with pimentón, pine nut salsa and mayonnaise is a revelation. Fans of mezcal should go ahead and order the spirit neat, La Urbana’s drinks menu has pages of hard-to-find mezcals and tequilas, and we suggest you sip it as they do in Mexico. Salud!