From Mission Dolores to the Presidio, San Francisco’s history has long been intertwined with that of Mexico—and so have the contents of its plates. Cities closer to the border, like San Diego and El Paso, may steal the stateside Mexican-food limelight, but San Franciscans are content to enjoy their secret gems. This is the home of the Mission-style burrito, which was invented here in the ’60s and can now be found (in a lesser version) at your neighborhood Chipotle or Qdoba. Just this fall, the Mission’s La Taqueria was awarded the title of America’s Best Burrito, trouncing 63 competitors from around the nation in a burrito bracket held by statistics guru Nate Silver (whose dining companion claims he saw him achieve “burrito nirvana” while he ate it). The Tommy’s margarita, named for the 300-bottle Richmond District tequila palace Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, used agave syrup before it was cool. The restaurants La Oaxaqueña and Yucatecan-influenced Poc-Chuc are long-running favorites for regional Mexican fare. We’ve even got Don Bugito, a “pre-hispanic snackeria” serving a Mayan delicacy: tacos stuffed with crunchy wax moth larvae.
With such a rich cultural history, it’s no surprise that Mexican cuisine has trickled upward and that chefs are taking its flavors and techniques and giving them a local, ingredient-centric spin, just like they have done with Italian, Japanese, Southern and other iconic cuisines. In fact, these days, a visitor to San Francisco could subsist entirely on Mexican food, both casual and upscale, and eat extremely well in the process.
San Francisco’s upscale Mexican trend can be traced back to the 2009 opening of Nopalito, an offshoot of mega-popular New American restaurant Nopa. In fact, Nopalito was born out of Nopa’s nightly staff meal, where two Mexican cooks’ skill with regional specialties so impressed the owners that they decided to give them a restaurant of their own, just a block away. Today, Nopalito (which has a second location in the Inner Sunset) serves up squash blossom quesadillas, braised chicken thighs in Oaxacan black mole and killer carnitas, all made with pristine farmers-market ingredients that rotate with the seasons.
Around the same time, the Marina’s Tacolicious became a smash hit with its craveable Mexican fare, much of it as irreverent as the restaurant’s name. At four locations and counting, it’s the kind of place where guajillo-braised beef short rib tacos and Veracruz-style grilled squid can happily coexist alongside a bowl of queso dip and frozen margaritas that the menu describes as “somewhere between Guadalajara and 7-11.” Right down the street from Tacolicious’ flagship, Mamacita turns out more subdued, but exquisite Mexican fare, like handmade sweet-corn tamales with Early Girl tomato salsa and jicama-cabbage salad with melon and citrus-agave vinaigrette. Its Cole Valley spinoff, Padrecito, offers an incredible Mexican-style brunch, with polenta plantain pancakes and pork-belly chilaquiles.
And the vibe is only getting more upscale. You won’t find cheap tacos on the menu at Divisidero Street’s glamorous, year-old La Urbana, which is designed to feel like the chicest of Mexico City nightspots. Instead, small plates like grilled octopus with pimentón, brassicas and pine nut salsa and arroz con pollo made with farro, English peas and pea flowers draw well-dressed couples.
The cocktails at these new-school Mexican restaurants are as ambitious as the food, taking agave spirits to new heights. At Nopalito, tequila shots are served Mexican-style with a chaser of sangrita, a spicy tomato-citrus concoction; the ritual of lime and salt, as it turns out, is an American invention (and just spoils the flavor of pristine 100-percent agave tequila). The Mission’s lively Loló has a new drink menu based on the Mexican game lotería, with creations like the El Cotorro, a blend of mezcal, aloe liqueur, grapefruit bitters, lemon and gin-infused chia seeds, which pop pleasantly as you sip. And the evil genius who concocted La Urbana’s Mexican Dude, a delectable White Russian that substitutes horchata for half-and-half and adds a touch of smoky mezcal, deserves a prize.
Charging double digits for Mexican cuisine is a growing trend in the Bay Area. The Castro’s new restaurant Hecho serves up a $10 duo of prawn and chorizo tacos with goat cheese and arugula as well as an $18 skirt steak fajita. “You don’t want to put Mexican food in a box where it always has to be cheap,” says resident Latina playwright and comedian Marga Gomez. The growing nationwide movement toward using organic and sustainable ingredients has deep roots in the Bay Area and can command high prices at dinner. The historic Mission “Mexicatessen” La Palma supplies tortillas and masa to many of San Francisco’s new restaurants, and produce comes from local farms like Mariquita in Watsonville and Rancho Gordo in Napa.
In short, San Franciscans are eating even more, and more diverse Mexican food, whether grabbing a burrito at a family-owned taqueria, braving Don Bugito’s unusual offerings at a food truck gathering or enjoying a lavish dinner at La Urbana. There’s never been a better time, or a better city, to sample it all.