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Nopalito

Five-Star, Flavor-Forward Mexican Fast-Food

  • Nopalito
    306 Broderick Street, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Map)
    +1 415.437.0303

If you were to design a dream taqueria, chances are it would look something like this: Blazingly fresh salsas and sauces, quality sustainable meats and organic produce. While fantasizing, why not ask for housemade everything -- including the cheese, crema, and chorizo. And while you’re at it, throw in masa ground on premises, with a master chef patting out endless shingles of homemade tortillas and tamales? Nopalito, a relative newcomer to the SF Mexican food pyramid and sister to Nopa a few blocks away, is a taco-lover’s dream realized.

But despite the absence of white tablecloths and the brisk take-out option, the interior is too lovely to render Nopalito just another taco joint. Modern wooden table slabs, high ceilings, flattering light, and a lemon-lime tile and paint motif are more Mexico City art gallery than abuela’s kitchen.

Unsurprisingly, word has spread like wildfire (note: they don’t take reservations). On a recent Friday night visit, we waited an hour for a couple of bar stools (which, as it turned out, were the premier posts for unobstructed kitchen views). Prepare to be handed menus while you wait. And while service is courteous, food will fly your way fast and furious; digest on your own time. And with drinks, three starters, two mains, and two desserts, we were whisked away in about ninety minutes.

Once you claim your seat and ponder the ever-changing menu, your bouche will be amused with spicy fried chickpeas to prep the palate for bold flavors to come. The wines are utilitarian, but the beer list is on par with the food, both hi-brow (Russian River Brewing’s Blind Pig - $9) and low (Tecate in a can - $2.50). The non-alcoholic offerings are a refreshing line-up of house-squeezed aqua frescas, like the tart and vaguely floral Hibiscus Blood Orange ($3.25) or the light, milky, cinnamon-laced Almond Horchata ($3.95). The pitcher of iced tea in a clay pot ($3.25) is adorable and addictive, but choose wisely, as the restroom is a mile’s walk from your table.

Anything in your glass will complement the kitchen’s hearty fare, from the left side of the menu’s small-ish tacos, tostadas, and quesadillas to the right side’s generous mains of stews, moles, and slow-cooked roasts. Our server’s guidance was spot-on: the Panucho de Pollo al Pibil ($4) is one of the most perfect dishes in San Francisco. Flavorful black beans are stuffed inside a homemade tortilla made even more rustic with a studding of whole corn in the dough. It’s fried crisp, and the vehicle for a 21-gun salute of habanera salsa and a generous scoop of tender, toothsome chicken with a citrus kick. The crowning jewel is a mess of mild pickled onions and a halo of crumbled queso fresca. The balance of crunchy and tender, heat, salt, and citrus, sets the standard for how great Mexican food can be.

Other shared starters were also good, including the Quesadilla Roja con Chicharron ($9), an oversized tortilla blackened with ancho paste covering fillings more saucy than gooey, punctuated with a Pop Rocks burst of fried pork belly bits at every bite. The last to cross the finish line was the Taco de Pescado al Pastor ($4.75), which was a nice piece of fish, but plain-Jane by comparison.

For normal mortals, three or four of these shared small plates could constitute a light meal. But we gluttons for gluttony persevered through the hearty main plates with delicious results. The carnitas ($14), a house specialty, is everything you’d want in a rib-sticking hunk of meat that takes 24 hours to prepare. While a solid soloist on its own, it was in full choral harmony when turned into tacos with bright green salsa de tomatillo, hot and sweet pickled jalapeños, and the crunch of earthy cabbage salad. But we went nearly teary for the birria de chivo ($13), and its one of the best uses of goat we’ve encountered since the meat has hit the big-time. Trimmed lean, the fork-tender specimen is perfectly cooked, and it has the distinct pleasure of floating in a redolent leather and velvet mole that was the most authentic eaten this side of Oaxaca State.

Dessert? All we had room for – and all that was offered – were delicate paletas, molded frozen pops in key lime, strawberry, and dairy-free chocolate. The perfectly unstuffy finish on a stick. To go.

Mexican
NOPA
$$

No reservations taken.