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Mexico City flavors in SF

Locals' loyalties to their favorite taquerias can practically escalate to fisticuffs. But the ubiquitous log-sized burritos that we know and love here in Alto California are in fact specific to our city. True regional Mexican food is a relative rarity here.

Occupying the former Church Street corridor space of now-defunct taqueria Azteca, Chilango aims to bring an authentic taste of Mexico City to our city.

Little has changed cosmetically in the space other than a soothing neutral-toned paint job. The open kitchen still occupies the heart of the restaurant, and images of Frida Kahlo still peer out from beneath broken glass mosaics on the tables. But the food is a world apart.

Tortillas are the backbone of most of the dishes on the menu, and Chilango's thick, rustic tortillas are house-made from organic masa. These fry up for hearty chips; all the better to scoop up their chunky guacamole ($8). The duck flautas ($12) feature the same sturdy crispness, filled with shredded duck meat.

That's right, duck meat. It's these little surprises that keep Chilango's menu enticing. The huarache chilango ($10), an ovoid "sandal" of a tortilla, is topped with beef short ribs as opposed to pedestrian ground beef. Why settle for carne asada when you can order your tacos stuffed with filet mignon? Every dish is rooted in the classics, but features a contemporary twist.

Perhaps the most progressive angle to their food is the attention to well-sourced ingredients. Aside from the organic masa, they serve grass-fed and free-range Niman Ranch meats, and the restaurant focuses on organic and sustainable produce.

And yet none of it is stuffy or overwrought. We loved the torta ahogada ($10), with lusciously fatty carnitas nestled between halves of fluffy white bread, almost like a Cuban loaf, "drowned" in tomato sauce. And the quesadillas chilango ($3 each), while for the most part cryptically not containing cheese, was a nice way to sample a variety of flavors. We chose savory picadillo, potatoes with spicy chorizo, and brightly vegetal roasted poblano peppers. An additional twist to the quesadillas was their shell; a flaky short crust more akin to empanadas than tortillas.

Chilango's wine list is scant and dominated by two local producers: Alex Sotello and Bodegas Aguirre. The list is value-oriented, as Chilango takes no markup on their wines. We were just as content to select from their ample selection of Mexican beers to accompany our meal.

In the unlikely event you're hungry for dessert, Chilango has classics on offer, like tres leches cake and flan. But the portions are so generous and the ingredients so hearty, we'd be surprised if many of them move.

Chilango won't replace your neighborhood taqueria, because it won't fix that jones. Rather, it's where you'll go when you're willing to shell out a few extra pesos and try something new. It's still extremely reasonable by San Francisco standards, especially considering the quality. And it's a far cry more tangible than a visit to our southern cousin's Distrito Federal.

Reservations accepted