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El Metate

Sunny Fish Taco Spot Expands to Meet Demand

Until its recent expansion, El Metate's tiny dining room on Bryant near 22nd could barely accommodate its regular clientele of hipsters and local families, who'd spill out to the few sidewalk tables to wait for huge plates of fish tacos with fresh, delicious fixings. Is the magic still popping on this sunny Mission corner now that business has boomed? We snooped into the deep Mission to scope the situation.

Picking Mexican food in the Mission is no small feat. There are just as many good spots as bad, and favorites vary, each with their own take on the trinity (burritos, tacos, and quesadillas), and each known for a specialty, be it carnitas, al pastor, roast chicken, or -- in the case of El Metate -- fish tacos.

El Metate's strong suit is its range of fresh ingredients used within an authentically Mexican context. Vegans and vegetarians, especially, laud burritos made with zucchini, cabbage, and carrots -- Cali-cuisine perks unavailable at many of the other high-turnover joints the in Mission. However, despite the appearance of the occasional fresh habanero salsa on the line, we think the kitchen could stand to kick up the flavor, as well as the heat; this has been the case since they opened in 2003.

After four years of operating in cramped quarters, El Metate owners Francisco Hernandez and David Carreno converted a neighboring liquor store into La Tiendita El Metate, a sandwich shop and market with a decent selection of Mexican goods (although it's no La Palma, frankly). In the process, they expanded their dining area, which now has about 12 tables inside and four outside.

The new dining space is bright and cheerful, fashioned after an old Mexican hacienda with fake cracked walls, palm trees, tiles, etc.; it’s fun without being too kitschy. The tables are painted with a sun motif, and moonscapes are suspended from the ceiling. Overall it’s casual, comfortable and clean -- a perfect place to bring kids, parents, and everyone in between. A bonus: no blaring jukebox or flashing TV, both of which seem to be the norm at other taquerías.

The steak quesadilla ($6), served with fresh guacamole, salsa fresca, sour cream and a side of chips, is definitely more than one person could eat, with sufficient steak but sub-par heat. Luckily, El Metate provides a wide assortment of hot sauces, stacked up on a couple of shelves throughout the restaurant.

On a recent visit, the breaded fish taco ($3), plated with rice, lettuce and salsa fresca, was moist -- although it had an incomprehensible, slightly smoky flavor that was shared by the al pastor taco (also $3) we'd added to the order. A chicken burrito with refried beans -- a classic Mission mainstay -- had good texture but was slightly dry and also in need of a bit of heat.

El Metate offers a fresh selection of juices ($2); on various visits, we sampled the papaya, watermelon and horchata, all of which were thick and rich, though perhaps a touch too sweet.

Overall, El Metate is a great spot for a fresh Mexican meal if you're in the area, both for the quarter's characteristically sunny weather and for a better variety of fresh ingredients than you would find at the average taqueria. That said, the menu does not necessarily warrant a special trip across town, unless you fancy yourself a fish taco aficionado and need to add another notch to your culinary bedpost.


Reservations Essential? No.