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Where Mexico Meets the Marina

Since opening in November, Mamacita is a magnet for neighborhood Marina diners and drinkers. Reservations are advised, but if you're craving fresh, local ingredients prepared Mexican-style, the wait isn't too bad, especially after a few margaritas. Opt for the pomegranate margarita if you have a sweet tooth, or the sangria, with a secret ingredient that makes it one of the most distinctive sangrias around. Not surprisingly, numerous beers and tequilas are available and, happily, there is an extensive by-the-glass wine selection.

After a few glances at the tasteful décor and the trendy crowd, it's no shock to hear that the four Vintage 415 and Dylan Boutique proprietors are also part owners. The concept is an upscale beachfront cantina with baby-blue walls, hanging thatched rafts, and star-lit lanterns -- dreamt up by architect Tim Murphy, of Frisson and SupperClub. And after a few bites, it's no surprise that 27-year old co-owner and executive chef Sam Josi, who's worked at Slanted Door, Betelnut, and rnm, incorporates his family's organic Oak Hill Farm produce into his dishes.

The menu is both creative and classic, and almost every dish has a spicy or garlicky kick to it. It's comprised of small plates organized into little appetizers, salads and soup, tacos, bigger plates, and sides -- all meant to be shared family style, which caters to groups of friends. A good, light starter is the ensalada de jicama ($7), a refreshing salad of red cabbage and thinly sliced jicama with candied peanuts and cilantro-lime vinaigrette.

Our favorite antojito, or appetizer, is the ahi atun ($13), served with paper-thin yucca chips. The soft, raw tuna contrasts nicely with the crunch of the pumpkin seeds to offer both taste and texture. The ceviche, layers of fish (mahi mahi on my visit), habanero pico de gallo, avocado, and roasted tomato sauce served in a glass, is another recommended starter. It's clear that seafood eaters have many options, including the callos de mula ($10). However the accompanying spicy red mole cream upstaged the seared, fresh-out-of-the-sea scallops.

Of the seafood "platos fuertes," the salmon en pipian ($16), a pan-roasted Tofino Inlet (British Columbia) fish expertly seared crispy on the outside yet somewhat raw inside, is our pick. The fish was placed on top of asparagus with an Oaxacan green mole that offered some zing. Another signature is the pescado veracruzano ($17). Although the Alaskan halibut with garlicky polenta was good, I preferred the salmon's crisp, clean flavors.

The only taco we tried was the pollo asado ($10), although the carnitas and carne asada tacos came highly recommended. Presented on a long plate, three to an order, each tortilla was stacked high with chopped grilled chicken breast, sweet peppers, salsa, watercress, and a dusting of cheese. Another chicken specialty is the enchiladas ($15), a super-rich blend of slow-roasted chicken baked with tortillas and adobo, and oozing with queso asadero, and crema fresca.

Meat-eaters will be tempted by the albondigas y papas ($10), which are Niman Ranch beef and pork meatballs served atop whipped potatoes. Cumin and chipotle add spice to this dish, which is a preparation from Chef Josi's childhood. The bistek de guero ($16) is a grilled Meyer Ranch skirt steak with a unique mole dipping sauce, topped with chorizo-caramelized onion potatoes. Like most dishes, it was a bit spicy; yet the sweet onions added a nice compliment.

Luckily the portions are small, so you can order dessert (all $7). There are the classic treats like churros con chocolate and sopaipillas, fried, pastry puffs. We got the budin de cocoa, a baked chocolate pudding that's like a flourless chocolate cake -- warm and gooey on the inside with a good crust outside.

Cal-Mexican Small Plates

Reservations Essential