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Tacos and Tequila without the Trends

The stream of shoppers and commuters who traverse Yerba Buena Lane’s pedestrian walkway could easily pass right by Tropisueno’s unassuming facade. The signage is subtle, but people who live and work in the area know there is some quality Mexican food on offer here, with unexpectedly low prices.

When a restaurant’s most notable feature is cheapness, it’s usually a bad sign. Tropisueno, however, is a startling exception. The price point -- $6- to $11 for appetizers, $10 to $17 for entrees -- impress only because the food is so good.

To be clear, this isn’t a low-cost Colibri or Maya. Co-owner Erin Brooks says she likes to keep things defiantly casual, avoiding squiggles of sauce, or fancy taco trios with corresponding prices. However dishes do go beyond your typical cheese and bean-laden enchilada platter. Offerings include a Niman Ranch pork chop, vegetarian pozole (a traditional soup from Mexico), meatballs, and an enjoyable chile relleno stuffed with ground beef, olives, and raisins.

Add in an understated, rustic décor, attentive service and a solid drink list, and Tropisueno gives you a festive night out with a recession-friendly price tag.

The house margarita is solid and specialty tequila cocktails are far removed from cheesy spring break territory. The mestizo margarita mixes tequila and lime juice with a cherry liqueur and a bit of anise. Chipotle salt on the rim of the glass gives it a spicy, smoky finish.

Drinks run about $9, not as thrifty as the rest of the menu, but a good value considering the fresh ingredients and El Jimador tequila.

Chef Antelmo Faria originally hails from Portugal, and has a history with fancier venues in Monterey and Sonoma. So what’s with the move to tacos? Apparently Faria spent his childhood in San Jose and developed a love for Mexican cuisine. His menu incorporates specialties from the country’s different regions.

Our jovial server was eager to recommend some of her favorites from this list -- and apparently she likes her food extremely spicy. The poc chuc ($7), skewers of marinated grilled pork with a habanero salsa, was fiery enough to send even spicy food lovers clamoring for the nearest cocktail -- or carafe of water -- to ease the burn.

Fried foods, like the mushroom-filled empanada appetizer ($8) avoid being overly greasy, and the “camarones Tropisueno” shrimp entree ($16) is bathed in a pleasantly spicy chile-crema sauce, kicked up a notch with lime juice and cilantro. Even the two salsas that greet you upon arrival are better than average. The green tomatillo version includes pureed avocado, creating a light and enjoyable salsa-guacamole hybrid.

Service is friendly and well-meaning, if not terribly polished. Water glasses are never empty, but entrees appeared before we were halfway done with our appetizers.

By day, Tropisueno sheds its sit-down vibe and becomes a fast-casual taqueria. A wall panel lifts to reveal a counter where diners can select their preferred beans, meat and other fillings before seating themselves. A small bar area also offers happy hour specials and a snack menu, albeit with limited space for sitting or standing.

Tropisueno is a neighborhood place, meant for SOMA residents and nearby office workers, who deserve a casual medium between aggressively upscale dining and chain restaurants with plastic seats. The neighborhood seems appreciative, keeping the dining room lively on weekends and weeknights.

Uber-foodies and upscale dining aficionados might be better served elsewhere. Tropisueno is, at heart, a plain old refried beans-style Mexican joint, upgraded to San Francisco dining standards.


Reservations Essential? No.