I’ll get this out of the way right now – this post is not about mezcal, but it should be.
It’s SF Chefs week in San Francisco, the big celebration by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. I was late to the game, not bothering to check out the schedule till two days before it began on August 1. And I have to confess, I only checked out the schedule because I heard there was a night devoted to Mexican food. And it was of course through Mexican food that I found my way to mezcal…
Mijita, Traci des Jardins‘ Mexican restaurant at the Ferry Building was the setting for a night that featured seven of the Bay Area’s acclaimed Mexican restaurants – Mijita, Nopalito, Tacubaya, El Huarache Loco, Tacolicious, Tres and Copita. It was also a fundraiser for La Cocina, an incubator kitchen that primarily helps immigrant women launch their food businesses.
I have been challenged by the Mexican food scene in San Francisco that has long been dominated by the burrito and taco culture in the Mission. In recent years a smattering of more diverse Mexican restaurants serving innovative dishes have opened. But the truth is, we have lagged behind cities like Los Angeles, Austin and New York when it comes to showcasing the array of complexity, flavors and artistry in Mexican food.
And it is hard when I can’t help but compare what I eat here to what I have tasted in Mexico – dishes prepared to order and using the freshest and most local ingredients available. And of course, the masa, so richly tasting of corn and infusing every tortilla and tamal with an earthiness and complexity. It’s not a fair comparison, but I do find it ironic that in San Francisco, where there is such a militant focus on seasonality, local, and quality ingredients that it has taken so long for it to embrace Mexican cuisine. This is not to say that good or even great Mexican food was not to be found, there just hasn’t been the variety of styles and influences in comparison to other places. Or, the respect and kudos for what we do have.
But that is changing.
It was a casual night, with each of the restaurants serving a featured small plate from tables arranged along the sides of Mijita, and people milling about from table to table. There was a mariachi band, and three featured tequila cocktails. So what were these restaurants serving up?
Mijita served up a grilled octopus mini tostada that was delicious – the taste of the fire enhanced the sweet flavor of the tender octopus and the tostada was perfectly crunchy and thick.
Nopalito had a seafood cocktail with shrimp and calamari that tasted of the sea. The tomato-based broth was so sweet and light and balanced the delicate flavors perfectly.
El Huarache Loco (a La Cocina graduate) served up Veronica Solis’ signature huaraches – a sandal shaped thick tortilla – in mini size. The masa was perfectly cooked, crunchy outside, soft inside and the meat topping was rich in flavor and so very tender. They came with either a green salsa (tomatillo/Serrano chile) or red (tomato/chile de arbol.) I admit a bias with Veronica’s food – I have chowed down on her Mexico City style enchiladas and huaraches for several years and can’t wait to eat at her brick and mortar restaurant at Marin Country Mart.
Tacolicious served up a very refreshing and subtle cold cream of avocado soup with roasted corn.
Copita, who has another La Cocina alum Dilsa Lugo on staff, served up an incredibly light mini-tamale stuffed with sweet corn and roasted poblano chiles, and had my friend Tina Ramos, whose family owns La Borinqueña Restaurant in Oakland and who has been making tamales for her whole life, saying that she’d buy those.
Tacubaya had sopes with a layer of incredibly earthy pureed black beans topped with al pastor, grilled pineapple and a light avocado sauce.
Tres served up its signature carnitas, juicy and tender, in a small tortilla topped with pico de gallo and thick guacamole.
Kudos to SF Chefs for devoting a night to Mexican food. I hope this is just the beginning of celebrating and elevating Mexican food in our food lexicon. And of course, let’s be sure to add mezcal to the mix next time.