Photo: Edible Excursions
For the most part, Mexican food in San Francisco is associated with our signature burrito, a fat slab filled with beans, rice, meat and potentially more, easily weighing in at a pound or more. Everyone has their favorite taqueria, and disagreements over which is superior can get heated indeed. I like an SF burrito as much as the next guy, but I think we need to be honest: It's not Mexican food. It's San Francisco food.
When I worked in Redwood City, a colleague told me that a large part of the city was populated by emigrants from Michoacan, families who have come to Redwood City and returned, generationally. Consequently, the city is chockablock with excellent, if unfancy, taquerias serving far more authentic fare. Over the course of many lunch breaks, I got to sample more than a few, acquiring a taste for one place's lengua, another's al pastor, and so on. I still occasionally make the trip down if I'm having a serious hankering, though the local El Tonayense trucks do a comparable job.
And then there's Tacolicious, which manages to be both authentically Mexican and uniquely San Francisco. Started in 2013 as an spinoff of the Spanish restaurant Laïola for the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and ultimately took over the concept due to its popularity. T-lish now has four locations (three in San Francisco, plus one in Palo Alto). The Valencia Street location, with its adjacent agave bar Mosto, is where you'll find us on occasional afternoons enjoying some tacos and a margarita or two. I also often bring groups there when I'm leading tours with Edible Excursions.
Tacos at old-school taquerias are simple affairs, a scoop of grilled meat and a dollop of salsa on a single tortilla. Tacolicious lays on a substantial mound on a double tortilla; in fact, I typically split them and turn each taco into two. But there's more to Tacolicious than tacos. Owner Joe Hargrave and chef Telmo Faria make periodic excursions to Mexico City to see how people are eating in Mexico right now. Dishes like albacore tuna tostados "Contramar-style" reflect current food trends—in fact, we had very much the same thing at Aguachiles in Playa del Carmen.
Sara Deseran, co-owner with Hargrave (her husband) and editor-at-large for San Francisco Magazine, published the restaurant's eponymous cookbook. I've cooked from it some, and find the recipes approachable and true to form. But of course, what interests me most is preserved foods.
Surprisingly little is discussed about the food preservation techniques of Mexico. In the hot, arid regions of the north, drying is the most common method (chiles, beans, jerky). Pickling is common throughout the country, and the kind you're most likely to be familiar with is escabeche, a mixture of jalapeños, carrots and onions in vinegar brine. Tacolicious' version includes cauliflower as well. "We wanted it to be livelier and more exciting, so we added cauliflower, tomatillos, and fresno chiles as well to get some different flavors and textures in there," says chef Faria. "Also we have a technique for layering the vegetables so they retain a nice texture and crunch once they're pickled."
The spicy brine leftover from the pickles does not go to waste, though. "[Hargrave and I] were consulting on a Mexican project in Sydney, and Naren Young was doing their cocktail program. At the time he was at Locanda Verde in NYC, and was telling us how "pickle backs" were the latest rage in NYC bars. Since we had been making escabeche all that week, we decided to chase our tequila with it, and it was delicious. Once we opened Mosto, Joe thought that it would be fun to serve the jugo de escabeche back, in addition to the traditional sangrita."
In the massive tome Mexico: The Cookbook , Mexican culinary ambassador Margarita Carrillo Arronte touches on a few preservation recipes, including some basics like pickled chipotles, pickled mushrooms and an escabeche of her own, simply titled Pickled Jalapeños with Vegetables. More interesting is the Pickled Chiles with Cactus Paddles and Cheese, which seems akin to a Mexican antipasto. I personally have pickled nopales (cactus paddles) with good results.
Hargrave and Faria have another project, ¡Chino!, opened last fall. With Cecilia Chang consulting and Leo Gan expertly making XLB dumplings, Chino is another example of straddling the line between authentic and modern. Take, for example, Nick Balla's Dope-Ass Japan-o-Mission Wings (not traditional), or the hauntingly delicious Forbidden Rice a la Plancha, in which the grains of black rice are fried to crispy perfection.
Faria integrates a different set of techniques into the restaurant's menu. "In Asian cuisine, where fermentation is a lot more prevalent, we tend to gravitate towards that technique more. From lactofermenting fresh chilies for our house chili sauce, to fermented rice noodles, to making our own kimchi, we use the technique in several different applications."
Tacolicious and Chino will be participating in this year's Eat Drink SF, August 20-23, benefitting the Golden Gate Restaurant Association Scholarship Foundation (GGRASF) and the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). Tickets are available now, with early bird pricing through June 30.