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.
Photo: Alanna Hale
Japanese cuisine is perhaps my favorite, or at least certainly in my top three. If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d be just fine so long as there was ample seafood, rice paddies, and someone to turn it all into perfect sushi every day. Hands down our favorite sushi place in the city is ICHI Sushi, and its izakaya bar, NI, in the back. We’ve been fans since their early days, occupying a tiny and fairly charmless space that housed our previous favorite, Yo’s Sushi Club, on a nondescript corner of Mission Street in Bernal Heights.
The current space is airy and slick. As you enter the hallway covered with an Erik Marinovich mural outlining the practice of eating sushi, the staff collectively belts out an enthusiastic “Irasshaimase!”
You’ll more often find us in the back at NI, ordering their deservedly famous yuzu chicken wings and whatever vegetable they’re turning into a goma ae with black sesame. It used to be that there was no sushi at NI, as the chefs at the front work at capacity to keep the sushi bar fed, but lately they’ve been offering rolls from the back kitchen, which they will also make as hand rolls. And we always, always order the tsukemono, or assorted pickles.
When ICHI was still at the old space, I once asked chef Erik Aplin whether they were doing any tsukemono; they didn’t list it on the menu. He gave me a knowing look, and promptly poked into the fridges. Moments later, he presented a dish with a small selection of pickles. They were just beginning to really delve into tsukemono, and at that time weren’t ready to list it on the menu. I don’t remember everything on the plate, but I’ll never forget a small dollop of creamy white stuff that could have passed as some kind of cheese. It was tofu that had been fermented in miso, and I had never had anything like it before, or since.
For a few years now, we’ve done an annual BLT party on New Year’s Day. Being the way we are, of course, that doesn’t mean just a quick run to the grocery store for supplies. Of the four primary ingredients for the sandwich — bacon, lettuce, tomato and bread — the only thing that we don’t make by hand from scratch is the lettuce. Even we have limitations.
Each year we improve the process. The first year I bought tomatoes, thinking I could get away with it, but even in temperate California, the ‘maters in the dead of winter simply suck. So I began packing oven-dried tomatoes in oil and tomato jam back in September when the bounty is at its peak. Problem solved. The other half tinkered with loaves, finally investing in pullman loaf pans to make neatly square sandwiches. This year we even invested in an electric slicer to make for quicker, more uniform slices of both bacon and bread.
The first year I made three varieties of bacon: A standard American, some pancetta, and Sichuan bacon, perfumed with warming spices. The Sichuan bacon was an instant hit, and each year I made more of it and less of the rest, finally jettisoning the others altogether this year. Eleven pounds of the stuff, to be exact. No one complained.
One detail that needed refining this year was how to cook the bacon faster. It’s one of the things that scales pretty linearly: More bacon equals more time making bacon.
I was already cooking it off in the oven. You can crisp up a sheet pan of bacon in about 15-20 minutes. Our friend Jim tipped me off to a way to get more bacon into the oven faster. Slice everything ahead of time and lay the slices out on sheets of parchment paper. Keep the layers stacked in the refrigerator. Then, when a pan comes out of the oven, you can simply remove the cooked bacon to a paper towel to drain, pour off the rendered fat, discard of the used sheet of parchment, and then the pan is ready for the next sheet. Badda bing, badda boom.
Oh, and that bacon fat? When you’re pouring it off, pour it through a few layers of cheesecloth in a strainer into a metal bowl. I sent several people home with 2-ounce jars of rendered Sichuan bacon fat. No one complained.
Are you familiar with mole verde? I've always loved mole poblano, the chocolate-based mole, and knew that there are many other types of mole — red rojo, pumpkin seed-based pipián from the Yucatan, even a white mole made with pine nuts — but had never tasted green mole verde from the Guanajuato region until last week. I was invited to La Cocina, the non-profit kitchen incubator, to learn how to make this regional dish at the hands of Lupe Guerrero of El Pipila, one of their charter businesses.
El Pipila is one of the businesses who will be featured at this Friday's O, Mole Night dinner at Ghirardelli Square, where some of San Francisco's top chefs, like Traci des Jardins, will be collaborating with La Cocina's female food entrepreneurs to interpret mole multiple ways. This is the kickoff event for El Mercado, a joint effort with Do415, showcasing local artisans, and closing with La Tamalada, a hands-on class where you'll learn to make four kinds of tamales. Tickets to O, Mole Night and La Tamalada are available now; El Mercado is free.
Lupe was in La Cocina's kitchen with her mother and daughter, three generations of mole-making prowess. Like many other moles, this one is a mixture of herbs, spices and nuts that are pulverized into a thickened sauce. What sets mole verde apart and gives it its vibrant color are tomatillos, serrano chilies, and fresh cilantro and spearmint. The mixture includes sesame and pumpkin seeds, but somewhat unusually also peanuts.
Disclosure: I was compensated by Negra Modelo to attend this event, post about it on social channels, and write this blog post.
I'm not going to mince words about it: Sometimes being a food blogger has pretty awesome perks. Like when your go-to Mexican beer approaches you with an opportunity to take a culinary tour of the Mission District with Rick Bayless, and pay you for the privilege. Twist my arm.
We kicked our tour off at a well-known "Mexicatessen" on 24th street, a place I know well thanks to my affiliation with Edible Excursions. (Note: Due to some regulations, I cannot name the places we went to. I know, weird.) This place receives enormous amounts of dry corn on a roughly biweekly basis, which they grind and mix with water and lime (calcium hydroxide, not the fruit) in a process called mixtamalization. This unlocks the bioavailability of nutrients in the corn. They then use this mixture, called masa mixtamalisada, to make fresh tortillas, huaraches, sopes and other delicacies — all by hand. This is my go-to spot to buy fresh corn tortillas, crema salvadoreia, and fabulous salsas.
(Sidebar: Come take our tours in San Francisco, Oakland or Berkeley! If you book a private tour for a group of 8 or more, you get a free tour for two for yourself. I'm just one of a whole fleet of awesome guides with Edible Excursions.)
Piping-hot huarache stuffed with cheese and herbs, topped with grilled flank steak and cabbage? Don't mind if I do. (Washed down with Negra Modelo, of course.)
Speaking of flank steak, our next stop was a nearby meat market, family-owned for more than 40 years. The second-generation owner, Salvador Vazquez, explained that until the '70s, the beef commonly used for carne asada was not widely available in America outside Latino markets. In the mass market, it was usually thrown in with other less desirable cuts for ground beef, but in Mexico, it's treasured for its intensely beefy flavor. A friend observed Vazquez carving out the section of the cow containing a few cuts of thin, flat steaks for use.
He asked Vazquez what these cuts were called, and for lack of a good translation called it "flap meat." The friend asked him to show a colleague, who turned out to be a rep with IBP, and before long flap steak became available as a grocery store cut across the country. What was once considered all but a disposable cut is now marketed as flank and skirt steak, and for a premium price at that.