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In a Pickle with Tacolicious

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. 

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Making Mole Verde at La Cocina

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. 

Two generations of El Pipila

Mole verde ingredients

Prepping the mole verde

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Things I learned from Rick Bayless

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.

La Palma Mexicatessen

(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.)

Huarache at La Palma

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.

Salvador Vasquez flap steak

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. 

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I ate worms (and didn’t die)

PromoDisclosure: I was a guest of Casa Noble Tequila, who paid for my airfare, lodging and meals. I was not paid to write this post, and all opinions and observations are my own.

Maguey worms and ant larvae. Also, not pictured, chapulines.

I should have known from the look on Pepe's face.

We had just come in from enjoying some tamarind margaritas on the rooftop deck at La Tequila in Guadalajara. As we sat at our table, Pepe suggested ordering some appetizers for the table, asking whether he should order some more unusual things. Innocently, and ignoring for a moment that I was part of a group that included five other unwitting American writers and photographers, I said that I always have an appetite for the new. 

Pepe grinned like a calaca. A sinister glint flashed in his eye. I had given him the answer he was looking for.

Pepe in the barrel room

Really, I had no reason to suspect his intentions. As CEO of Casa Noble Tequila, Pepe Hermosillo had flown the group of us in from around the U.S. to gain a better understanding of tequila in general, and Casa Noble in particular. The previous day he and his wife Gina served us a magnificent lunch at their airy, modern Guadalajara home (including a cilantro mousse that I am currently obsessed with). He shared some of his housemade infused tequilas that blew my mind. Just a few hours prior to this dinner, we had toured the La Cofradìa distillery, culminating with comprehensive tastings of Casa Noble's offerings. The previous 36 hours were a blur of delicious regional Jalisqueño food and very, very good tequila. So, my guard was down. 

Barrel proof extra-añejo

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Cantina Laredo, DFW

With an airport the size of Manhattan, can you expect big-city-quality eats deep in the heart of Texas? Tex-Mex chain resto Cantina Laredo is one of the few restaurants in DFW's Terminal D that rises above take-out-grade food. It also…

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For 11 years, DPaul and I lived on Dolores Park, a hop, skip and a jump from some of the best taquerias in the Mission. Over the years, we must have spent several thousand dollars at El Toro, the smaller, saner sister to big boy Taqueria Pancho Villa. But when we moved over the hill to Noe Valley, it sort of forced us to refocus our attention on the lower half of the Mission. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I think that some of the best — and most underrated — food in the area exists in this part of town.

But it’s disconcerting to have to develop loyalty to a new place, and the sheer enormity of the number of taquerias in the Mission, not to mention the fervency with which each burrito buff extolls the virtue of their own favorite spot, can be overwhelming.

We first went to Papalote well before we had moved to Noe, and at first I admit I was not a fan. It was only after further experimentation that I came to realize Papalote’s greatness. The secret? Meat.

You see, at El Toro, my regular order was the Veggie #D. (Interestingly, D is evidently a number in Mexico.) That was beans, rice, lettuce, tomato, avocado and salsa. It was like a salad in a wrap, with big, meaty slices of avocado.

My first vegetarian burrito at Papalote was lackluster. Uninspired. I didn’t know that Papalote’s whole schtick, their raison d’être, was freshly grilled meats made-to-order for each burrito. As they say, knowledge is power.

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The Great Guac Hunt: Colibri

What better way to celebrate Dia de los Muertos than to revisit the Great Guac Hunt? I suppose a good mole would be a more fitting Oaxacan tribute, but this will have to do.

For this installation, my guest judge is none other than my better half, DPaul Brown. We’ve been to Colibri once before, with our good friend Anita, who knows from good Mexican food. I’ve been looking forward to returning for some time, especially for the purposes of this project, but also because I just plain like the place.

I’m not exactly sure what makes Colibri a bistro as opposed to a restaurant, but I’m not splitting hairs. One thing is for sure — while we have no shortage of Mexican food in San Francisco, we have a terrible dearth of quality places above the taqueria level. Colibri stands out as possibly the leader of the pack in this category. 

One important note about Colibri’s guac: If you’re seated for a meal, they make it tableside in one of those rustic stone pestles (molcajetes). At the bar, it just shows up already made. They also spice to order. Though DPaul and I are major pepperheads, we ordered it medium spicy so as not to overwhelm the guac experience itself. Let’s get on with the evaluation.

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Tacos San Buena

Now that I'm back working up in the Levi's Plaza/Telegraph Hill/Nowhere area, I've been beleaguered by the same nagging lunch problems as before. There are about three places I frequent: RJ's Market; Il Fornaio's take-out counter and the take-out window…

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