San Francisco is no longer just a taco and burrito town. The popularity of city newcomers like Cala and Cadillac Bar & Grill and the East Bay's Calavera and Comal has moved the idea of Mexican food to include many lesser-known, regional dishes from states like Jalisco and Veracruz. While this attention on a Bay Area–wide scale might be new, the city has always been fortunate to have a tremendous selection of all kinds of Mexican restaurants, food stalls and food trucks. For a look at the past, present and future of the city's Mexican food, check out our list of the 10 most important Mexican dishes in San Francisco right now, from the familiar burrito to the mostly unknown huarache.
Carnitas at Nopalito
The piping-hot pork arrives in a paper bag, an opening flourish in a major carnitas feast to come. The juicy meat is crispy on the outside and beyond fork-tender on the inside thanks to its braise of milk, cinnamon, beer, orange and bay leaf. You can eat the meat two ways: atop the excellent, warm corn tortillas, piled with a supporting cast of pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños, cabbage slaw and rustic tomatillo salsa. Or go straight for the carnitas and chow down.
306 Broderick St.; 415-437-0303
Chilaquiles at Primavera
You can't just shop for food and gourmet treats at the Ferry Building’s Saturday morning Farmers Market, you've also got to eat. And when you're hungry, head for the tamales and chilaquiles at Primavera’s stand, which is open just one day a week. The eggs are soft-scrambled, playing off your choice of green or red salsas, avocado slices, queso fresco, a tidy pool of refried beans and the ethereally lightly fried tortilla chips.
1 Ferry Building; 415-291-3276
Menudo at Los Panchos
There's much tripe to be had in the Mission, but the menudo at this Salvadoran and Mexican establishment shines brightest. The dish, which can feed two, arrives in an oversized bowl, its comforting red chile-based broth steaming hot with chunks of tripe throughout. Customize your own bowl with condiments delivered on the side — maybe some oregano and a squeeze of lemon, followed by a spoonful of diced raw onions and red pepper flakes for a gentle jolt. Warm, soft corn tortillas can be eaten as is or ripped and tossed in the broth, crouton-style. We recommend ordering a pupusa on the side. And while you're there, make some friends; Los Panchos is part restaurant, part community gathering spot for the Outer Mission.
3206 Mission St.; 415-285-1033
Baja Fish Tacos at Cholita Linda
For destination-worthy Baja-style fish tacos, city dwellers should head to Temescal, the center of Oakland’s relentlessly buzzing dining scene. That is where the husband-and-wife team of Murat Sozeri and Vanessa Chavez set up their first shop after turning heads on the pop-up and farmer's markets circuits. The fish taco is the thing to get. The fish isn't so much fried as it is touched by a high-end tempura artist, and it arrives spilling out of the open-faced corn tortillas, coated with cabbage slaw, an earthy red chile salsa and a touch of crema. Will everything fall apart in a couple of bites? Yes, and it's so good you won't mind. This superb taco is one of Oakland’s signature dishes and the Bay Area’s leading fish taco.
4923 Telegraph Ave., Oakland; 510-594-7610
Ceviche Verde at Cala
Ceviche is such an important part of the Mexican repertoire it just has to be on this list. And, no one owns cerviche like Cala's chef-owner Gabriela Cámara. The restaurateur perfected the dish at her acclaimed restaurant in Mexico City, Contramar. Cámara uses lime-soaked halibut, cut into precise diminutive cubes, which get tossed with whatever is in season. Right now, the ceviche verde comes tossed with fennel and sorrel, along with radish slivers, and it's all tied together with the acidic kiss of citrus. It is bright, fresh and fragrant all at once. Most importantly, instead of getting lost, the halibut's flavor gets elevated.
149 Fell St.; 415-660-7701
Chicken Enchilada With Mole Negro at La Oaxaqueña
Oaxaca, a mostly high-altitude state in the south of Mexico, is best known for its rib-sticking cuisine, in particular the dark-as-the-night-sky mole negro. It's a sauce but also the centerpiece of any dish it graces — a transcendent accompaniment. At La Oaxaqueña in the heart of the Mission, the sauce is as robust and dense as you’d hope for, startlingly complex (there are over two dozen ingredients like chile peppers, cacao and cumin) but also tremendously approachable. The somewhat sweet, slightly nutty mixture can be had atop chicken in a simple main-course plate or in banana leaf steamed tamales. Our favorite is the enchilada dish, filled with chicken and garnished with cotija cheese, an orange wheel and avocado wedge.
2128 Mission St.; 415-621-5446
Carne Asada Burrito at La Taqueria
Among all the heated food debates in San Francisco, the most contentious is where to find the best burrito, after La Taqueria. The little taqueria in the center of the energetic Mission is a nationally known legend. And it doesn’t even serve Mission-style burritos — there is no rice in the filling, which is a good thing as rice would only distract from the rest of this great burrito, whose emphasis is on excellent meat, a warm tortilla, the right touch of cheese and a fine-tuned ratio of beans to guacamole. La Taqueria’s burritos, especially the lightly seasoned and tender carne asada (cut from top sirloin), rightly has a prominent place amongst the city’s pantheon of elite must-experience dishes. We can talk about the second-best burrito later.
2889 Mission St.; 415-285-7117
Cochinita Pibil at Castillito Yucateco
This Yucatán specialist is a welcome oasis of calm steps away from the always lively intersection of 16th and Mission streets. The thing to order here is a rendition of the tropical region’s best-known dish, pulled pork stewed with achiote and orange juice and baked in banana leaves. Diners can choose a small version as appetizer tacos or a full entree with enough meat for two. Either way, you’re treated to excellent pork with little wedges of orange and topped with a fluorescent pink-purple-hued confetti of onions. The homemade thick tortillas have enough character to be devoured on their own, and the brave should add one touch of the sinus-clearing habanero salsa.
2052 Mission St.; 415-621-5510
Huarache With Huitlacoche at El Huarache Loco
The huarache, a compressed oval of masa that looks much like its Spanish namesake — a type of sandal — is still relatively unknown in the Bay Area. This Marin County spot will give you a proper introduction to the fried dough that's crisp on the edges and soft in the middle. The thick tortilla serves as the base for finely diced meats or, our favorite, huitlacoche, a nutty funk of ink-black corn fungus. This is fork-and-knife eating, in which bites of corn, beans, a snowy dusting of queso fresco and your chosen topping pave the way for a strong note of cilantro and a kick of chipotle salsa. The shop itself was in the first graduate class of the city’s small-business culinary incubator, La Cocina, and you can find them in their brick-and-mortar shop and at the Alemany Farmers’ Market on Saturday and Sunday from 8 AM to 3 PM.
1803 Larkspur Landing Cir., Larkspur; 415-925-1403
Goat Barbacoa Tacos at Padrecito
Goat still isn't commonplace on Mexican menus in San Francisco, but this Cole Valley restaurant is pushing diners to reconsider the meat with a distinct gamey flavor. Its braised goat taco is layered with tender goat meat, broccolini, avocado, salsa arbol and a drizzle of crema and Manchego cheese. Is this the taco that can turn San Francisco into goat-meat lovers? Only time will tell, but we couldn't think of a better taco to lead the charge.
901 Cole St.; 415-742-5505