In San Francisco's Mexican food scene, burritos often steal the spotlight, pushing tacos to a supporting role on the menu. But things are rapidly changing. We're increasingly becoming a taco town, with excellent versions of carnitas and al pastor tacos complementing more playful options filled with lobster, goat, Spanish octopus and even beef tongue or cabeza (cow head). Here are the 16 most important tacos to try across the city.
Lengua taco: Uno Dos Tacos
Consider FiDi's lunch options: avocado toast, kale salad, turkey sandwich...beef tongue tacos? Now that's a way to change up the midday routine. This Back of the House Group's venue — known for tacos and margaritas and a killer sun-splashed outdoor patio — boasts taco options for everyone, including the winning tender braised lengua, served on a corn tortilla with tomatillo salsa (both housemade; they're not cutting corners). Appreciate its hint of funk and unique texture (tender with a little chew; not at all like the tire you imagine) — then tell your co-workers how you've changed your mind about lengua.
595 Market St.; 415-974-6922
Al pastor taco: Glena’s
The Dogpatch keeps getting hotter for dining out, including major citywide attention with this fast-casual restaurant by husband-and-wife team Michael (Kin Khao's original chef de cuisine) and Stephanie Gaines. He’s always had a hankering for low-key Mexican dish concepts that veer from the traditional. The result: a menu of pozole, ceviche, fried chicken tortas and, of course, tacos. The leader of that pack is the al pastor, a spot-on rendition with achiote-marinated pork shoulder that's grilled and chopped with succulent pineapple for a sweet-spicy-meaty thrill in a soft La Palma "Sonorita" flour tortilla.
632 20th St.; 415-915-8226
Shrimp taco: Arguello
Head to the Presidio for a morning hike followed by a leisurely lunch of tacos and salads on the patio of this gorgeous restaurant in the heart of the former military base turned national park. The plump shrimps are dusted in spices then quickly grilled and placed in warm homemade corn tortillas where they're slathered with a carefully balanced citrus-habanero salsa. This is a taco meant for sunny outdoor dining (because it's never foggy in the Presidio, right?).
50 Moraga Ave.; 415-561-3650
Pan-seared fish taco: Little Gem
Baja-style fish tacos certainly are delicious, and Dave Cruz, chef of this health-conscious Hayes Valley restaurant, fell in love with them firsthand — on the cliffs of the Baja California coast, he says, washed down with a Modelo. His latest version of fish tacos channels both the exciting flavors of Baja but also skips the fried batter and crema for pan-seared local petale sole with Napa cabbage slaw (enhanced with tamari and sesame), sea beans and an umami pop of citrus tobiko. For an added gluten-free flourish, the taco's tortilla swaps out corn masa for rice and tapioca flours.
400 Grove St., Suite C1; 415-914-0501
Fried fish taco: Nick’s Crispy Fish Tacos
A consistently high-rated bargain bite for many years on our survey, Polk Gulch’s taco destination happens to be a cash-only kiosk within a nightclub. The setup is bizarre and the drinks served aren’t exactly craft cocktails. But you’re here for the fried fish tacos. The outside batter is consistently light and greaseless; the red snapper flaky and moist. Most diners order it “Nick’s Way” with guacamole and Jack cheese, wrapped in both a crispy fried outer shell and soft inner tortilla. After a few bites, it’s hard to understand a fried fish taco another way. Pro tip: Save room for this one. It's roughly twice the size of most tacos.
1500 Broadway; 415-409-8226
Cabeza taco: Belmar La Gallanita Meat Market
When a butcher shop serves tacos, you know you’re in for some superior meat fillings. That’s the case of the mini tacos (here called "taquitos") at this longtime carniceria with a taco kiosk in the back. It’s a lesser-known but essential destination along 24th Street in the Mission. Pig brains are the weekend favorite for daring taco diners. But our pick is the cabeza: fork-tender, stewed beef (from the head), with a consistency similar to slow-roasted short ribs. No fat or gristle to be found, and the meat really shines with a squeeze of lime from the garnish bar.
2989 24th St.; 415-826-4600
Carnitas taco: La Palma
Fillings get the taco spotlight, but how about some love for tortillas? This crammed Mission market and taqueria provides many of the city’s taquerias with tortillas. Come for the hand-pressed corn tortillas (spend an extra $2 on the thick, pancakelike version over the thin, machine-pressed standard), and stay for the carnitas. Each bite alternates between caramelized nubs and soft strands of pork, with a refreshing pico de gallo — and that toasty, hearty tortilla, of course.
2884 24th St.; 415-647-1500
Panko avocado taco: Lolo
Avocado toast is everywhere in San Francisco, but try the avocado tacos at this always buzzing Valencia spot and you'll ditch your toast. A pair of ripe avocados are panko-coated, fried, then nestled in La Palma flour tortillas (see above) and joined by Oaxacan cheese, micro cilantro, pickled onions and habanero crema. Pair with an innovative cocktail for a refreshing warm-weather meal.
974 Valencia St.; 415-643-5656
Huevo taco: Cala
Mexico City’s specialty slow-cooked tacos de guisado rule at this Hayes Valley hot spot's weekday lunch; seafood is the evening focus. Served in a compact space behind the kitchen with a counter but no seating, the huevo taco features a soft-boiled egg atop rice and black beans on a homemade tortilla — it sounds bizarre and looks odd but works magnificently when the liquid yolk combines with the salsas. Messy but glorious? You bet.
149 Fell St.; 415-660-7701
Crispy lobster taco: Californios
Chef and co-owner Val M. Cantu’s tasting menu in the Mission deserves to be among the heavyweights like Benu, Saison and Lazy Bear. He brilliantly fuses Californian and Mexican styles, transforming quesadillas and other dishes into high culinary art. For a taco course, he crafts his tortillas from a specific masa called Bloody Butcher (made in Santa Rosa) and fills it with soft butter-poached Maine lobster. It's paired with shredded fennel and chilhuacle (a rare type of chile) amarillo sauce, then topped with dill and a viola flower for one of Cantu's typically elaborate finishes.
3115 22nd St.; 415-757-0994
Carne asada taco: La Taqueria
Celebrated for its rice-free burritos, the city’s most renowned taqueria also deserves headlines for its tacos and star ingredient: the meat. In particular, the carne asada has a spot-on grilled char, while keeping its juiciness. Tacos here are substantially larger than the norm, with beans and pico de gallo tucked into the nicely folded package (so everything stays together). Your burrito-eating companions will be jealous.
2889 Mission St.; 415-285-7117
Tako taco: Chaya Brasserie
We love both the word play and the actual octopus dish itself at this lovely Embarcadero Cali-Asian restaurant with a stellar Bay view. A white sesame flour “tortilla” (more like fluffy naan flatbread than a tortilla) holds the braised Spanish octopus. In lieu of salsa, Chaya adds green papaya, avocado, tomatillo and cotija cheese. We have a hunch we'll see similar dishes around town as both octopus and nontraditional tacos continue to trend.
132 Embarcadero; 415-777-8688
Taco Arabe: Nopalito
This taco pulls inspiration from a time, centuries ago, when the Moors conquered part of present-day Mexico and brought many dishes, including gyros. They've since morphed into taco form, which is what you'll find at Nopalito in NoPa and the Inner Sunset. For this dish, pork gets marinated in lime and various gyro spices like cumin, and garnished with cilantro and a smoked jalapeño salsa morita — all atop a housemade flour tortilla base. It's a continent-spanning thrill.
Goat barbacoa taco: Padrecito
Goat still hasn’t found its way onto many local menus, but this Cole Valley destination has offered goat barbacoa tacos since opening in 2013. The secret? It’s the goat, of course, braised with ancho chiles and tequila for a hot, gamey one-two punch, accompanied by avocado, broccolini, salsa arbol, crema Mexicana and Manchego cheese. It’s safe to say this is the city's definitive goat dish.
901 Cole St.; 415-742-5505
Bulgogi asada taco: Tacorea
Fusion tacos aren’t new in San Francisco, but we’re seeing more refined offerings these days with better quality meats and a gentler touch to the mix of flavors. Approaching its first birthday, Lower Nob Hill’s Tacorea keeps drawing crowds with Korean-influenced tacos and burritos and its low-key, fun-loving vibe; they fit right in at Coachella this year. The sweet and umami combo in the bulgogi beef filling and its garnish (salsa verde, cilantro, furikake) is everything you could hope for in a Korean-barbecue taco mash-up.
809 Bush St.; 415-885-1325
Thai beef curry taco: Mestiza
Khmer lemongrass chicken, fish al pastor, Filipino pork adobo — these aren’t your typical taco fillings. But they're fair game at this SoMa fast-casual newcomer with a funky Palm Springs–meets-tropics design and a chef, Sophia Uong (formerly at Calavera and Chopped Grill Masters) with a globe-spanning style. Our pick is the riveting Thai red curry beef taco, served in freshly pressed corn tortillas and brightened by pineapple arbol chile salsa and coconut flakes. Pro tip: It's a glorious flavor combo but a juicy mess after the first bite; keep napkins handy.
595 Bryant St.; 415-655-9187