In the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, the ruler of a prosperous city hires a pair of tailors who promise to make him the finest suit of clothes from the most fabulous cloth. There’s just one catch: the suit will be invisible to anyone who is not as smart as the emperor. While the emperor can’t see the clothes, he pretends he can so he doesn’t seem stupid, as do his subjects, who feed off each other and watch admiringly as he parades down the street in a different kind of outfit altogether – his birthday suit. Finally, one little boy in the crowd dares to step forward and cries out, “But he has nothing on!”
Nopalito, the latest restaurant from the folks at the popular and critically lauded Nopa, rings a bit like that fairytale. One minute the emperor is naked, and the next he’s wearing Prada – and which outfit he wears depends on which dish you are eating.
There’s no doubt that Laurence and Allyson Jossel have the Midas touch when it comes to restaurants – they helped crown an entire neighborhood with the name of their first place, Nopa, which stands for “north of the Panhandle.” Of course, it’s really just the Western Addition; or if you live west of it, I suppose it could be “Wead,” for “west of the Western Addition” (or “Sead,” if you live south …). Cutesy renaming aside, Nopa brought fine diners to an area that needed the business, and other first-rate eateries have followed including Bar Crudo, which relocated from its diminutive downtown location to more spacious digs on Divisadero.
I must confess that I am one of the few food critics who didn’t completely get the tsunami of praise heaped on Nopa – it’s good food made from sustainable ingredients, but to me it’s not much different than dozens of other places in the Bay Area. When Nopalito opened just a couple of blocks from my house I couldn’t wait to try it – I grew up in the Silicon Valley, which has a large Mexican population, and therefore many authentic, family-run Mexican restaurants. San Francisco, except for burritos-as-big-as-your-head-heaven in the Mission, is sorely lacking when it comes to great sit-down Mexican food. (I have yet to find a really good chile relleno in the City, while I can think of three between San Jose and Santa Cruz.)
Then the reviews started coming out, gushing about Nopalito being “far and away the best Mexican food in the Bay Area” and declaring the food to be “about as satisfying as anything … in recent memory.” Amazing praise from professional critics, but it also set the bar very high.
After four visits to Nopalito, I find myself thinking these other critics don’t get out much; or at least they don’t get out to the wonderful, inexpensive family-run Mexican joints I have come to know and love over the years. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot to like about Nopalito, in particular their commitment to sustainable organic products. There are some very good dishes, too, but there are also some dishes that would make even the emperor blush.
Chefs Jose Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman started at Nopa, where their staff meals wowed the Jossels enough that they (along with partner Jeff Hanak) opened a restaurant to showcase their “home cooking.” I wasn’t too thrilled with the location at first – it’s attached to the Falletti Foods market on Broderick Street, across from the Bank of America, and patrons hog the already crowded parking lot, making shopping and going to the bank a whole lot harder.
The 70-seat space has an enclosed outdoor patio that is by far the best seat in the house (and it’s dog-friendly – a big plus in my book, and especially appreciated at a restaurant in my neighborhood). Inside can get a little stuffy, but the details have a natural, refined flow, from tables cut from a single fallen oak tree to all-the-rage communal tables around an exhibition kitchen that also offers counter seating. The takeout window is around the other side of the building, along with (unfortunately) the bathroom.
The meal starts off with a complimentary little brown bowl filled with addictive, crispy fried chickpeas. The service is stellar – in fact, some of the best I’ve had at a restaurant in a long time. The wait staff knows the menu inside and out, they are relaxed yet professional, attentive but not cloying, and they genuinely seem to take pride in their work – their bubbly happiness is infectious, and the friendliness sets exactly the tone you want from a neighborhood restaurant.
On a quiet afternoon, we started lunch with the gordita de picadillo ($4.50), a house-made corn tortilla filled with grass-fed beef, carrot, refried pinquito beans, queso fresco, and cilantro sauce. The ingredients sound great, but it doesn’t taste like much at all. The meat could have come from Costco – it was lost in the mix. I appreciate that they make their own queso fresco (a crumbly, slightly acidic cheese) and that the pinquitos, a small pink bean, hold a bit of texture even after they’ve been cooked down. I also appreciate that they make the tortillas; however, on this visit, ours was chewy rather than crisp.
Next we tried the quesadilla roja con chicharron ($9) filled with pork belly, jack cheese, guajillo salsa, onions, and cilantro. For some odd reason they tint the masa with achiote, the dried, brick-red seeds of the annatto tree, rendering it so dark that the woman next to us said to her friend, “This tortilla is totally burnt.” Like the grass-fed beef, the pork belly, except for the wonderfully crunchy chicharrones (pork skin), was lost. I love pork belly, but if I’m going to consume that much fat, I want to revel in it. The quesadilla at Nopalito is skimpy on the filling, and the pork belly is barely recognizable – they could have used shredded chicken and saved us about 500 calories.
I love chilaquiles – a common breakfast in Mexico made of leftovers from the previous night’s meal. Mamacita on Chestnut Street in the Marina makes a version that I dream about – a heaping bowl of house-made tortilla chips tossed with chipotle cream, roasted chicken, ramp greens, and poblano rajas (skinless, fried slices of the poblano pepper). But I was disappointed in Nopalito’s cazuela de chilaquiles al guajillo ($9), a wimpy bowl of tortilla chips, guajillo salsa (a reddish brown, moderately hot chile), onions, and crumbles of hard-boiled egg and queso fresco. Let’s just say if Mamacita challenged Nopalito in Iron Chef “Battle Chilaquiles,” there’d be no contest.
A dinner visit to Nopalito proved more successful. A steaming bowl of caldo tlalpeño ($10) featured just-al dente asparagus and cauliflower, garbanzo beans, onions, and ripe avocado swimming in a rich chicken consommé.
The made-from-scratch mole contains nearly 30 ingredients including plantains, chocolate, raisins, half a dozen types of chiles, five kinds of nuts, and a multitude of spices. The intricate, thick sauce generously coats a juicy, poached chicken leg sprinkled with sesame seeds ($13), while at lunch it comes over shredded chicken with some of those wonderful warm tortillas ($11).
I’m not a big fan of goat meat, and the birria de chivo ($13), chunks of goat meat stewed in dried chiles, roasted tomatoes, chocolate, and spices, did nothing to change my mind – the stew was bland and so was the goat.
The highlight of the evening was certainly the carnitas ($14), huge hunks of pork braised for hours in cinnamon, orange, beer, and bay leaf and tossed on the griddle just before serving to give the meat a caramelized crust. Every element, from the cinnamon to the orange, was distinct, and the meat was moist and rich, just the way carnitas should be. It was also the greasiest carnitas I’ve ever had – I’ve made it at home and I’ve eaten it in myriad other restaurants, but Nopalito’s saturated the brown paper beneath in seconds. It oozed down my chin and arms, but fat is flavor, and these are the most flavorful carnitas I’ve found by far.
A subsequent lunch visit was another mixed bag. Panucho de pollo al pibil ($4), a fried tortilla stuffed with black beans, citrus-anchiote chicken, pickled red onion, and habanero salsa, packed a smoky intensity and some heat; tostada de tinga ($4), a fried tortilla filled with pinquito beans, shredded chicken, chipotle, epazote (a Mexican spice reminiscent of oregano), and lime-tinged crema, was also a hit. Like the panucho, the chicken was tasty and the sneaky heat caught us pleasantly by surprise. Taco de pescado al pastor ($4.75) featured seared adobo-marinated sturgeon, ancho chile, orange, and a terrific tomatillo salsa, but the fish was so mild it disappeared into the burst of flavors. Unfortunately, the tortillas on all three tacos were left in the fryer a tad too long – they were dark brown and hard, with a slightly burnt aftertaste.
Tamal enchilado de queso y puerco ($4), a house-made ancho chili masa with stewed pork,
queso fresco and spring onions was good if not remarkable.
After enjoying the chicken soup so much, we tried the pozole rojo ($11), a bowl of stewed pork shoulder, hominy, ancho chili, radishes, cabbage, and onion. The broth was rich and satisfying, and there was ample hominy – think reconstituted corn nuts – to soak it up; however, we couldn’t find a single piece of pork. When we brought this to our server’s attention, she went back to talk with the kitchen. “There should be chunks of pork in it,” she informed us, slightly embarrassed, “but I couldn’t see any in yours.” A manager made an appearance to let us know it’s made in one large pot, so there should be pork present, but she promptly removed it from our bill in yet another example of Nopalito’s stellar service.
Perhaps my favorite dish of all of my visits was also one of the simplest – huevos de caja ($9), corn tortillas piled with refried beans and tomatillo-jalapeno salsa, topped with two perfectly poached eggs, and covered with molten jack cheese.
Another highlight of each meal were the paletas ($3.50), the only dessert on the menu – house-made popsicles in flavors including a dense and delectable chocolate cinnamon, coffee de leche and fresh strawberry.
For drinks, the Ibarra chocolate fizz ($3.25) is like a Mexican egg cream – just sweet enough. Other house-made beverages are also good, especially the hibiscus-blood orange ($3.25). And they have Tecate in a can served properly with lime and salt ($2.50) – automatic bonus points.
Nopalito gets even more bonus points for the polverones, petite sugar and nut cookies similar to Mexican wedding cookies that they drop with the check. I was so enthralled I joked to our waitress that they should sell them by the box. “They do!” she exclaimed. “You can get them at the to-go window!” My friend and I scurried around the corner and waited as the manager plucked fresh cookies off a baking sheet. They were fifty cents apiece and, as I finish writing this review and pop my last polverone in my mouth, worth ever penny. I only wish I felt as certain about the rest of my Nopalito experience.
Nopalito: 306 Broderick Street (near Oak), 415-437-0303, www.nopalitosf.com, daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., no reservations (a call-in wait list is available).
Two and a half diamonds
Relaxed neighborhood charm with an eclectic lunch crowd of moms and babies, chatting friends, and single businesspeople grabbing a bite; an equally eclectic but livelier crowd for dinner ranges from families with kids to 60-something couples and 20-something groups. The enclosed patio is the best seat in the house.
Perhaps the best service at a casual restaurant in San Francisco today.
Even during peak hours, you can hold a conversation without screaming – this is a good place for a date, a business meeting, or to hear yourself think. The patio is the place to be (it gets a bit louder – and stuffier – inside).
Bring your Mini Maglite to dinner, but leave it at home for lunch.
NOT TO MISS DISHES
Carnitas, huevos de caja, mole, tostada de tinga, caldo tlalpeño, paletas, polverones.
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and style of the restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.