Mexican food is almost a dime a dozen in this town, especially when you have the Mission where you can find everything from mom and pops restaurants to taquerias specializing in authentic food. So when a hipster version opens with all the buzz words, sustainable, organic, local, etc., it just makes me roll my eyes, usually at the prices of what they are charging versus what you are getting. And it was with this raised eyebrow that the SO and I popped in to try Nopalito out in the sunset district next to Golden Gate Park. It is an offshoot of sorts from the folks who started Nopa, a great place I've been to before. I have this thing about high priced Mexican food, I mean why bother when you can get the same thing authentically and at a better price? But I decided to keep an open mind.
The menu is divided into four sections and we (actually I) decided to get one item from each. First up was esquite tostado.
This was a toasted warm sweet corn salad with queso fresco, mayonnaise, chile, lime and pico de gallo. First impressions are that it is a very pretty looking dish and one bite of this and my taste buds went crazy, this was really amazing. This dish is served warm, which a pleasant surprise on this chilly day. The citrus from the lime and sweetness of the cherry tomatoes in the pico de gallo were a nice mesh and contrast to the spice from the ground chili powder. At first I was dubious about the mayo but it's really more of a compliment to help the queso fresco creamier and if no one told you it was there you wouldn't know it. I just got lost in the color and flavor of this bowl and want to make it at home now.
Next was the empanada con desebrada de res--basically shredded grass fed beef and tomatoes inside a fried masa pastry covered with cabbage, avocado, queso fresco and salsa frita de guajillo. Fresh, hot and crispy out of the fryer, this was a good empanada, though I've had ones I like better in town. I liked the use of masa/corn dough for the shell and the beef had a nice earthy flavor to it. The salsa made from guajillo chiles was like a sriracha--very spicy--I liked it but there wasn't much to offset it. The empanada was piping hot and then you add in the hot sauce it was just a lot of one not. I like queso fresco but it was overpowered here much like the cabbage which seemed more for texture than anything else. Overall, good, but not a real wow like the corn salad.
Then came the quesadilla roja con chicharron--a mulato chile-corn tortilla filled with crispy pork belly bits, shredded pork, chile cascabel, jack cheese, queso fresco, onion and cilantro. This is not your standard quesadilla, the tortilla is a mix of corn masa with dark chiles giving the brown color and then cooked like a crepe but with a nice crispy outside texture. The filling is is slightly sweet hot with the pork, onions, cheese and cascabels. The cilantro gives it a touch of brightness and all together this dish put us back on the winning track. I liked the new take on the traditional quesadilla with the mix of old and new flavors. The addition of the chicharrons (fried pork skin) was an interesting twist for crunch, I thought there could have been more but I'm splitting hairs here since I like pork rinds.
Thinking we still had room left we got our main dish--carnitas--pork braised in orange, bay leaf, milk and cinnamon served with beer cabbage salad, pickled carrots and jalapeño, salsa de tomatillo and house made yellow corn tortillas. The pork had a nice sticky sweetness to it that wasn't overpowering, I mean orange and cinnamon could have gone terribly marmalade but it didn't. Carnitas is pretty much a twice cooked pork and here it was braised then sautéed and while I mostly enjoyed it there were some pieces bordering on the dry/overcooked side. It helped to have the tomatillo as a balance to the sweetness and adding a little crunch with the cabbage, though I didn't really taste the beer. I did like the items mixed together in the tortilla instead of separate which made it an enjoyable dish, and, well that is how you are supposed to eat it, so kudos.
While I was prepared to not totally like Nopalito they did charm with their use of flavors and ingredients to offer new takes on traditional Mexican dishes. And even when the items weren't the best ever, they were still pretty good. Food surprises in San Francisco are sometimes hard to come by but Nopalito is one of those that should be discovered by folks who live here and of course kept secret from those who don't.