Nopalito's special meatballs get their flavor from charred chiles
The neighbors complained.
We have them to blame for the disappearance of the albóndigas al chilmole from the menu at Nopalito’s Broderick Street location. The grousers complained about the smell of charred chiles--an intrinsic ingredient in the chilmole--and eventually the meatballs were dropped from the menu.
But at the new Ninth Street location, a powerful hood fan has allowed for the reintroduction of this Yucatecan dish ($13 at lunch, $14 at dinner). To make the chilmole, chefs José Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman Gonzalez char ancho, pasilla negro and árbol chiles until blistered and blackened, rinse them in water to eliminate some bitterness, then pummel them into a paste to which oregano, cumin and bay leaves are added.
This jet-black paste is a key ingredient in albóndigas, grass-fed beef meatballs. Pork fat, tomatillos, onion, garlic, cilantro and epazote further bolster the flavor.
The albóndigas are unique to the new location, but you can have them alongside Nopalito stalwarts like totopos ($6) and torta de chilorio($9). The latter is Mexico’s answer to the hero, built on a house-made roll slathered with refried Rancho Gordo pinquito beans, topped with shredded pork, jack cheese avocado, cabbage, onions and a spicy green salsa.
The neighbors couldn’t possibly complain.
In the beginning, there was Nopa. And it was good. Especially the pork chops.
And then came Nopalito. And it was also good. Especially the mole.
And now, after much anticipation, comes something completely unexpected, totally radical and altogether unlike anything that’s ever been done before in the field of culinary science.
Okay, so it’s another Nopalito. But this one’s in the Sunset...
Meet the 9th Avenue installment of Nopalito, the semilegendary den of Mexican deliciousness, opening Monday.
So. You probably think you know what you’re getting here: big open windows, cactus-green walls, ridiculously tasty ceviche. And for the most part, you’re exactly right.
But you’re also getting something bigger. Roomier. A place with nearly double the space—meaning a little less time waiting for those no-reservations tables.
For now, you’ll come here for some nosh after lovingly staging a scene-for-scene recreation of Road House in Golden Gate Park. (Or, you know, throwing a frisbee around with friends.) Belly up to the counter overlooking the kitchen for a michelada and some braised pork.
Then, at some point (perhaps up to a year from now), you’ll come back and find glorious mezcals, tequilas and other delights that come with a full liquor license. In the shorter term, expect a new patio, where you can order up standbys old (carnitas, mole) and new—like some Mexican hot chocolate.
It’s infinitely better than Canadian hot chocolate.
Square 17 encompasses Haight-Ashbury, as well as the eastern panhandle of Golden Gate Park. The area north of this panhandle, nicknamed NoPa, contains the place we picked for representing the square.
The 2006 opening of Nopa - a restaurant named after its neighborhood - helped define the area. Nopa's honest, rustic fare, lively bar scene and overall sense of inclusiveness quickly made it a prime neighborhood gathering spot as well as a dining destination.
Partners Laurence Jossel, Allyson Jossel and Jeff Hanak turned a formerly cavernous bank space into a restaurant offering an appealing roster of Laurence Jossel's California-Mediterranean dishes, many of them wood-fired, while the bar service helped pioneer the Bay Area's artisan cocktail scene.
Nopa's younger sibling Nopalito, which opened about three years later, upholds similar sensibilities and offers top-quality Mexican fare.
Gabby Bricenos makes fresh tortillas at Nopalito, the sister Mexican restaurant to Nopa.
San Francisco’s Organic Mexicans
We love Mexican food. Who doesn’t? What we typically wonder when salivating for a Mexican meal in a restaurant, though, is: where exactly does this stuff come from?
At its highest expressions, south-of-the-border cuisine can, of course, be as subtle and complex as an Octavio Paz poem. But like other American “ethnic” fare, Mexican for most of us primarily means plentiful and cheap, whether the establishment is a latter-day Chi-Chi’s or a neighborhood madre-y-padre joint. That means “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to the sourcing for what’s tucked inside that humongous burrito or beneath the oozing melted cheese on that groaning platter of brownish-red goopy stuff.
Happily, we see signs of positive change. At least in northern California’s Bay Area, which is finally beginning to extend its standing as the greenest food city in the country beyond the food high temples like Chez Panisse and its many farmers’ market-driven bistros. And so in case you haven’t yet met them, we’d like to introduce you now to San Francisco’s pair of muy sabroso (very tasty) organic Mexicans.
Nopalito is just marking a first birthday. A “vibrant neighborhood Mexican kitchen” that celebrates the “traditional cookery of Mexico … utilizing our philosophy of purchasing local, organic and sustainable ingredients,” she’s also wordplay times 2. Her name refers to the slices of nopal (cactus leaf) used in Mexican cooking and is also a clever nod to nearby NOPA (“north of the panhandle”)—her widely acclaimed bigger sister (she’ll be 4 this year) who specializes in organic wood-fired cuisine.
Nopalito’s setting is simple and spare, and lunch and dinner are first-come, first-served, 7 days a week (there’s even free parking). The full menu is available to go from a take-out counter. But what the kitchen turns out is anything but Taco Bell. The masa for tortillas and tamales is house-ground from organic corn. Chorizo sausage and queso fresco (fresh white cheese) are made there. Slow-cooked rustic dishes like birria de chivo (goat stewed in chilis, chocolate, roasted tomato, pinquito beans, spices) and pozole rojo (a stew of pork shoulder, hominy corn and chile mulato) vie for your appetite along with blue corn quesadillas, adobo-seared fish tacos and panucho de pollo al pibil (a black bean-stuffed tortilla with citrus-achiote chicken).
Accompany these or any other tempting choice with a Dupont “Foret” organic Belgian ale or juicy sustainable chardonnay from Sedna in Napa or housemade organic almond horchata, and you’ll be in green, green Mexico.
We can only hope that, soon, our other ethnic favorites will follow the Mexicans’ lead. Imagine organic Thai … Indian … Vietnamese … Chinese … what a wonderful world that would be. A final note. Our Mexican duo does not disappoint in yet another expectation: They are not expensive. Neither prices an entrada (entree) above $15 (most are $11–$13), and antojitos (appetizers) start at or under $5. Fantástico.
by Mathew Ramsey, Special to The Chronicle
They say home is where the heart is, and for chef Gonzalo Guzman of San Francisco's Nopalito, it's quite obvious his heart is in the kitchen - just not this one.
Most of his time is spent at the newish Mexican restaurant where he is co-chef with Jose Ramos, so cooking at home is something he does about once a week, he says, "when my girlfriend asks me."
Guzman's home kitchen is a small apartment one, fit more for a bachelor than a chef. Yet Guzman, 27, is clearly making it work. On this evening, the air is thick with the aroma of caramelizing onion, jalapeno chiles and summer squash.
The menu? Squash Blossom Empanadas, a dish he describes as "simple, but very home-style."
"I grew up in a hot place where there were a lot of pumpkins and squash, so there were always blossoms," Guzman recalls while running a handful of fresh squash blossoms under cold water.
He's referring to Veracruz, Mexico, where he spent a good portion of his childhood. Like many chefs, Guzman reminisces about when he was a kid, cooking alongside his mom, who also made a living making food, cooking for the local school. "She made empanadas all the time, and would stuff them with whatever was around."
Guzman removes the sauteed vegetables from the pan atop the electric coil and explains how growing up, everything was cooked outdoors over the wood-burning earthen stove his grandfather built.
Immigrating to San Francisco as a young man in the 1990s, Guzman came to the city hungry for work and experience. What he got was a job in a kitchen, washing dishes in exchange for food, and a proverbial foot in the door.
"I wanted to learn about different styles," he says. So he branched out, working his way tirelessly through the ranks, one kitchen at a time. "Sometimes two at a time," he confesses.
And after 12 years of working in the industry, the young chef has accumulated an impressive resume, including restaurants such as Kokkari, Boulevard and Nopalito's parent restaurant, Nopa.
So how is it that the Mexican-born chef with European training made his triumphant return to the cuisine of his childhood? One word: carnitas.
While working at Nopa, Guzman and Ramos were often tasked with preparing the evening family meal for the cooks and the rest of the staff to eat before opening the restaurant. Working mostly with leftover pork scraps, the two chefs embraced the opportunity to embark on a quest to craft the perfect carnitas.
Their efforts were met with overwhelming approval, especially from co-owner Laurence Jossel. "When these guys put family meals together, they were outstanding ... just everybody went crazy," he notes.
That led to the next step. "One day he (Jossel) just told us that he wanted us to run the kitchen of their new restaurant," Guzman says. "We didn't really take him very seriously until it suddenly happened."
Now he and Ramos showcase their native cuisine at what is now the successful Nopalito, a kitchen this chef can truly call home.
"So far exceeds the expectations of the genre that it nearly qualifies for a heading of its own"
by Josh Sens
Restaurants, like fruit flies, make fine subjects for study. With each new generation, they not only teach us truths about their struggle for survival, but they also give us insights into our own behavior and how it shifts according to the times.
Witness Nopalito, a small, warm-blooded creature that seems perfectly adapted to an unforgiving climate. While older restaurants gasp for air in our post–asteroid strike economy, Nopalito, which was hatched amid the dust cloud, thrives. Everything about it is appropriately scaled, right down to its diminutive name. The Spanish word refers to a slice of cactus, though it also plays off Nopa, Nopalito’s parent restaurant, an upbeat outpost near the Panhandle with vibrant wood-fired cooking to match its lively mood.
In their new venture, co-owners Jeff Hanak and Allyson and Laurence Jossel have taken an even more casual tack. Their second restaurant sits just a few blocks from Nopa, next door to a supermarket and overlooking a parking lot. A covered patio doubles as an entryway into the dining room, a miniature space with blond-oak tables and avocado-colored walls. Hanging from the ceiling like an infant’s mobile is a collection of molinillos, the wooden, whisklike tools used for stirring hot chocolate. It’s a nice aesthetic touch, and it strengthens your suspicion: Nopalito deals in Mexican food.
On the one hand, a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco is no more novel than a corner nook in Brooklyn selling pizza by the slice. On the other, Nopalito so far exceeds the expectations of the genre that it nearly qualifies for a heading of its own. It’s not just the pedigree of its products—the organic pinquito beans, the pampered pork. Other Mexican restaurants can claim similar ingredients, even if their “slow food” isn’t always stuff you’re in a rush to eat. But Nopalito scores on two fronts: It combines our new First Lady’s insistence on finicky sourcing with the authentic depth of flavor that cheap-eats fiends attribute to their favorite taco trucks.
Credit for the cooking goes to José Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman, whose staff meals at Nopa were so impressive that their bosses thought the food deserved a public stage. The menu they’ve created is anything but fussy, yet the seeming simplicity of the dishes belies the effort that goes into them. The chefs and their staff perform the sort of tasks your abuela might have tackled: grinding their own masa, shaping their own tortillas, and seasoning their housemade green-and-red chorizo—which gets its colors from chilies and chard. Their mole is a rich, symphonic composition with six kinds of nuts and five types of chilies, pulverized and simmered in a virtuoso sauce. At lunch, the mole’s layered flavors infuse a shredded chicken enchilada. On the dinner menu, it provides intricate cover for a tender chicken leg.
It’s rare for an easygoing restaurant to show such painstaking exactitude. Lingcod, prepared delicately à la plancha, submits itself sweetly to spring onions and a smoldering salsa made from chilies de árbol. Tamales—blended with black beans, oyster mushrooms, and the corn truffles known as huitlacoche—have a lovely earthy heft, not the leaden weight of lard.
For every hearty dish, like birria de chivo, a redolent goat stew with chocolate, dried chilies, and roasted tomatoes, the kitchen turns out a sprightly, precise salad that could proudly show its face at restaurants twice as fancy. One is unabashedly bare-boned: confetti shreds of cabbage, carrots, and mandolin-sliced watermelon radish, dressed at the last minute in oregano and lime. Another makes artful use of grapefruit and blood orange slices arranged in overlapping starbursts, as bright and pretty as a fireworks display.
All of this comes wrapped in a package that’s slightly more expensive than a belly-bomb burrito but remarkably well priced. Nopalito’s great appeal—and what makes it a model of recessionary dining—is the way that it makes you feel like you’re on a special outing when nothing on the menu fetches more than 14 bucks.
The service is superb and enthusiastic. Your waiter really wants you to like him and his restaurant, and you really do, despite his irksome fondness for PC pronunciations of menu items. (You just want to eat out, not enroll in Berlitz.) In other words, there’s little reason to complain.
Nopalito also has a wine list, if you consider three a list. But the menu begs for beer and offers plenty of it, from a cold can of Tecate to a winning spin on the michelada, Mexico’s beer-based Bloody Mary, here upgraded with housemade tomato juice and zinged with chilies, salt, and lime.
Coffee isn’t served—perhaps by necessity at a restaurant that’s too little to encourage lingering. But the staff never make you feel unwelcome, and they give you a sweet sendoff: sugar-dusted almond cookies, delivered with the check. If that won’t suffice, there are also popsicles: seasonal fruit or dense, cinnamon-y chocolate. They’re worth savoring, but they’re portable, so you get the hint.
You step outside, reflecting on a small marvel of restaurant evolution. This may be where the dining scene is headed. And if that’s the case, our depleted atmosphere can still support a lot of life.
"a splendid feast of pig I wanted to drag everybody I knew to savor"
by Meredith Brody
Nopa, the large, bustling Mediterranean place that serves dinner until 1 a.m. and has a thriving bar business, has been a hit in its North of the Panhandle neighborhood since it opened in 2006. Two of its cooks, Jose Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman, often prepared the Mexican food they grew up on for the communal repasts for kitchen workers and servers. Nopa owners Allyson and Laurence Jossel were so impressed by the flavors of Ramos and Guzman's food that they looked around for a space to devote to rural Mexican cooking, and found one just a block and a half away.
The Jossels named the new place Nopalito, riffing on both Nopa and the nopal cactus. The setting is a bit eccentric. It's part of Falletti Plaza, the upscale grocers' complex between Fell and Oak that also houses a branch of DeLessio's takeout and bakery. You enter from the parking lot (which is not validated for Nopalito customers unless you're picking up takeout), into a tented, heated patio that contains more than half the seating for the place. Beyond the patio is a chic glassed-in room that houses a big open kitchen and some slender wooden tables, most of them quite close together.
I've eaten in both rooms. I'm not fond of heat lamps (which always seem to be cooking you alongside your food), and the main room can be noisy and not very comfortable. But most of the food I've eaten at Nopalito is so satisfying that I'll gladly sit anywhere to savor it — and endure a wait; the place doesn't take reservations, though you can call ahead during busy hours to put your name on a waitlist.
As you check out the one-page menu, which has a list of antojitos (masa-based appetizers) and salads on the left, and main courses on the right, you can nibble from a free bowl of salty fried chickpeas.
Nopalito grinds its own masa out of dried organic yellow corn, patting out big, thick, lumpy tortillas with a true corny taste, or molding it into tamales. The antojitos we tried were consistently good. The quesadilla roja con chicharron ($9) is a big corn tortilla filled with shredded pork belly, jack cheese, mildly hot guajillo chile salsa, onions, and cilantro, the whole crisped on the grill. The quesadilla azul de hongos y huitlacoche ($8), a blue corn tortilla, contained the prized huitlacoche, a mushroomy fungus that grows on corn, known on the farm as corn ####, but here glamorized as corn truffles. The mildly funky huitlacoche was obscured, however, by the other ingredients: sautéed mushrooms, jack cheese, crumbled house-made queso fresco, the pungent Mexican herb epazote, and spicy salsa. You can choose an accompanying beverage from a brief list: three wines, about a dozen beers, or housemade nonalcoholic drinks. We preferred the almond horchata to the intriguing-sounding but watery citrus blends (all $3.25).
Nopalito's fish taco, the taco de pescado al pastor ($8) was delightful, stuffed with seared sturgeon — a good oily white fish we've never seen in a taco before — rubbed with a smoky adobo paste and adorned with a fresh tomatillo salsa brightened with oranges. The tamal enchilada de queso y puerco ($4) was made with a special ancho chile masa, stuffed with stewed pork shreds, drenched in rich dark sauce, showered with queso fresco, and served with a dab of crema. We gazed with envy at the antojitos that arrived at neighboring tables: a gordita de picadillo topped with grass-fed beef and refried beans ($4.50), and a tostada de tinga ($4), a fried tortilla topped with shredded chicken.
You could make a full meal here from a couple of antojitos, and on the whole I found them more satisfying than the hit-or-miss main courses. The pozole rojo ($11), described as a stew but much more like a soup in Nopalito's version, hides bits of pork shoulder, hominy, mulato chile, radishes, cabbage, and onion in a tomatoey broth we found a bit anemic, even when dressed up with the garnishes presented on their own plate: dried Mexican oregano, ground chile pepper, diced red onion, lime wedges, and tortilla chips. The mole poblano ($13), a dark, complex, long-cooked multi-ingredient sauce containing bitter chocolate, pulverized nuts, cinnamon, chiles, and tomatillos, totally obscured the flavor of the poached chicken it was served on, and tasted too strong and almost burnt.
Much better was the birria de chivo ($13), tasty chunks of goat stewed in a less-complex but easier to appreciate sauce of roasted tomatoes, dried chiles, and chocolate, served with steamed tortillas, a tiny bowl of pinquito beans, and a sharp arbol chile salsa. We also liked the chewy carne asada ($14), a cut of grass-fed skirt steak. The server showed us how to slice it against the grain for maximum tenderness; it was served with mashed black beans, grilled spring onions, queso fresco, and a pasilla chile salsa. All the numerous salsas are made fresh daily from organic produce, sourced locally when possible.
But the best dish was the carnitas ($14), a singularly succulent chunk of pork braised in beer seasoned with orange juice, bay leaves, and cinnamon and served in a little parchment bag, sided with a crunchy cabbage and shredded carrot salad, slices of house-pickled carrot and jalapeño, and steaming corn tortillas. I love carnitas — it's my go-to dish, whether served as soft shreds or in crunchy fried dice — but this was a splendid feast of pig I wanted to drag everybody I knew to Nopalito to savor.
Nopalito doesn't waste much energy on its dessert list, which both times we dined consisted of three different house-made paletas (popsicles) — lime, strawberry, and (much the best) chocolate-cinnamon. At the first meal, we were given them free because of a back-up in the kitchen that resulted in an hour-long wait for our main courses. After our second dinner, we settled for the tiny crumbly cookies, one each, that you're given free after every meal. The memory of the carnitas was sweet enough.
KTVU channel 2 interviews nopalito's co-chef Gonzalo Guzman.
"Once you’ve eaten there, they’ve got you. The taste memory will pull you right in."
by Patricia Unterman
At Nopalito, Laurence Jossel and his crew from Nopa have created a new kind of Mexican restaurant, one that evokes the famous women-run kitchens of Mexico City and Rick Bayless’ groundbreaking, sustainably sourced Frontera Grill in Chicago. The simple dishes at Nopalito surmount the seeming duality of flavor clarity and comfort-food earthiness.
The way Nopalito handles the tortilla — the bedrock of rustic Mexican cooking — reveals what’s going on here.
If you have eaten at Traci Des Jardins’ Mijita in the Ferry Building, or founding chef David Rosales’ Mexico DF on Steuart Street, you know that hot, freshly made tortillas transform a Mexican meal. Nopalito takes tortillas a step further. They buy dried organic yellow corn, and grind it to make masa, the mother dough of tortillas, quesadillas, tostadas, gorditas, tacos, panuchos, tamales and enchiladas.
Nopalito tortillas smell like fresh corn. They are nutty and toothsome with a coarse, almost crumbly texture, yet they practically melt in your mouth. They make everything on Nopalito’s menu taste great.
The tortillas, cut into chips, fried, moistened with warm chile de arbol sauce, sprinkled with a little white cheese and finished with crema, turn into delightful finger food called totopos ($4). A thick round of this masa toasted crisp on a griddle, then slathered with black beans, citrusy stewed chicken, pickled red onions and habanero salsa makes a panucho ($4) sing. Best of all, a quesadilla, based on a larger tortilla, stuffed with erbette chard, jack cheese, caramelized onions and queso fresco ($8), will seduce anyone, young or old, who claims to hate greens.
The tortillas complete Nopalito’s meat dishes. Tuck carnitas ($14), everyone’s favorite crusty pork, into a hot, fragrant tortilla, along with cabbage salad, house-pickled jalapeños and tomatillo salsa, to self-assemble one of the best dishes in town. Dip a tortilla filled with lamb adobo ($14) dressed with salsa borracha, a dark chile paste, into the lamb’s aromatic broth for another thrill. And do not pass up Nopalito’s birria de chivo ($13), stewed mild goat with pinto beans and a medium-hot pureed salsa de arbol.
Colorful little salads, of citrus and onions ($6) and airy shredded cabbage, carrots, radishes and oregano ($5), go with everything.
Adding to the big impact are the small decisions here: dishcloth napkins, so reassuring with all this finger food; continuous, graceful table service all day; three crisp, inexpensive ($7 to $8 per glass) wines with enough fruit to stand up to the food; fantastic house-made drinks such as orange and cinnamon-scented almond milk called horchata ($3.95); and no sweets except for a drink of creamy chocolate milk spiked with red chiles that makes a perfect dessert.
Almost a food stand, half the restaurant’s seating is under a heated tent on a brick patio next to the Faletti Foods parking lot. The indoor space is divided equally between an open kitchen and the dining area, which includes a kitchen counter where I like to sit for a solitary indulgent bite in the afternoon. The clean, modern design merges utility and imagination.
Nopalito is a generous place. Each meal begins with a treat of spiced, deep fried chickpeas and ends with a sandy Mexican nut cookie called a polverone. They want you back — and once you’ve eaten there, they’ve got you. The taste memory will pull you right in.
Patricia Unterman is author of the San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide and a newsletter, Unterman on Food. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recommended dishes: Totopos, chard quesadilla, citrus salad, carnitas, birria de chivo, chocolate milk with chiles, horchata
by Michael Bauer
The activity around Nopalito resembles an idyllic small town center, filled with strollers and dogs, often tied up outside of the adjacent Falletti Foods. Statisticians who say families with young children are fleeing San Francisco must not have been to this neighborhood.
The enclosed patio of the Mexican restaurant overlooks the parking lot and entrance to the market, affording a close-up view of the scene, and it's often just as hectic inside as diners put their names on a list and wait for a seat.
On many Saturday mornings, owner Allyson Jossel, with her 8-month-old son strapped to her chest, works the floor of this 70-seat restaurant. Her husband, co-owner Laurence Jossel, drops off a gunnysack filled with Rancho Gordo beans on his way to Nopa, the couple's other restaurant just a couple blocks away, where he'll deliver produce he's picked up at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Jeff Hanak, the third owner, is also on the floor while chefs Jose Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman work in the open kitchen, cooking up what in my mind is far and away the best Mexican food in the Bay Area.
Mexican food by its very nature is so satisfying that even Taco Bell tastes pretty good. Most restaurants cut corners because the bold flavors can hide shortcuts. Yet at its best, the cuisine is as complex as French fare, as shown at Nopalito. Just about everything is made by hand and the products are top quality and organic.
There are the inevitable complaints that this is "gringo" food designed for a group too haughty to eat at a taqueria in the Mission. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, the carnitas may cost $14, a fish taco $4.75 and a rich bowl of posole rojo $11, but for the quality and pedigree of the products, it's a true bargain. Give me one Nopalito tamale prepared with house-made masa, green chiles and stewed pork for $4, and keep the two or three you might get for the same price at other places.
The surroundings are simple but, as with the food, there's a keen attention to detail, such as handsome tables that are cut from one fallen oak tree. In addition to the patio, the restaurant has several communal tables surrounding an open kitchen with counter seating. There's also a takeout window with a separate entrance.
Chefs Ramos and Guzman originally worked at Nopa, where they often cooked the staff meals. Owner Jossel, who admits to being a novice about Mexican food, was so blown away by the meals that he decided to showcase their talent at a new restaurant.
Ramos is such a stickler for authenticity that Jossel refers to him as the maestro. His mole, for example, is made from scratch and contains no fewer than 27 ingredients, producing a thick sauce that blankets enchiladas thick with shredded chicken ($11) at lunch or the juicy chicken leg ($13) at dinner. The sauce includes six kinds of nuts, toasted tortillas, plantains, tomatillos, chocolate, raisins or dried plums, five kinds of chiles, and spices; it's a complexity that you'd be hard-pressed to find at other restaurants.
The same can be said for the posole rojo ($11), a rich chile-laden broth full of chewy hominy, pieces of stewed pork shoulder, shreds of crunchy cabbage, onions and shaved coins of watermelon radish. It's great for sharing. The pottery bowl is accompanied by a wooden serving spoon and a plate of lime, onions, dried oregano and ground chiles, for diners to add more kick on their own.
The carnitas are rightly a best-seller. The pork is marinated in beer, orange, bay leaf and cinnamon, and slowly braised in pork fat, creating chunks of well-browned meat; they're served with house-made tortillas hot from the griddle, along with tomatillo salsa, cabbage salad and pickled jalapeno, carrots and onions.
The compact menu - seven larger plates and 11 smaller ones - contains dishes not typically available at other Mexican restaurants, such as lamb with adobo sauce steamed in banana leaves and served with a bowl of consomme ($14); and chunks of goat stewed in dried chiles, accompanied by a ramekin of pinquito beans and salsa de arbol($13).
The gordita ($4.50), a crispy tortilla stuffed with grass-fed beef, cabbage, refried pinquito beans, house-made queso fresco and salsa de venas, which contains membranes from dried chiles, is about as satisfying as anything I've eaten in recent memory. The quesadilla is either filled with chard, Jack cheese, caramelized onions and queso fresco for vegetarians ($8), or with crisp pork belly ($9) for unabashed meat lovers. Salsas are made daily, and on any given night there are eight ready to enhance the dishes.
For relief from all the chiles, I love the simplicity of the cabbage salad ($5), with carrots, watermelon radishes and oregano. Just before serving, the chef tosses the vegetables with a fresh squeeze of lime, which adds clean, bright notes. The restaurant also features a citrus salad ($6) with grapefruit and blood orange topped with pickled red onions, queso fresco and more squeezes of lime.
No dessert is served, but at the end of the meal the staff brings out a small Mexican wedding cookie for each diner, which bookends the crispy fried chickpeas they put on the table when you sit down.
The Jossels and Hanak bring the same fine-dining sensibility to this restaurant as they do to Nopa, with both ingredients and service. Plates are continually changed and additional flatware is brought on a tray. They also use the same large cotton towels for napkins here as they do at Nopa, and the waiters clearly are well trained and know the menu.
It creates a pleasant, civilized dining experience, offering the best of both worlds. If that means I'm a gringo, count me in.
The wine list
The beverage list at Nopalito is short, with four draft beers and seven bottles, including a can of Tecate with salt-encrusted lime, a bargain for $2.50.
In addition, there are three wines by the glass or bottle: 2007 Lioco Chardonnay ($8/$32), 2006 Sutton Cellars Rattlesnake Rosé ($7/$28) and 2007 Lioco Indica Carignane ($8/$32).
Alcohol-free offerings include a pitcher of iced tea ($3.25), house-made beverages made from hibiscus and blood orange ($3.25), an Ibarra chocolate fizz ($3.25) and organic almond horchata ($3.95)
If you bring your own wine, corkage is $10.
Overall Rating: THREE STARS
Food: THREE STARS
Service: THREE STARS
Atmosphere: TWO STARS
Prices: $$ (Moderate $11-$17)
Noise rating: THREE BELLS Talking normally gets difficult (70-75)
Pluses: Exceptional Mexican food made with top-quality ingredients. Try the posole and carnitas.
Minuses: At peak times, you may have to wait for a table.
"a tribute to authenticity mixed with a lot of California"
by Jessica Battilana
What Nopalito doesn’t have (flour tortillas, burritos, a salsa bar, a jukebox) says as much about it as what it does (homemade yellow corn tortillas, from-scratch queso fresco, a heated patio and free parking). In a city where the taqueria is considered the benchmark for Mexican food, people will inevitably make the comparison, but what the owners of Nopa have done with their second venture is to Mexican as Out the Door is to Vietnamese: a tribute to authenticity mixed with a lot of California.
Located in the Falletti’s shopping center, Nopalito has lots of blond wood and cilantro-green touches throughout. The food, however, is a far cry from food-court. Plenty of other places serve chips and salsa, but Nopalito serves totopos—more like chips with salsa. Fresh tortillas are fried and tossed with an arból chile sauce until well coated. At once soggy and crunchy (in a good way), they’re completely addictive. Other highlights from the open kitchen—manned by former Nopa cooks José Ramos and Gonzalo Guzmán, who hail from Guanajuato and Veracruz respectively—include a gordita (a corn tortilla that puffs like pita bread) filled with shredded grass-fed beef and salsa, and a quesadilla enclosing two types of cheese, caramelized onions and chard. Nopalito’s take on carnitas—pork shoulder braised in a combination of beer, orange and bay leaf—isn’t super crisp but makes for very good eating.
There is beer and wine, but it’s the Ibarra chocolate fizz—a Mexican version of an egg cream laced with cinnamon—that won us over. After all, you can have a Pacifico at any old taqueria.
"this bright, open eatery is best when you're in the mood to be surprised"
It's easy to go into a meal at Nopalito with lots of expectations--that it will be as good as big sister NOPA a few blocks away, that it will be as authentically Mexican as that trip south you took last year, that it will be as filling as dinner at any of the Mission's many taquerias. But this relatively tiny, bright, open eatery in Falletti's Plaza is best when you're in the mood to be surprised. There are a few similarities between NOPA and little 'Lito (the communal table near the front and the quality and local sourcing of the ingredients) but the dishes are fresh, and while flavored with the spice and citrus of Mexican cuisine, boast a very Californian flair. Small plates like house-made masa tamales, fish tacos and pork belly quesadillas are meant to be ordered en masse to share--larger plates of carnitas, chicken mole and birria de chivo (goat stew) are served with freshly pressed tortillas and can stand alone as a meal. And while portions are smaller than expected for Mexican fare, that's only because the Mission's colossal, coma-inducing burritos have set the bar unhealthily low.