To the typical Spanish speaker, Nopalito translates to “little cactus.” A local San Franciscan will probably also catch the reference to the area known as North of Panhandle, or NoPa for short. The streets Divisadero, Fell, Turk and Stanyan form the borders of NoPa, but what really defines this area is the bevy of exceptional restaurants, the latest being Nopalito. This highly acclaimed Mexican kitchen, sister to the famous Nopa restaurant, has already become a Pao Favorite. I’ve been three times in the past two months and have no plans of stopping my frequent returns to la cocina.
As you may remember, the first Pao Chow entry was “Mexicanitos Part 1 – Regalito” – focused on the traditional cookery of chef, Thomas Pena and the Regalito Rotisceria in the Mission district. Nopalito, run by head chefs Gonzalo Guzman and Jose Ramos, completes this two part series on Mexican eateries, and does so with a bang, leaving you yearning for more with each bite of homemade masa and tomatillo sauce.
Cocina Sostenible (Sustainable Kitchen)
Nopalito is not your every day Mexican restaurant or taqueria. You will not find canned refried beans, store-bought Mission tortillas, or chemically-altered produce in this new city hot spot. Nopalito is different; distinguishing itself from other Mexican restaurants with its philosophy and commitment to using the best ingredients available. It prides itself in purchasing from a select group of local purveyors known for providing sustainable, organic, seasonal ingredients. Some of these suppliers were inherited from NoPa, others stopped by to present their offerings. Nopalito staff regularly hit up the Thursday and Saturday markets to ensure they have the freshest produce and meats in-house. Larger purveyors like Catalan, provide weekly deliveries. While dining at Nopalito, you will enjoy pasture-raised, grass-fed meats, vegetable and fruit products from environmentally-responsible farms, dairy products from well-known establishments like Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, and even beer from local brew houses like Magnolia Pub & Brewery. Customers can rest easily, knowing that each savory dish reflects the restaurant’s commitment to leveraging relationships with the best partners to provide mouth-watering bites throughout the entire meal. As a result, the flavors dance right off your plate into your mouth, providing a robust experience different than the many forgettable restaurants focused on trimming the fat, rather than enhancing the natural flavors of food.
La Historia y la Inspiracion (History and Inspiration)
Before we dive into the menu and what options you can enjoy on any given day (believe me, there is an abundance), let’s explore Nopalito’s inspiration and how it came to fruition. It helps to know the heritage associated with this restaurant. Head chefs Gonzalo Guzman and Jose Ramos are veterans to the cooking industry. Both men came over from NoPa, a favorite to many San Franciscans, including yours truly (try the Pisco Sour next time you are there – es muy autentica!). While at NoPa, Jose and Gonzalo would cook traditional Mexican cuisine for the staff meals, which were always met with rave reviews from the hungry servers, bartenders and any other lucky soul who was able to partake. Laurence, one of the owners of NoPa and Nopalito, threw the idea out one day, why not create a sister restaurant focused on this traditional cuisine? And as the cliché goes, the rest was history. Jose Ramos was tasked to develop the menu. He spent a few months tasting and testing out traditional recipes, molding around the idea of a flexible menu, one that adapted to the change of seasons and availability of sustainable, quality ingredients. The menu pulls on influences from all over Mexico – Michoacán, Veracruz, Puebla, Toluca, the Yucatan Peninsula – resulting in bold, well-thought out flavors that resonate with diners who have adopted Latin cuisine into their homes, hearts and especially stomachs. One ingredient you will not find in ample supply on the Nopalito menu is seafood. This is related to the philosophy of using local providers, balanced against the ability to receive the freshest sustainable products. Ironically, you will also notice the absence of nopales, nopalitos, or in English terms, “cactus.” It all goes back to what is seasonal and what is fresh – and cactus is not an ingredient readily available year-round.
Whenever I try a new restaurant – one that really knocks my socks off – I like to know the story “behind the guy”, or in this case, behind the men. Jose Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman work as a team. Jose is a jovial character who, even in the first 5 minutes of meeting him, you catch that he not only works extremely hard, he also is committed to putting out quality products. Jose is the opening chef, arriving each morning at 7:30AM to prep the restaurant and get it ready for the lunch time rush. I showed up Saturday morning around 10AM to meet with the chefs and there was already a constant hum of knives chopping, sauces simmering in large stew pots, and homemade masa being pounded into tortillas. I sat for a few minutes, just watching this stream of activity, lapping up every bit of it. Each person in the restaurant had a station, they all knew their task, and they moved fluidly through the kitchen like a well-oiled machine. Though working independently, you could see that this group worked cohesively as a well-led team. The interviews had not even begun and I was already impressed.
Gonzalo arrived just after 10AM and is the restaurant’s closing chef. I was shocked and appreciative that although there were probably 15 different tasks he could have helped coordinate that morning, Gonzalo generously sat down with me for 45 minutes to walk me through his history as a chef and then everything Nopalito. Gonzalo grew up in Veracruz until he was 14 and then moved to the town of Puebla. When he was 16 or 17 he came to the US, starting out as a dishwasher. His hard work and dedication paid off and over the next decade he moved up the restaurant chain, working as a bus boy, line cook, sous chef and now head chef. He has worked at some of the best restaurants in the Bay area; Chez Nous, Boulevard, Jardinière, Kokkari, and of course NoPa to name a few. When you meet Gonzalo, he seems quiet at first, but his level of experience and ability to lead come through within minutes. When I asked him what are the most important qualities he looks for in his team? “Attitude” and a passion or “desire to learn” were the first qualities mentioned. It’s clear that Gonzalo is the type of chef who will give you a chance, but you better leave your attitude at the door and expect to work; and work hard.
La Comida (Food)
Some friends recently had Nopalito cater their wedding and the carnitas were the hit of the meal. I am Chinese, especially in the way I eat, and as pork is the backbone of most Chinese dishes, I obviously have had a long-term love affair with pork products. I do not have late-night cravings for chocolate, cookies or ice cream, like most 29 year old women might. Savory is my playground and I crave pork – bacon, sausage, pork tacos, pulled pork, pork fat, anything pig-related. I once took down 9 pork chops (note – this was the time in high school when I grew 10 inches in two years – true story), so you can imagine the level of excitement that invades my body with the promise of a fantastic plate of carnitas. Hence, why I had to get to the bottom of what made these carnitas so different than the masses.
Gonzalo explained that it is all about how Nopalito cooks the pork. It is about knowing the “right time to add the next ingredient.” Cooking carnitas at Nopalito is a labor of love. The first step is to heat up enough lard that will eventually be used to cover the pork. While you are heating the lard, you must season the pork with salt and let it marinate for 30 minutes. Next you add the meat to the lard (ensure it is completely covered). Add in vegetables, bay leaves and cinnamon. Now you cook the pork in the lard for an hour until the lard has become translucent. Once the lard is clear, add milk and beer. Wait for the meat to brown, letting the liquid evaporate. Most of this is done in the morning as it is a lengthy process. The result? Quite possibly the best plate of carnitas I’ve ever had. The pork has a complexity of flavor, echoing each of the key ingredients of cinnamon, beer and bay leaves. When it comes out to you, it is served in one of those typical Mexican style clay dishes built for hot temperatures. The pork is wrapped up in parchment paper and a small pool of smoky hot lard oil sits at the bottom (do not be afraid of this – it is what makes any serving of carnitas go from good to spectacular). The meat is tender and moist, yet somehow the skin manages to still have that crispy quality to it. A blend of crunchy pickled cabbage and carrots is served on the side, along with freshly grilled jalapenos and tomatillo salsa. The portion is ample for two people, given the richness and depth of the carnitas, especially after sharing one or two “antojitos” to begin.
Speaking of “antojitos” or appetizers, (I realize we are going a bit in reverse of typical order), Nopalito has no shortage of starters that will enliven your appetite. In my multiple visits, I have tried seven of the eleven current selections on the dinner menu. Nopalito’s appetizers are similar in portion size to a Spanish tapa – ideal to be shared between 2-3 people. I recommend starting with the Totopos con Chile. Totopos are thick tortilla chips covered in a tangy chile de arbol sauce and then quickly thrown into a hot pan, with a final addition of fresh housemade cotija cheese. It is served with cream and has an essence of lime with each flavorful bite. I’ve also tried the Gordita de Picadillo, which has ground grass fed beef and carrots served between two crispy tortillas with refried beans and queso fresco. This was tasty, but I honestly recommend one of the next two appetizers more. The Tostada de Tinga is probably one of my favorites – it almost looks like a dark brown deep fried taco, that has pinquito beans, shredded chicken, and is seasoned with chipotle and a popular Mexican herb known as espazote. It comes as a single tostada which you can easily split between two people, but if you have more than two, I’d recommend several orders – this will be a popular treat. Another gem on the menu is the Panucho de Pollo al Pibil. I first discovered panuchos at Tommy’s Mexican restaurant on Geary. They only serve Panuchos on Mondays and after I tasted this amazing concoction that resembled a sope stuff with black bean paste, then covered with chicken, I knew it would become a regular Pao favorite. Nopalito’s panucho does not disappoint. It is served with shredded chicken, pickled red onion that provides just the right amount of acidity, cabbage and a spicy salsa habanera, guaranteed to wake up your mouth. In case you did not know this, I love anything and everything spicy. Spicy to the point of killing the tastebuds on my tongue, to tearing up over a good hot pepper, to drinking 7 servings of salsa on a dare. Nopalito’s habanera salsa and tomatillo salsa do not disappoint.
Now that we discussed a number of the antojitos de la tierra, let’s move on to the seafood apps. My favorite was definitely the Ceviche Verde de Pescado y Calamari. With Peruvian food apparently one of the top cuisines in 2009, I feel like it is starting to show up everywhere. Nopalito’s ceviche set itself apart from the masses. Rock cod and calamari are cured in a tangy and spicy tomatillo salsa, with chopped up avocado and fresh cilantro. It is nearly completely green in color and the flavors of cilantro and lime explode in your mouth. The fish and calamari are well cured, and the texture is perfect, not overly rubbery. I also tried the Taco de Pescado al Pastor, which consists of seared swordfish in a handmade masa tortilla, garnished with an orange slice, chile ancho and a tomatillo salsa. This is good but I recommend choosing the ceviche over it if you have a seafood fix.
Another main dish I enjoyed to my heart’s content was the the Birria de Chivo. Birria is a traditional Mexican goat stew, often times enjoyed on a Sunday after a long night out (or maybe that is just me and my friends). There are not too many things better than a bowl of thick, hearty goat stew served up with fresh tortillas. Nopalito serves up a tasty portion of birria with hints of chocolate and roasted tomatoes in each sauce-filled bite. If there is any extra sauce I recommend not letting it go to waste and lapping up the remnants with your tortillas. For any of you diners who do not eat red meat, never fear, there are plenty of options. You can try the Caldo Tlalpeno, which although I did not try, I saw go by in a large bowl and it looked quite tempting. It is a chicken consommé with fresh turnips, avocado, cauliflower and garbanzos with herbs and is a lighter meal option. There is also the seasonal kabocha and butternut squash tamale served with homemade masa, pecans and current.
La Bebida (Drink)
With such an emphasis on producing quality, sustainable food, how does Nopalito fair in the drink arena? There are a variety of beer and wine options from local breweries or vineyards. In addition, the restaurant serves up refreshing white wine sangria mixed with frozen grapes. It comes in a smaller pitcher, but word to the wise, if you share this with two people be ready to call a cab – it’s a strong one! During my last dining experience at Nopalito, one of the chefs was busy working on a new drink creation – a Fuyu Persimmon-infused sangria. I’m definitely going back to try it – always excited to see chefs testing out new tricks. The non-alcoholic beverages are actually the most impressive though if you ask me. There are house-made beverages like Grapefruit-Piloncillo and Hibiscus-Valencia Orange – both of which are refreshing, not overly sweet, and remind me of the variety of aguas frescas you can order at a Mexican spot. There is also something similar to chocolate milk, but it is served with chili and is almost more like a Mexican style spicy milkshake.
El Ambiente (Ambiance)
So what is the scene at Nopalito? Who is it good for? Really, anyone. It’s a very casual atmosphere that is also family-friendly. The restaurant is well-lit and has long wooden tables with either benches or avocado-colored chairs. There is an outdoor patio area that is great for the rare warm day in SF, but also can accommodate cooler temperatures with its protective plastic tent covering. The last question: price? Nopalito may be a sit-down Mexican restaurant but you won’t expect to empty your wallet enjoying a meal here. The menu is reasonable, and honestly they could probably charge customers more. You can easily come here, order multiple courses that will satisfy two healthy appetites and escape for $25 each, especially if you do not order drinks.
Final Take: Pao Wow?
It does not take the latest edition of Esquire, touting Nopalito as one of the best new restaurants of 2009, to convince me this place is worth a second look…Or a third look…Or heck, even a monthly visit. It is the attention to providing not just a well-executed meal, but also a meal that is environmentally responsible through its focus on sustainable products that makes me say with enthusiasm, “Pao Wow!” The only thing standing between you, the best carnitas you’ll ever have, a collection of antojitos that will make you exclaim, “Mas, por favor,” and a paleta (Mexican style popsicle) that will cool your palate after a meal that fires your taste buds, is a quick trip over to Nopa, or in this case, Nopalito.