Mexicanitos Part 1- Regalito
About 2 months ago I must have received 6 different requests from friends to start a blog. A blog about being young in the city of San Francisco and all it affords you. A resource that covers the various festivals, the innumerable bars, pubs and other hot spots to go out. Somewhere they can turn to find out about the latest hike, the best urban running trail, the special events that happen in surrounding Mt. Tam and Marin areas. And most importantly, a place where I can log all the restaurant and food recommendations I provide over email. I resisted, touting, “I don’t have time for a blog. I have a job.” Now here I am, 2 months later, eating my own words (pun intended) and finally kicking off SF Tao of Pao with my first Pao Chow entry. And what better way than to kick off the blog than with a tribute to one of my favorite cuisines in the city – Mexican food.
Allow me to be clear: this will not be a full cover story on the best taquerias that flank 24th Street in the Mission, tickling your nose with promises of lard-filled sopes, tortas cubanos or the ubiquitous San Francisco style burrito. Fear not my friends; I am dedicating a future soon-to-be posted entry on just that. Keep your eyes peeled and your browsers ready. Nope. This entry will focus on another sect of Mexican food – the authentic sit-down cuisine that is inspired by “la cocina de mi mama o mi abuelita” (learn Spanish my readers). I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to mainland Mexico but the cuisine is very different depending on what region you visit. I spent time in “El D.F” – El Districto Federal – also known as Mexico City – which as the country’s capital has the widest range of cuisine. You’ll find Pueblan mole, real Mexican style tacos, and an abundance of spicy chilies. It was very different from the Oaxacan meal I experienced while in Monterrey – which included queso flameado (I love cheese – especially melted cheese), served with a side of crispy fried crickets (don’t judge they were damn good), and one of the strangest things I’ve eaten, sweet white ant eggs, which are actually fairly large in size.
In a tribute to a growing number of sit down restaurants focused on traditional Mexican cuisine, I am calling my entry “Mexicanitos” and will be dividing the story into two parts: the first a deep dive on Regalito, a Mexican rotisceria in the heart of the Mission at 18th and Valencia. The second (to be released later this week) will be Nopalito, yes, associated with the hugely popular Nopa. So let’s get down to it, vamonos chicos!
Regalito was started by Thomas Pena, graduate from the California Culinary Academy, who was inspired to start the restaurant after a multi-month trip to Mexico. With Regalito (which means “little gift” in Spanish), Pena hopes to offer his patrons a sense of community, echoed by the restaurant’s clear panel of glass, the only separation between the customer and the chefs actively working on the menu specialties. Pena discusses how the idea for Regalito evolved after a multi-month trip to Mexico, where he witnessed a few women cooking at a simple Mexico City market stall for a number of hungry diners.
I had always noticed Regalito, with its brightly lit sign and avocado skinned colored walls, whenever on a walk to nearby Dolores Park. I wondered, how good can sit down Mexican food in the Mission really be? The first time I went there was with my Hawaiian friends Debbie and Wilson who, like any real Hawaiians, take their food seriously. We’d tried to hit up the little-known Burmese shack YAMO but with a line out the door and our stomachs bristling with hunger, that idea was sacked quickly (we’re going back). I spotted the familiar Regalito and we decided to check out the menu. It looked impressive, homemade sopes, a carnitas plate, rotisserie chicken, and nopales. Then I saw it. Elote – quite possibly one of my favorite things to eat when it comes to Latin cuisine. The first time I had elote was at a NY city hot spot, Café Habana. I was so inspired by the combination of unique but complementary flavors, I had to go home and make it. Elote is grilled corn on the cob that is then wrapped in cotija, homemade mayonnaise and seasoned with chili powder, lime and cilantro. If you like bold, big tastes that pack a punch, you will love elote and Regalito really knows how to execute this dish.
Regalito has a fairly substantial menu considering it is not a huge restaurant. I’ve been there twice and both times, ordered a few different items and ate family style (pretty much a requisite when you dine with me – hey, I’m Asian). SF Tao of Pao was just a casual idea the first time I went to Regalito, but after tasting the explosion of flavor that characterized the most recommended dish in the restaurant, Carne con Chile Colorado, that idea started turning into something with more substance. The dish has a tangy chile de arbol sauce that bursts with spice the moment it hits your tongue. Contrary to my concerns, it was not overly heavy. The sauce, comprised of roasted tomatoes, garlic and caramelized onions enhanced each bite of tender beef. I did not waste a single bite of that sauce, lapping it up with the warm tortillas stored in a basket to my right.
What about drinks? Sitting at the bar by the kitchen area, I watched as our server and manager (Erik) prepared one of the best white wine sangrias I’ve ever tasted. I take sangria pretty seriously. I’ve traveled to Spain three different times, the first of which involved a beach party in Barcelona with a crew of Madrilenos. They made the largest vat of sangria I’d ever seen, which involved mixing soda pop, vodka, wine, fresh fruit, and then letting it sit for a good few hours. Living in Chile, which boasts a plethora of well-respected vineyards, sangria is also a popular meal-time companion, and Chileans add novel fruits like cherimoya – a white-fleshed fruit with a citrus quality. One of the biggest mistakes I see when I drink sangria at a restaurant is that the flavor is not allowed to sit and cultivate, a process which helps meld the flavors of the alcohol with the natural juices and sweeteners of the added fruit. Throwing wine, lemon and an orange slice does not make sangria. You’ve got to add some love and care to really nail this Spanish cocktail. Regalito does just that. Erik explained the secret behind Regalito’s Chablis sangria. The key ingredients are fresh oranges, grapes, apple cider, sprite, soju, and then the Chablis. Erik mixes these ingredients together in a large vat, then refrigerates the mixture and lets them ferment for 48 hours. The flavors all fuse together, providing a full, smooth experience that has a sweet ending on the tip of your tongue. It is not bitter or flat (like sangrias I’ve tasted without any real development of flavor), nor is it overly sweet. It is a balanced, delightful trip for your tongue and senses, and it refreshes your palate, preparing it for the oncoming meal.
What about the scene at Regalito? It is bright, with light green walls and yellow walls with tasteful modern furniture. Subtle music plays in the background, not too loudly though so you can actually have a decent conversation with your party. Votive candles line the bar/counter, as do bowls of fresh limes and ripe avocados. Regalito does not mess around when it comes to kitchen equipment. They have a full rotisserie. It honestly would appeal to a variety of different people. I’d recommend going there if you are looking for a well-executed yet casual meal, in a more intimate setting, that is good for really catching up. It’d also be a good idea for a more low-key date or group dinner with close friends. The décor is clean and bright, with colorful tidbits adorning the walls with a tasteful appreciation for the Mexican culture.
In a recent visit to Regalito I started out with the Ensalada de Nopalitos – grilled nopales salad. It is served with tomatoes, onions, garlic, queso fresco and avocado, accompanied with warm homemade tortillas and a side of roasted habanero salsa (watch out – unlike many more gringo establishments this salsa has a good kick to it). I must say, I love nopales in pretty much any form or fashion but I think that with this dish, you taste a bit too much of the grill. The smoky flavor tended to overpower the rest of the salad. Not as good as the guacamole with homemade chips, or other appetizers I’ve tried. I might recommend skipping this. The next app was much better and a favorite of my friend, Jenn. We ordered the papas con chorizo. Chorizo is an oily, fattening type of Mexican sausage (I recommend pulling it out of the casing, not being intimidated by the dripping deep red oil and adding it to eggs in the morning – makes great hangover food). The papas con chorizo includes chopped red potatoes, herbs, HOUSEMADE chorizo, crème and cotija cheese. It is a hearty appetizer that will appeal to any meat and potatoes lover.
Erik described the night’s special of roasted lamb prepared with achiote (a spice common the Yucatean Peninsula of Mexico and often served with red onions and fish). The lamb was marinated in lime and garlic, then served medium rare with rice and beans. We considered getting the lamb dish but my craving that night was for a plate of carnitas, a slowly cooked pork dish with meat so tender you can shred pieces of it off the main body. It was not at all overcooked, and the outer crispy layer had a glistening layer of fat, something I look for on any good plate of carnitas. As you will learn about me as these entries go on, pork fat or really any piece of fatty meat is one of my favorite allowances. I would not even call it a guilty pleasure, because I really do not feel a single ounce of guilt. I love fat. All types of fat. Pork fat. Pork belly. The grisly fat on a large chunk of steak. Beef tendon. “Give me your weak, your tired, your hungry?” For me it’s “give me that knobby gristle on the top of chicken drumsticks, the gelatinous part of a fatty piece of pork. Cut it off your meat you dieting girls and guys from Los Angeles and throw it right onto my plate. I’m being serious. But let’s get back to Regalito carnitas. The rest of the plate, besides the meat was honestly fairly healthy. It came with ripe slices of avocado, a salsa that was flavorful, yet not too overpowering to take away from the taste of carnitas and then a side of pinto beans.
Believe it or not, I was full after sharing this simple three course meal. Maybe it was also that pitcher of sangria. I’m honestly not sure, yet through this surprising feeling of satisfaction, I did notice a plate of homemade churros and hot chocolate pass by. Before I could contemplate whether fried Mexican donuts were a good late night idea, Erik surprised us with a complimentary serving of caramel flan. You need to know that I am not a big custard fan. I don’t even like Crème Burlee (gasp!). But, this flan was spectacular. It was not only rich, with hints of caramel gracing every bite. The texture was what really sold me. It was thicker, not runny at all, almost like a Mexican style Panna Cotta. I had to find out how Erik made it and he was kind enough to describe his process. He brings half and half to a boil. While he is waiting for the half and half to heat up, he beats eggs and egg yolks with vanilla in a separate bowl. Once the half and half comes to a boil, he quickly removes it from the heat and whisks in the egg mixture. He then lets the mixture cool and caramelizes sugar. When all ingredients are ready, he puts the egg/half and half mixture in ramekins, covers them with the caramelized sugar and bakes for 45 minutes at 325 degrees. Even if you are not a dessert fan, I’d recommend trying the flan the next time you hit up Regalito.
Final Take: Pao Wow?
As mentioned earlier, Regalito means “little gift” in Spanish. After my two meals at Regalito, I really do feel like I opened a delicately wrapped present, and was only more impressed than anticipated with depth of flavor, mindfulness to Mexican traditional cooking, attentive service and friendly ambiance. I may not have recommended the nopales here, but the intention provided to the different sauces, the authenticity of flavors, the execution of accompanying desserts and Chablis sangria make me say, “Pao Wow.” Or perhaps “que sabroso” is a more appropriate response.