Just call us loco-vores

Posted by Anita on 03.16.08 10:01 AM

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**My Dark Days Challenge cohorts, please avert your eyes: With the exception of two or three breakfasts, there was absolutely nothing sustainable, local, or even organic about the way we spent our long Presidents Day weekend. Que lastima — we traded local for loco, spending a crazy four days eating nothing but Mexican food.

Since time was limited on Friday morning before work, we headed to an old standby. Los Jarritos has been the scene of more Sunday breakfasts than we can count, and one or two dinners over the years. The coffee is terrible, so stick with the Mexican chocolate, and the chilaquiles are limp and over-egged. But it’s hard to complain too much about a place that serves homemade tortillas, and the service is always so adorably welcoming that we’re more than a little forgiving of Jarritos’ shortcomings.

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**Maybe it’s was a case of diminished expectations, but I have to say that my lunch at Frontera Fresco on the lower level of Macy’s Union Square was not nearly the dreck-fest I was expecting after reading some early critiques. Yes, it’s corporate chain food — think Wolfgang Puck Express goes to Mexico — but it’s certainly no travesty.

It might be too strong to say that I enjoyed my meal, but I was served a thoroughly decent, well-garnished bowl of tortilla soup, and an unorthodox (but not unpleasant) chicken torta. I laughed out loud at the sandwich’s sundried tomato garnish, and its lettuce seemed to be dressed in Good Seasons Zesty Italian. But everything else was in the ballpark: rich frijoles, tinga-style chicken, and a chunky slab of queso añejo. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not fabulous, and it’s definitely not worth a special trip, but there are certainly worse ways to spend your $10 downtown. And I’d be downright ecstatic to find a Frontera Fresco branch in an airport.

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**Friday afternoon, I hopped a southbound CalTrain after work. Cameron picked me up at Mountain View station and in just a few moments we were pulling into the parking lot of our favorite Mexican restaurant, Fiesta del Mar. Our friends Jason and Margaret introduced us to this fabulous place way back in the day — more than a decade ago, now — and we’ve been coming here religiously ever since. Sure it’s crazy to drive an hour to go to dinner, but such is our devotion.

And we’re not the only fans: Plaques on the wall attest to the restaurant’s enduring popularity: They’ve been voted “Best Mexican Restaurant” by the local paper every year but one since the early 1990s. They’re justly famous for their shrimp dishes — Cameron loves their Camarones Alex and the Camarones a la Diabla — but I love them for their great margaritas (El Jimador, rocks, salt… thanks!) and their unbattered chiles rellenos. There’s almost always a line out the door, but the tables turn quickly and you won’t regret the wait.

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**Saturday morning found us at our usual spot: The Ferry Plaza farmers market, and specifically the Primavera stand. Although this market favorite offers chilaquiles nearly every Saturday, they mix things up a little by varying the sauce; one week it’s a green tomatillo-serrano blend, the next it’s a tomato-chipotle salsa, and the next it might be a puree of guajillo chiles (as it was that weekend).

A plate of salsa-sauteed chips served with Cameron’s all-time favorite soft-scrambled eggs and some pretty delicious black beans… ahh, brunchly perfection. Of course, we couldn’t resist ordering a plate of tacos al pastor — and its perfect pairing, piña agua fresca. Weighted down by our mega-breakfast, we wandered our way around the market, vainly trying to work off our stuffedness while finishing our weekly shopping.

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**Not surprisingly, we weren’t hungry again until dinnertime. After the sun set, we made our way to the Daly City border to check out a little hole-in-the-wall we’d heard good things about. Lisa’s Mexican Restaurant looks like a biker bar from the outside, with its microscopic windows, spotlit sign, and ugly burglary bars facing Mission Street.

But when you step inside, you’re entering another world. Every surface but the floor is covered with goofy stuff — photos of old Mexican movie stars, life-size parrots, oversized sombreros, and creepy paintings of big-eyed children. The overall effect is like dining inside some crazy abuela’s closet, but somehow it feels cozy, not chaotic. The welcome is friendly, both from the staff and the other patrons. And the food…

Well, honestly, I don’t want to get your hopes up. Lisa’s is decidedly not gourmet, and it definitely isn’t in the same league as Fiesta del Mar. But if you’re a homesick Southern Californian pining for the cheesy combo-plates of your youth, Lisa’s will fill your heart and belly in a way that you’ve never experienced north of the Grapevine. Their chile relleno sauce is just right (it’s the kind with chunks of celery like you see absolutely everywhere in L.A.) and their crispy tacos are dynamite. The best thing we’ve had at Lisa’s — and I am embarrassed to admit, we’ve been back almost every week since we discovered it – is their chile verde. Cameron likes to ask for it in their Lisa’s Especial, a football-sized ‘wet’ burrito stuffed with everything a homesick Angeleño needs to feel right again.

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**Sunday we crossed the bridge for brunch at our East Bay fave, Tacubaya. The spinoff of Temescal’s oft-lauded Doña Tomás, this taqueria — tucked behind Sur La Table and Café Rouge on Berkeley’s Fourth Street restaurant row — lures breakfasters into gorgeous skylit space decked out in tropical-fruit colors and natural wood surfaces. It’s a neighborly place, albeit one with a very calculated and upscale vibe, and though the crowds come out in force, the line moves fast and there’s never much of a wait for a table.

No matter what time of day we visit, we can never resist an order of churros y chocolate; other breakfast fare mostly starts and stops with so-so chilaquiles and decent variations on huevos, plus menudo on weekends. Like its O-Town sibling, Tacubaya bases its menu on local produce and sustainable meat.

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**Later in the day, we took a long-overdue tour of Oakland’s taco-truck scene. We used to love planning day-long taco crawls with our Seattle crew, and when we first moved back to San Francisco, we tried to get our new friends to follow suit. Various circumstances conspired against us — ranging from a surreal bout of foul weather to half the group catching one of those pandemic colds — and eventually we gave up trying to get everyone across the bay at the same time. But I’d kept my notes, adding a truck here or a cart there from time to time, and waited for the right day. And now that day had come.

We started out at the corner of 22nd and International, at a former A&W Drive-In that’s now home to not one but two taco trucks. Tacos Sinaloa features the usual assortment of meats — carnitas, chorizo, carne asada, and such — ensconsed in the eater’s choice of tacos, burritos, tortas and more. Across the parking lot, Mariscos Sinaloa offers all these plus fish tacos, tostadas de ceviche, and other seafood-based items. I opted for a taco full of deliciously meaty carnitas; Cameron had a muy sabroso shrimp taco from the other truck. Off to a good start, we ate our way up and down the boulevard, stopping at any truck where we saw more than two people in line. Our favorites: El Grullo’s tacos al pastor, Tacos Guadalajara’s shredded carnitas, and the cabeza at El Novillo in the shadow of Fruitvale BART.

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**Monday is a hard day to find Mexican breakfast in the City; many family-run businesses take the day off after their weekend rush. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, so we headed to Green Chile Kitchen over in NoPa. It’s the kind of storefront cafe you find in nearly every San Francisco neighborhood: Wood tables, tall windows, a chalkboard menu, and a tall counter where you place your order.

Sadly, the food’s no better than average, and it’s definitely Southwestern rather than Mexican. But they use quality ingredients (mostly organic produce, Niman Ranch meats, and Fulton Valley chicken) and there’s good coffee, easy street parking, and a pleasant little vibe.

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**As we were leaving NoPa, the once-cloudy day turned sunny, so we grabbed the dogs and headed back to the Mission. There’s nothing better on a bright winter afternoon than a lazy meander down the eastern stretch of 24th Street, where you can walk and shop for hours without hearing a single word of English. When we’d finally gotten our appetites back, Cameron entertained the pups while I popped into Tortas Los Picudos, a cheerful slice of chaos where they sell grilled Mexican sandwiches and licuados (which many shops translate as “milkshakes” although they’re really more like smoothies).

Fillings at Los Picudos run the gamut from basic ham-and-American or turkey-and-Swiss to belly busters like the Cubana. A very distant relation to the medianoche you may be used to, Los Picudos’ porcine homage to La Isla includes roast pork, ham, queso fresco, lettuce, jalapeños, mayonnaise, butter… and a foot-long hotdog! We wisely chose to split a spicy pulled-pork torta, and picked up a Mexican Coke at Casa Lucas on our way back up the block.

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**By the time we were hungry again, our options on a Monday night had diminished to a handful of late-night taquerias. Wanting to make sure we ended our weekend of gluttony on a high note, we popped down the hill to our nearby favorite, El Gran Taco Loco. Sandwiched in between a hard-liver bar and our local branch of Cole Hardware, Taco Loco has won our hearts despite its interrogation-room lighting, uncomfortable booths, and goofball murals.

We long ago discovered that the burritos and other semi-Americanized offerings at Taco Loco aren’t much to write home about, but their tacos — and most specifically, their carnitas tacos — are a thing of beauty and a joy forever. (Or at least the next 4 to 6 hours.) Cameron’s a huge fan of their birria, — a goaty, dark-chile-flavored soup that’s good for whatever ails you on a Sunday morning. But for our last meal of the long weekend, we kept it simple: A carnitas super-taco for me, and a buche taco for the bald guy. It certainly wasn’t the best meal of the bunch, but a late-night snack at our neighborhood favorite was definitely a fitting end to a gastronomical journey that spanned three area codes.

Los Jarritos
901 South Van Ness
San Francisco, CA 94110
415 648.8383

Frontera Fresco
170 O’Farrell Street, Macy’s basement level
San Francisco, CA 94103
415 296.4349

Fiesta del Mar
1005 N. Shoreline Blvd
Mountain View CA 94043
650 965.9354

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (Embarcadero at Market)
San Francisco, CA

Lisa’s Mexican Restaurant
6582 Mission Street (near John Daly Blvd)
Daly City, CA 94014
650 756.6289

1788 4th Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
510 525.5160

Tacos Sinaloa / Mariscos Sinaloa
International Blvd & 22nd Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601

El Grullo
International Blvd & 26th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601

Tacos Guadalajara
International Blvd & 44th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601

Tacos El Novillo
1001 Fruitvale Avenue
Oakland, CA 94610

Green Chile Kitchen
601 Baker Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
415 614.9411

Tortas Los Picudos
2969 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
415 824.4199

El Gran Taco Loco
3306 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
415 695.0621

breakfast, downtown SF, East Bay, Mexican, restaurants, The Mission


Seattle Taco Crawl

Posted by Anita on 03.14.05 6:02 PM

(Excerpted from the MouthfulsFood Taco Truck thread)

tacos (c)2006 AECAnother fabuloso day of taco-ness…

Cam and I had our tamales from Carniceria El Paisano for breakfast this morning… mmmm! Then we headed down Rainier and met up with Lauren and Rocky at the first taco truck on Rainier, Taqueria Dos Hermanos. Once again, I kept things simple and had a carnitas taco at every stop. Lauren stuck mostly with pork adobada / al pastor for the day; Cam was cabeza-boy; Rocky had lengua, substituting buche when available. (I had nibbles of lots of things, but I’ll let the others give you the round-up on their choices.) The carnitas at Dos Hermanos were good, not great. Tacos came in at $1, good mexican soda selection, super-hot (but flavorful) pickled peppers and carrots.

The next stop, the taco bus called El Asadero, was the best of show for me today, probably tied for best carnitas with El Milagro (the market next to Oberto — thanks for remembering, Rocky!). They weren’t quite as crispy or salty, but they were shreds rather than tiny cubes, which makes a difference to me. Asadero wins high marks for its garnish bar (rather than the standard 1 lime, 1 carrot, 1 chile that you get at most places) and for a good assortment of beverages. The imported Mexican coke and pepsi were expensive ($1.50, I think) but at least they had them. The oddball thing about this place was they didn’t include tax in the prices, so a taco comes out to $1.09. huh.gif

Our next stop was supposed to be Gorditos II, but they weren’t open (my fault, I see now that the P-I list says “Monday through Saturday”), so we proceeded to Malena’s in Ballard. As Lauren said when we were discussing it later, it feels odd to call something that costs $2.79 ‘expensive’, but there you have it. Malena’s had very limited taco choices (pork, fish, and I think chicken), they were more than twice the price of any others, they were made with standard supermarket corn tortillas, and loaded up with not-good guacamole, pallid pico de gallo, and shredded lettuce. Carnitas were slightly crispy but totally flavorless. The place was empty, not surprisingly. Another Seattle sacred cow bites the dust for me…

Onward to Taqueria Tequila in Greenwood. Nice selection of tacos, various prices from $0.99 to $1.50-ish depending on the filling. Carnitas were good but unremarkable; other items ranged from just OK to very nice. (I think Rocky liked the lengua and Lauren liked the chorizo, which I agree was tasty.)

We met up with Jan (SeaGal) and her husband Gary at Pancho Villa — the menu now says “Mr. Villa”, but otherwise it remains as I remember it. We’d earned our cervezas by this point, so we took a load off and ate there. Even though it’s a sit-down place, you can order just a single taco, if you like; I think they were $1.50 each. Carnitas were flavorful and slightly crisp, still good. Nice handmade tortillas, lightly griddled. I also couldn’t resist trying a chile relleno, which was tasty but needed more sauce.

Our last stop was the taco truck at Northgate and I-5, which we now know is called La Pasadita. A few folks opted for tortas here, which were huge ($4); I stuck with my program and had a carnitas taco (I think they were $1). These were probably the worst of the trip… even Rinconsito’s yesterday were better. The pork was flavorful, but the taco was probably half-filled with unrendered fat blobs and not a hint of golden crispiness was to be found. I believe the lengua was spoken of highly here, by Rocky and Gary.

Thanks to everyone for a great day. We’re definitely going to have to do another crawl to get the rest of the south end under our belts (literally!), and there was talk of a combined Eastside/Northside crawl, too.

food boards, Mexican, Seattle
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Seattle South-End Taco Crawl

Posted by Anita on 03.13.05 6:01 PM

(Excerpted from the MouthfulsFood Taco Truck thread)

carnitas taco (c)2006 AECMan oh man…

What a great day we had! Jan and Rocky and I even got to bust out with our spanish at a couple of stops where there wasn’t much english goin’ on.

The best thing I learned today: Ambaum Avenue is taqueria central. On the way from Zacatecas in ‘downtown’ Burien to the taco truck in White Center (Fondita II) we passed no less than 6 taquerias — including one with an outdoor parilla — plus a taco bus, and a mexican bakery. The saddest thing was passing them by!

Second best thing I learned today: chicharron doesn’t always mean just fried pork rind. There’s a meaty kind that they sell at Carniceria El Paisano that’s like the best carnitas you ever had. Oh, man. I am regretting not waiting in line to buy some. As it is, we’re looking lovingly at the two tamales in the fridge, waiting to get hungry again…

Here are my votes…
Best carnitas: the ones at the market in Kent, next to the Oberto Factory Outlet
Best tortillas: Zacatecas, where they make them fresh
Favorite overall experience: La Fondita II (“with two, you get garnish!”)
Saddest slide into mediocrity: El Rinconsito
Best thing I put in my mouth this month: Chicharron at El Paisano

Sue, you have to post all of the names of the places we went to, since we did so many substituions.

We definitely need to do another southside crawl: We hardly touched the P-I’s list of trucks, and we literally could do a crawl up and down Ambaum (with a 2-block detour over to 15th for chicharron and tamales at El Paisano).

I’m looking forward to seeing the crew at 11 tomorrow at the first stop on the Seattle tour. We’ll wait there until 11:15 or so in case of stragglers, but if we’ve gone, you can just meet up with us at the next stop.

food boards, Mexican, Seattle
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