The Mission may be famous for burritos, but there are great Mexican restaurants across the city. Unsurprisingly in a place where farmers’ markets rule, some of the best San Francisco restaurants for South of the Border fare put an organic, locavore, and even a vegan spin on traditional favorites like tacos, tamales and enchiladas.
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San Francisco’s best Mexican restaurants
A offshoot of the popular, acclaimed NoPa restaurant, Nopalito offers authentic, from-scratch Mexican cooking made with local, sustainable and organic ingredients. This is the antithesis of slapped-together street food. Dishes are carefully composed with subtle flavors to create deliciously complex interpretations of traditional Mexican meals: Carnitas is slow-cooked and braised in orange, bay leaf, milk, cinnamon and beer; Mole Coloradito con Pollo is made with toasted chiles, almonds, Ibarra chocolate, dried plums and a huge array of spices. Don't miss any version of tangy, tender nopales (cactus leaves), frequently on the menu in the form of tamales or in dishes such as Queso Flameado con Chorizo y Nopales (flamed Oaxacan and jack cheese with grilled cactus and chorizo).
Tacolicious sits on a block that's at the heart of the Mission gentrification, bridging the gap between the old Hispanic district and the young tech hub. Here, traditional Mexican street food—tacos, enchiladas, sopes, tostadas—is interpreted with local, seasonal and supremely fresh ingredients. Sit at one of the tall tables, belly up to the bar, or bask under Paul Madonna's cityscape mural on the patio in the company of bearded hipsters discussing their latest DIY projects. Whether you order albacore tuna tostadas with crispy leeks and chipotle mayo, or one of a dozen taco offerings like guajillo-braised beef short ribs, all come with three kinds of salsa (the habanero with turmeric and rice vinegar may require one of the 100 specialty tequilas to cool you down).
The Mission burrito, as iconic to San Francisco as fog and cable cars, is the star at La Taqueria, a stalwart of the Mission District for more than 40 years. While some quibble over the exclusion of rice, no one argues over the tastiness of their behemoth foil-wrapped burrito bombs, filled with beans, cheese, salsa and meats ranging from carne and pollo asada to carnitas, chorizo and lengua. Located in the heart of the Mission District, the tidy no-frills spot also features tacos, quesadillas and a full selection of aguas frescas. Whatever your preference, start off with a basket of chips and the super-fresh guacamole.
In the heart of Theater District, this unpretentious restaurant serves fresh Central Mexican fare with French/Spanish influences culled from family recipes passed down to owners Eduardo and Sylvia Rallo. The selection includes brilliant tortilla soup, tamarind-sauteed shrimp served with corn cakes, and a fire-roasted chile relleno that will have you raving before you put down your fork. Classic sauces like moles and a creamy guajillo chile sauce, and flavors like the Mexican herb epazote play a huge part in accentuating every dish. For starters, don't miss the fresh guacamole, prepared tableside.
Mexican and vegan are not terms you would expect to sidle up against each other in a restaurant concept, but Gracias Madre has not only married the ideas, it's done so with spectacular success. Antojitos (street food-inspired starter snacks) such as grilled potato-masa gorditas topped with salsa verde and cashew cream, and sweet potato and caramelized onion quesadillas topped with cashew cheese and pumpkin-seed salsa are full of piquant flavor and meaty textures, and don't suffer in the least from their lack of animal ingredients. Main plates such as nopales (prickly pear cactus) topped with pico de gallo and cashew cheese, accompanied by black beans, rice and handmade tortillas, and an heirloom masa tamale stuffed with seasonal veggies will leave you satisfied and possibly rethinking your preconceived notions of vegan food. Desserts are also excellent, especially the peach cobbler.