You’ve got to respect and honor a chef who, so entranced by the offerings of his sous for family dinners, opens up another restaurant just to highlight their cooking. Nopa’s been a favourite of ours for some time, serving great, well-executed, responsibly-sourced and sustainable food, fantastic cocktails; a bright and airy convivial space that boasts a gorgeous mural by local artist Brian Barneclo… my personal favourite is their hefty pork chop, brined just so, about an inch thick, well-marbled, hugely taking up the size of the serving platter… but that’s for another post.
Nopalito is also special. Its arrival 2+ years ago, in February of 2009, was eagerly anticipated, Chef Laurence Jossel having already garnered accolades for Nopa, where it’s still difficult to nab a table at peak hours – even after 4 years, even on weeknights!
Nopalito has been no different. When we tried to see about getting a table on opening night, but were told we’d need to endure a 1.5-hour wait. On the second night, that wait was luckily, significantly cut down to 30 minutes, and we ended up sharing one of the communal tables. These days, we try to get to Nopalito during off-hours – past 8:30pm on weekends, after 1:30pm for brunch/ lunch.
I know very little about Mexican food – it’s not something we eat often, and dining at Nopalito is always a wonderful and educational experience.
Lesson #1: they don’t skimp on the spice here. Not just spices, as in cumin, cinnamon, oregano… but hot-spice: chiles, peppers that bring on mouth-tingling HEAT!
Nopalito introduced me to the Michelada – a fantastic way of livening up what might otherwise be watery, tasteless beer. The “che” is the “Che” of “Che Guevara”, not a hard k, or “kuh” sound, as one might assume. At its most basic, it’s beer with added tomatoes or tomato juice, lime and spices. Nopalito’s was bright red, tangy and intensely spicy with arbol chiles at one point.
On our latest visit, the fierceness of the arbol chiles had been replaced with tamer jalapenos, the tomato acidity toned down with orange. I could taste more beer and less “chelada,” and I had to stir to rouse up the spices which eventually sank back to the bottom. Boo, bring back the bright red original, Nopalito. (This is saying something, since I’m not normally a fan of intensely spicy things.) DD had a Bloody Margarita, which he called bloody spicy – and he’s more tolerant of heat than I am!
Totopos con Chile – chips with avocado, cotija cheese, crema and salsa – is a favourite of ours. Creamy cheese and avocado, crisp-crunchy house-fried chips… Beware the salsa de arbol, though – it’s tasty and complex, but very very hot-spicy!
Lesson #2: Mole can be green. And indeed, on our latest visit, here was a mushroom tamale with gently-cooked masa (organic, ground in-house at the restaurant), topped with a sauce of finely strained pumpkin seeds, tomato and tomatillo. The lot is topped by cheese and tender green beans and makes for a great vegetarian option that also had a mild heat (not as spicy as what was in the drinks or salsa de arbol, though). My only complaint – wishing that there were more mushrooms interspersed into the fine masa.
Lesson #3: It’s hard to go wrong with fried. There’s the crisp outer shell, shaped like an empanada and filled with uber tender shredded beef. There are the toppings of creamy avocado and house-made queso fresco, crunchy cabbage, aromatic cilantro. Such a beautifully balanced dish…
Lesson #4: Share the posole. Posole is one of the more familiar of Mexican dishes to me: a rich brothy stew of pork, hominy vegetables (usually raw cabbage and radish). Nopalito’s comes in a huuuge bowl (a full quart’s worth?), and, unless this is the only thing you’re planning on eating, there will be more than enough for two. Like many other items on Nopalito’s menu, there is some heat to this dish; the staff adds ancho chiles, and you get extra oregano, red onion, lime, and chile powder to your taste.
Lesson #5: The carnitas are the best. The pork is fall-apart tender, marinated in orange, milk, bay leaf, cinnamon and beer. It has the right amount of fat to meat and is wondrously moist and juicy. Scoop up some of that pork into a warm corn tortilla, top it with some simply-dressed shredded cabbage and carrot as well as the fresh pickled jalapeno and tomatillo salsa, and you’ve got heaven. The portion size is generous, and can be shared between two; I tend to want it all for myself. Note – the pickled veggies that accompany the cabbage and salsa are also pretty darn spicy.
Lesson #6: They now have a full liquor license, and make fantastic tequila-based cocktails. This delicate beauty is somewhat incongruously named the El Diablo; it contains Pueblo Viejo Blanco Tequila, drops of Cassis, Bundaberg Gingerbeer, and lime. Gorgeous as well as refreshing.
Lesson #7: (Well-behaved) Doggies are allowed on the patio. Always a plus in my book.
306 Broderick St
San Francisco, CA 94117