Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > San Francisco Bay Area >
Apr 9, 2009 12:15 AM

SF: Nopalito - the end of the barbacoa crawl (part 3)

Nopalito is the Mexican version of Slanted Door with all the same good and bad of SD.

Michael Bauer says it best in his review

“There are the inevitable complaints that this is "gringo" food designed for a group too haughty to eat at a taqueria in the Mission. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth … for the quality and pedigree of the products, it's a true bargain”

Yes and no. Based on taste alone, Nopalito came in third as far as the lamb was concerned.

But first there are some really good things about Nopalito
- The staff is super helpful and super nice
- It could popularize regional Mexican food to people who would not otherwise try it. Will goat finally become acceptable with the masses?
- The first restaurant to serve a few true Nuevo Mexican dishes like the better restaurants in Mexico City

Like New American cuisine, Nuevo Mexican takes local ingredients, traditional flavors and puts a spin on them.

Tbe salad of slices of juicy grapefruit, mouth-watering blood orange, pickled red onion, chili, lime and queso fresco was so similar to the best of what I ate in Mexico and gives me hope for more to come.

This was not only delicious, but stunningly beautiful. It’s not any sort of traditional dish but uses Mexican items in new combinations and a new way.

If I only had the barbacoa I wouldn’t be rushing back. There was nothing wrong with it. The presentation was beautiful, it was just that other restaurants did it more deliciously.

Mom's Cuisine came in first for both the lamb and the consomme

Sazon had the next best lamb and finished last for consomme

For all the people interested in great Chinese and Japanese broths, I think the rich, deep lamb consommé would please you very much. I wish this could be ordered on its own without the lamb.

There were a few chickpeas with minced onion and a cilantro leaf or two. Mom's was just so much more amazingly complex and fragrant with herbs.

The lamb was nicely wrapped in a banana leaf. However, every bit of fat had been trimmed from the cubes which also trimmed the flavor and left if feeling dry. It just wasn’t as tender or tasty as the other two places.

Also it was spiced which overwhelmed whatever lamb flavor there might have been. A slight nit is that the banana leaf was tied too well. I had trouble unwrapping it as did the people sitting near me.

The three golden yellow corn tortillas were the prettiest I’ve ever seen. However, they didn’t have the intoxicating fragrance or corn flavor of the tortillas at La Borenquena in Oakland. La Borenquena remains the tortilla champ of the Bay Area, IMO. It was nice that Nopalito offered more tortillas when I finished them.

A small dish of salsa borracha (drunken sauce) was available to top the meat when it was wrapped in the tortilla. Despite tequila, beer, pastille chilis, spices, etc, I thought there was an unpleasant note to it. Also, it further covered up the lamb flavor rather than complimenting it.

The almond horchata was pleasant and creamy. The michelada was ok, but La Tapatia in Richmond does a far better version. The complementary fried garbanzo beans were nice and much better than fried garbanzos I paid $2 for recently at Olivetto Café.

No complaint about the tasty Mexican wedding cookie at the end.

They did have lime paletas for dessert, but I sort of lost interest after the barbecoa.

For me it is like Slanted Door, the dishes I like best are those that are not traditionally Vietnamese, the more creative dishes.

I was grateful to Slanted Door for introducing me a new cuisine and helping me embrace it. I hope Nopalito has this effect on people who might not order anything but tacos, burritos and combo plates.

306 Broderick St, San Francisco, CA

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. excellent! Thank you for sharing your thoughts - it changed my reticence about trying Nopalito.

    I agree whole heartedly with you regarding la Borinquena's tortillas - they remain my favorite - including their chips, tostadas and taco shells (fried in real lard!).

    1 Reply
    1. re: pastryqueen

      Eat first with your eyes at Nopalito. There were some dishes I'd be reluctant to order while others like the Totopos con Chile look wonderful and there have been universally good reports about them.

      I like they might be breaking the local requirement of "what type of real Mexican restaurant doesn't serve complimentary chips and salsa" ... uh, ... real Mexican restaurants in Mexico. So it is nice to have the fried chickpeas. The totopos are there for poeple who must have their chips and is a nice spin on nachos.

      However, the posozole I was torn about. That lamb consome was so great that I thought maybe the broth might make up for what looked like other deficiencies ... cabbage and onion already in the soup and a condiment tray that had micro servings.

    2. An addition to the barbaco crawl - La Plaza Garibaldi in Rohnert Park. It came in dead last. Not recommended

      1. You haven't had the barbacoa at El Huarache Azteca? Great consomme, too.

        I don't get the nueva cocina reference.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Nuevo Mexican

          What Nopalito is to Mexican food is what New American food is to American food.

          When I was working in Mexico City a while back, there was a parallel to what chefs there were doing to what US chefs were doing with American cuisine.

          Nopolito isn't quite that, but seems closer to it than other places like Dona Thomas which is more Cal-Mexican. Small distinctions but it is the difference between offering an aqua fresca in the usual varieties but using local ingrediants, say Swanton strawberries , or expanding on the idea like Nopalito's mixed citrus drink with orange-blood orange-Meyer lemon.

          Now Sonoma Latina Grill ... I'm not quite sure what to make of that. Extending to flatbreads and with toppings such as
          - Capirotada - coconut, raisin, pecan
          - Sebastopol honey and pepitas
          - San Luise potosi enchilada style
          - Habanaro curd and Soda Rock Farm heirloom tomato

          I want to get over there as soon as I can and see if there's really something there. Dreadful location though. Reading through yelp, the locals from Novato aren't at all open to it .. NO CHIPS they whine and other such comments that it is NOT the familiar. I mean, it may not be good. I need to see. However, I think Sonoma Latina would have been better received in Napa or SF. The people in Novato seem to want Chipotle.

          1. re: rworange

            Habanero curd sounds more like what I know of as nueva cocina Mexicana. Global techniques and influences featuring Mexican ingredients and sensibility producing dishes that wouldn't be out of place on the menu of an adventurous French or Japanese chef.

            Nopalito (which I'd have tried already if it weren't so damned hard to park around there) sounds to me like Cal-Mex a la Dona Tomas, local organic ingredients and minor twists while sticking pretty closely to traditional recipes.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              There is an interior FREE parking lot in addition to the 10 or 12 external FREE spaces!

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Actually we went on a Sunday evening and there was AMPLE parking on the street. There's also an empty DMV (or some such office) lot across the st.

              2. re: rworange

                I like Robert's distinction: Nuevo Mexican is using new techniques/recipes with traditional ingredients, while Cal-Mexican is using local ingredients in traditional recipes. Looking at it that way, what you describe at Nopalito is more Cal-Mexican than Nuevo Mexican.

                Barbacoa served with consumme is really pretty common in Mexican neighborhoods on the weekends.

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  There's actually tons of parking. Not only is the outdoor lot available, there's a whole indoor garage. They don't mark the lot of garage clearly. The first time I went to the market pre-Nopolito days I asked to make sure it was ok to park there. Then they later opened the garage which has a few signs you can park there.

                  I guess you could apply the first definition to Sonoma Latina Grill which was why I was having trouble labeling what it might be.

                  However, what was happening in Mexico was taking traditional Mexican food ... and reviving lesser know regional food ... using local ingredients (like that doesn't happen at any joint in Mexico) ... but rethinking the way it was put together or doing something new with it.

                  Yes, barbacoa is common, but not the presentation or style at Nopalito nor the spicing of the meat ... so far the other places I've had this at was straight up lamb probably slow-cooked in banana leaves. No salsa borracha either, though I do see that occasionally at a traditonal Mexican restaurant in California.

                  Yet, again, that wasn't a dish I was thinking of.

                  The salad with oranges that dazzled me was more of what I was thinking of. That was really your street corner fruit cup. However, the presentation was different and there was the twist of the pickled onions and cheese.

                  It isn't a lot of that at Nopalito. A restaurant in Mexico can be a little more bold in working over the traditional dishes because people are familair with them where a good number of the people at Nopolito are just getting to know them I'm guessing.

                  In Mexico, for example, you can get a deconstructed chile en nogada with some unusual stuffing topped with pommegranate and walnut foam while in the US, not enough people would get that.

                  OK, I'm kidding about the foam. Never saw any dishes with foam at the time I was there. The Mexican chefs weren't that silly. It was about rethinking traditional dishes, respecting tradition and taking it to a new level.

            2. Good post. Thanks!

              Any recommendations for barbacoa and consumme on the peninsula or south bay? I saw that Casita Chilanga (RWC) has it on weekends, but I've never tried it. Where else can I find it?

              3 Replies
              1. re: snewdl

                I don't get down that way often these days, so hopefully someone who has can respond.

                On my one visit to La Casita Chilanga, they had run out. It seems like a while back ... maybe a year ... I noticed that barbacoa seemed common in San Jose and always meant to check it out and see what was there. Just never got to it ... yet.

                1. re: rworange

                  I had it one Sunday, it must be years now. I went early. It was excellent, tender, tasty. It also came with some onions and peppers. The broth was quite flavorful. There was a large crowd of men and boys, maybe fathers and sons.

                2. re: snewdl

                  I don't know about *consumme*, but La Hacienda, Menlo Park, has fairly good barbacoa. Had one yesterday.

                  The trick: ignore the burrito, get the torta.

                  [La Hacienda is a market with a taqueria in the back, but it has tables outside, and is unusually clean. Also consider the cafe next door if you're in a caffine mood]

                  (will not make comment about every Chipotle having barbacoa, and yes, I did mention their barbacoa recently, so a search should have turned it up)

                  La Hacienda Market
                  1933 Menalto Ave, Menlo Park, CA