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Chilango: favorite new restaurant of 2009 (Church & Market, SF)

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Chilango is a couple of months old, started by a former chef at Mexico DF. I've had two fantastic lunches here, with food ranging from very good to best in class. Their carnitas are small pieces of moist, fatty pork deep-fried so they are crispy on the outside yet unctuous within. Served with pickled onions, chunky guacamole, four salsas, and handmade tortillas, their carnitas may be the best bite I've had this year. At $12 for a half-pound portion, they constitute most of a meal for two, making them a bargain as well.

They offer four types of sopes, thick masa cakes topped with cheese, picadillo (ground-beef based), potato and chorizo, or poblanos. I tried the first two, and even better than the toppings was the starchy cake below, with a resilient bite and toasted corn flavor. Although I usually don't love tamales, theirs are creamy and loose with a spicy salsa. Perhaps second only to carnitas was huarche, a big oval corn cake (thicker than tortilla, thinner than sopes) with carnitas-flecked refried beans, pulled braised short ribs, cheese, and herbs.

Both times I've been it's been pretty empty. It's pricey relative to taquerias, but a bargain compared to restaurants serving handmade food with sustainable ingredients, which is what Chilango is.

235 Church St near Market, SF

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  1. I had the filet mignon tacos and thought they were delicious. Not quite sure I'd go as far as to say best new restaurant of 2009 with so many great restaurants opening (RN74 comes to mind as one, I'm sure i'll think of several others), but definitely among the great ones. i also don't know if i'd even count it as "new" as it appears to be very similar to the owner's SOMA restaurant....

    5 Replies
    1. re: vulber

      which SOMA restaurant would that be? Is the former chef at DF also an owner at DF, or are you referring to somewhere else?

      I haven't been able to find a menu online: is it mostly antojitos, or do they serve dinner plates as well?

      I did find a reference on another board to their quesadillas...the poster said they were made of a thick masa sort of like an empanada (and thus she decided she didnt like them and wouldn't like quesadillas in Mexico City) hmmm...made me want to drive right over and try them!

      1. re: susancinsf

        yes, i believe it's the same chef as DF

        they recently split it up into a lunch and dinner menu, with antojitos for lunch and bigger antojitos for dinner, haha

        1. re: vulber

          Yes, the menu comparison is funny. Lunch = 2 sopes, tamales, or quesadillas per order; dinner = 3. But pretty much all the same items appear on both menus.

          I was a little fuzzy whether someone left Mexico DF to open Chilango or whether they're under the same ownership. I thought the former but am not sure.

          1. re: david kaplan

            I read about this place on an SF blog in October (tortillas made from cactus masa intrigued) and filed it for CH corroboration, and here it is! Thanks, dave k.

      2. re: vulber

        Plenty of restaurants have opened this year that I haven't tried (RN74, Commis, etc.)! I can only say it's my favorite of those I have tried.

        Haven't tried those tacos yet. I did have the fish tacos, which were very good for fish tacos even though next time I'll take off half the lettuce piled on it.

      3. Chilango is excellent. I hope the SF crowd appreciates real Mexican food (the Mission is awful and not authentic). Go Chilango...no Burritos (yeah).

        3 Replies
        1. re: SFguy

          Chilango is actually owned by the same person who used to own Azteca, the traditional Mission-style burrito shop that used to be in the same place. It's also the same person who owns Casa Mexicana up the street. So it's not even about anti-burrito sentiment, it's about providing a contrast of Mexican foods.

          1. re: vulber

            Are Casa Mexicana and (formerly) Azteca also very good? I've lived in the Mission for years and never tried either, though I realize it's too late now to try Azteca.

            1. re: david kaplan

              They are (were) the exact same place, which made their extreme proximity puzzling.

              I definitely think that Casa Mexicana has the best burrito in the Lower Haight/Duboce Triangle area, even though El Castillito seems to be more popular. It's just your typical greasy mission burrito.

              Not a destination spot though (especially now that I live right around the corner from Taqueria Cancun).

        2. Thanks to your recommendation, we tried out Chilango last week. We tried the Carnitas plate ("1/2 lb", large enough for two) and the Tortilla soup.

          Both were excellent. We will be back, definitely.

          1. Mrs. Wineguy and I dropped in for lunch recently, and loved Chilango. We shared the following: Tamales filled with rajas, corn and cheese, Duck Flautas, and Carnitas. Everything tasted extremely fresh. We also had some Jamaica that was as good as I've had outside Mexico. This will become a regular stop for us.

            1. The bf and I went here last night and it was great. The menu says that they serve bottles of wine at cost and don't mark them up. We had a great $30 bottle of zinfandel. The owner said that we had to order the huarache with short ribs which lived up to expectations. We also had the tacos campechano which were skirtsteak and chorizo. The bf loved the mahi mahi ceviche. We thought this place was really great and well priced considering the quality of ingredients.

              Unfortunately they were out of the churros which according to some blog are the best churros in SF.

              1. I've been longing for a taqueria that has fresh made tortillas and top quality ingredients, so when I read about Chilango here, I was excited to give it a try. Alas, I'm going to have to deliver a curmudgeonly dissenting vote on it.

                We had the tacos de filet mignon, which were fine, but not distinctive, the tacos de costilla, a bit less fine, but equally lacking in character and the tacos de suadero, which were dry and crunchy in the vein of fried meat that's been sitting around too long. All the suadero I've had in Mexico City has been juicy and tender, just like brisket here that's been braised for a few hours, though finished and cut differently. Not here and the alternative wasn't an improvement.

                My wife, a Chilanga, was going to get the pambazo, but demurred after asking how they prepared it, figuring that it might not be to her liking. Instead, she got a chile relleno, which she didn't much care for. She disliked the food at least as much as I did.

                The menu says that they use Niman Ranch grass fed beef. Unless Niman has changed their ways, they don't produce grass fed beef. They used to finish it with corn and/or other grains, but things may have changed. I like it that they have organic masa for the tortillas.

                The salsas accompanying the tacos were good. Why one has to get a minimum of three tacos of the chosen meat at dinner is beyond me. Portions were plentiful, though.

                Maybe we hit a bad night, but this was below average taqueria food, be it the bay area or Mexico City. Better to give Los Gemelos in RWC these ingredients so that they can cook 'em right.

                2 Replies
                1. re: maigre

                  Pambazo! That sounds amazin!

                  Is there anyplace your wife likes in the bay area?

                  1. re: bbulkow

                    Like a lot of Mexicans in the area, she's disappointed in the Mission district style places that have antojitos and a few other dishes with rice and beans.

                    That said, she likes Primavera for its quality and fresh, distinctive flavors, Casa de Cobre in Saratoga after one visit for similar reasons. Not what you might expect from someone who grew up in a modest, traditional DF home, maybe, but to her, those are places that are more in the spirit of Mexican cooking she knows. It's not exactly what she grew up eating, but they expand on familiar flavors and ingredients and she appreciates the respect, care and inspiration. La Taqueria used to be a favorite when we lived in the city. She likes Los Gemelos, though she hasn't been there that much. We ate at a place in downtown Salinas that we stumbled into a number of years ago that had a delicious lengua. That place has stuck in her mind, though I have no idea what it was called or if it still even exists.

                    Other places seem OK once or twice, but go downhill, lose appeal or weren't exciting enough to make an impression. Others she hasn't been to enough or hasn't been to for a long time. She enjoyed Poc Chuc enough to want to go back, but she's only been there one time. She liked the mole negro during a recent visit to the Oaxacan place on Alma in San Jose, La Juquilita, though I don't think she was otherwise that taken by the restaurant in general. She'd probably be willing to go back, though.

                    She used to like La Casita Chilanga for it's DF style tortas that she misses, but a series of lunches in which the meat was not to the standards of the rest of the sandwich caused her to stop going. She goes to various taquerias from time to time, though often because of convenience more than any genuine taste for them. Some places that are highly touted don't tend to do much for her.

                    I think that if she were to try some other spots, like the ones around Fruitvale, she might find a few that she likes, but it's so far out of our way that it tends not to happen. When we're in the East Bay, which isn't so often these days, we seem to end up at other places.

                    She loves going to Chicago because of all the Mexican restaurant possibilities.

                    I wish I had more to report, especially about places that don't show up here.