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The 22 Mexican Restaurants Not to Be Missed

Where to get the best Mexican food in SF, the East Bay, and the North Bay.

San Francisco

La Torta Gorda (Mission) La Torta Gorda ably produces tortas on both ends of the Mexican sandwich spectrum, oscillating between simple ham-and-cheese and two-pound Mexico City–style tortas cubanas. But Armando Macuil’s restaurant isn’t just a hoagie shop: It’s more of a Mexican diner, complete with a short-order griddle, a counter, and Formica tables. While the sandwiches are superlative, make sure to check out Macuil’s menu of much rarer Puebla-style antojitos, including a giant taco placero stuffed with cheese, nopales, and your choice of meat; enchiladas coated in sweet, dense mole poblano; and a quesadilla with huitlacoche (corn fungus). The tlacoyos al albanil, football-shaped tortillas stuffed with black beans and topped with avocados and runny-yolked fried eggs, make the perfect breakfast any time of day. 2833 24th St. (near Bryant St.), 415-642-9600

La Urbana (NoPa) La Urbana proves that the internationally inflected food of Mexico City has a place in the home of the slab burrito. The space seethes with color and form (not to mention crowd noise). So do the best dishes, which have three, four, and five layers: an aguachile of white fish, tomatillo, and a dose of cold mesquite smoke; seared halibut with corn-citrus froth, crumbled cauliflower florets, and an inky smear of huitlacoche purée; a flocculent chocolatecinnamon mousse with crema ice cream, mezcal gelées, and crisped rice. If reading these descriptions exhausts you, eat elsewhere. 661 Divisadero St. (at Grove St.), 415-440-4500

Los Yaquis (Mission) Bordered with vats of carrots, cactus, and pickled pigskin, the counter at the Aguirre family’s Jaliscan restaurant looks like a mad scientist’s apothecary. It’s your first hint that the marigoldcolored restaurant goes beyond standard-issue fare. Your second hint: the aguachile—shrimp, avocados, and cucumbers bathed in a green salsa as spicy as a slap on the arm. Your third: the Guadalajara-style torta ahogada, upgraded from its fútbol-stadium origins. Pick your sandwich fillings—the waiter suggests pork loin and queso blanco, plus pickles from the jars—and the kitchen will saturate the bread in a fiery tomato sauce. Get out the knife and fork. 324 S. Van Ness Ave. (at 14th St.), 415-252-8204

Nopalito (NoPa/Sunset) Now with two locations, in NoPa and the Sunset—both under the culinary leadership of Gonzalo Guzman—Nopalito floats seasonal specials such as butternut squash taquitos and salads of beets, oranges, and pomegranates over the core classics: totopos doused with salsa de árbol and crumbled cotija cheese; a quesadilla roja, a tortilla of mulato chili–dyed masa filled with pork belly meat; and the restaurant’s relentlessly appealing carnitas braised with orange juice, beer, and bay leaves. 306 Broderick St. (Near Fell St.), 415-535-3969; 1224 9th Ave. (near Lincoln Way), 415-233-9966

Padrecito (Cole Valley) Opened last spring by the team behind Mamacita in the Marina, Padrecito has found its strength in hearty California twists on Mexican flavors: lamb meatballs braised in a guajillo chili mole, or sloppy, smoky chilaquiles with duck and chipotle mole (arguably the best dish in the house). The decor, with its rich woods and intense colors, could be called Mexican lumberjack. The crowd is very Cole Valley, which means early-evening toddlers, babysitter-liberated parents self-medicating with mezcal-spiked margaritas, and young workers fresh off the N-Judah who can’t motivate themselves to go home. 901 Cole St. (at Carl St.), 415-742-5505

Pisto’s (North Beach) Yes, you can get Pete Mrabe’s famous hamburguesa at Don Pisto’s casual offshoot on Grant Street. But more important, here you can get a seat. Waves of baseball-capped drinkers and bleached blondes regularly crash against the bar, tacos and bottles of Modelo in hand. Skip the dishes featuring the rubbery handmade tortillas and go for the composed plates: Mexican sashimi of salmon shocked with lime juice and a slice of serrano chili; ridiculously tender grilled chicken leg and thigh, their achiote rub taking in the smoke; and sweet corn smothered in mayonnaise and canned parmesan. 1310 Grant Ave. (at Vallejo St.), 415-317-4696

Playa Azul (Mission) With tables bluer than the Gulf of Mexico and a quietly erudite tequila selection, Playa Azul has become the rare Mission restaurant where you can still find Mexican families congregating after Sunday mass. The warm seafood platters (shrimp in mushroom cream sauce, whole fried fish) can’t compare to the ceviche tostadas and the cold seafood cócteles served in glasses big enough to double as Renaissance Faire goblets. The bright-red broth is ketchup-sweet and served with the traditional heap of plastic-wrapped saltines. In the baroque hangover cure known as vuelve a la vida (return to life), you’ll find giant Gulf oysters, the creamiest of octopi, and tiny bay scallops, crab, and prawns, all immaculately cooked. 3318 Mission St. (near 29th St.), 415-282-4554

Poc-Chuc (Mission) Even though half the kitchens in San Francisco’s restaurants are staffed with cooks born on the Yucatán Peninsula, Yuco restaurants in San Francisco don’t have a great following. However, Poc-Chuc endures, partly because its thoughtful decor appeals to middle-class diners. Order tacos with achiote-braised pollo pibil and poc chuc—thin slabs of marinated pork grilled until the edges blacken and finished with a squirt of lime. Or try the chimole, turkey braised until it shreds into an earthy black mole, which couldn’t be more true to Mayan cooking. 2886 16th St. (near S. Van Ness Ave.), 415-558-1583

Taqueria Vallarta (Mission) There is no point in crossing the threshold of this 24th Street taqueria. Inside lurks a realm of vegetarian burritos and middling seafood platters. But in the doorway, a cook mans a proper street taco stand resembling an oversize steel drum ringed with mounds of meat. This is who you’re looking for. order the buche (neck meat), suadero (shredded beef), or cumin-spiked chorizo, and he maneuvers it onto the griddle’s domed center to sizzle, flopping a few tortillas alongside to brown in the fat. To dress the tacos, take a scattering of chopped onions, a shake of a cilantro-filled spoon over the top, and a splash of brick-red chili salsa. 3033 24th St. (near Treat Ave.), 415-826-8116

Page two: The East Bay