Next to seeing so many close friends and family in the Bay Area, I was very excited to stuff my face with as much Cal-Mex as humanly possible over 72 hours. Jon and I were lucky to have so many local experts in the area to indulge us, so though we had to move around a lot during our trip, we managed to eat Cal-Mex in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland.
In San Francisco (the city proper), we ate at Pancho Villa Taqueria and Puerto Allegre. Pancho Villa started in the Mission district, which, you might already be aware, is ground zero for taquerias. But the location we tried is across the street from the posh gourmet Ferry Building, and you know, even at the fancier location, Pancho Villa feels like a dive where it’s all about the fresh, corn tortillas (that smell and taste like corn – a crazy concept if you think about the dominance of El Paso-brand, floppy yellow grossness in London groceries).
Because we went to Pancho Villa within an hour of leaving San Francisco Airport (i.e., we had been stuffed silly by the plane food you eat solely out of boredom), Jon and I were only able to scarf down one cheese-and-mushroom quesadilla and a fish taco. But wow, what a difference a quality tortilla makes – flour in the quesdadilla and corn in the fish taco. Salsas were fresh, spicy and varied. My kindgom for tomatillo salsa! Overall, I was happy with my sampling of Pancho’s offerings.
Generally, the Cal-Mex we ate tasted good, but my photos of the food didn’t come out looking so fantastic (see, for example, the photo at the top of this post. It’s of my fish taco at Pancho Villa). So there aren’t any entertaining snaps for this post, I’m afraid.
Puerto Allegre is in the Mission district, and when we dropped by on a Thursday night, our travel-exhausted selves were not amused by the 40-minute wait to get in to the restaurant. The decor is modest (think bowling-alley booths and tables), but the vibe is energetic and chatty. Margaritas are strong, and the nachos were outstanding – piled so high with spicy meat, cheese, and salsa that the server left us an extra bowl of plain nachos to get the right ratio of topping to cripsy, corn-tasting nachos.
My carnitas burrito was a little disappointing. It was enormous and slathered in a green sauce, necessitating fork and knife usage, which was too bad since I’m a big believer in foil-wrapped burrito as portable meal. I also thought the rice in the burrito was kind of damp and overly dense, but this could be my Asian bias for fluffy, dry-textured rice coming through. In any case, I’d go back to Puerto Allegre for the nachos and drinks, but I’d skip the burrito.
In Oakland, even though I wasn’t at a taqueria, I couldn’t resist ordering the huevos rancheros at the friendly, casual Somerset restaurant. My friend Margaret tells me Somerset is the place she goes for brunch, and I can see why. Our party of eight had servers who were happy to customize orders (just try asking for a customization in London!), and the menu included creative twists on brunch classics (e.g., lemon-ricotta pancakes). I was happy but not surprised that my eggs arrived fluffy and hot, spiced up with salsa and cheese, and accompanied by rich, black beans. The eggs sat on a thick corn pancake, which soaked up a tad too much oil, but no big complaints as everything tasted fresh. After ordering a separate side of avocado to complete my idea of perfect huevos rancheros, my state of well-being was complete.
In Berkeley, I went with another party of eight to Cancun Taqueria, a super-lively place near the Cal campus. The place is large and the seating is canteen style. When we arrived, a Cal football game had just ended, so the place was packed with crowds of students and Cal fans wearing college paraphernalia. The noise and cheery enthusiasm were a little too much for boring, old me, but we managed to snag eight seats at a long table, and then I happily guzzled down several flavors of agua fresca, which never ceases to amaze me with its “essence of fruit” tastiness. The nachos were good, though not as yummy as the ones at Pancho Villa, and my shrimp taco cost a rather pricey $5 for a single taco housing four overcooked shrimp. I was also thrown off by the black beans in the taco. I won’t pretend to be a Cal-Mex expert, but I’ve never had a taco that included black beans. If I go back to Cancun, I’ll just focus on drinking all the agua fresca flavors and maybe try a burrito.
It’s amazing how quickly I get spoiled. Any one of my Cal-Mex meals in the Bay Area would have kicked ass in London, but of course, being in the land of taquerias meant that I got pretty picky. I’m most likely to return to Pancho Villa before visiting Puerto Allegre and Cancun again, but they were all pretty good.
Despite the fact that I ate Cal-Mex for four out of six restaurant meals during my weekend in the Bay Area, I’m still craving more. I saw an article in the Times recently about the revamped test for naturalization, and there was, of course, some analysis of what it means to be an American. Given how my mild, occasional homesickness takes the form of craving Mexican food, it seems obvious to me that the test should include a question or two about tacos and burritos.