SoCal may have the crème de la crème when it comes to Mexican fare, but the City by the Bay is also chock-full of respectable eateries.
Whether you’re craving classic tacos or looking for a two-MICHELIN-starred meal, here’s where to get the best Mexican food in San Francisco proper.
What Our Inspectors Say: “Whether they’re digging into a refreshing ensalada de nopales or sharing a platter of blue-corn tacos stuffed with spicy-smoky marinated fish, local couples and families adore this sustainable Mexican spot. Sister to Cal-cuisine icon Nopa, Nopalito is so beloved that an equally good and popular Inner Sunset location is also thriving. The small, cheerful space with reclaimed wood and bright green accents doesn't take reservations; call ahead to get on the list, or try takeout. Once seated, friendly servers will guide the way with house-made horchata for the kids and an extensive tequila selection for grown-ups. Both groups will certainly agree on a sweet finish: the excellent vanilla bean flan topped with orange caramel and orange supremes is unbeatable.”
What Our Inspectors Say: “A Mexico City superstar with the seafood-centric Contramar, Gabriela Cámara has brought her magic touch to this Civic Center hottie, where she serves similar food. Nothing is lost in translation: filleted black cod with red chile adobo is silky and smoky after a wood grilling in collard leaves, while Cámara’s famed tuna tostadas get a Bay Area sustainability update with ocean trout. And you won’t want to miss the griddled black bean sopes, which seem simple but sing with flavor. Cala's minimalist aesthetic matches that of Contramar, with vaulted, skylight-dotted ceilings, a planter box full of climbing vines and lots of light wood for a rustic-urban feel. Service can be spotty, but for a flavorful, unfussy meal, it's quickly become a hot ticket.”
What Our Inspectors Say: “It’s always a fiesta at this lively spot on Cow Hollow’s main drag, where you’re as likely to find young families sharing a bowl of guac as you are Marina girls getting tipsy on mezcal margaritas. Patterned tiles, bright murals and chill beats create a modern vibe, and though you may have to wait (only limited reservations are available), the friendly staff will make it worth your while. Flores is among the city's best upscale Mexican spots-with the bonuses of heftier portions and a lower price tag. You'll be able to taste the difference in the handmade corn tortillas that encase an oozy huitlacoche quesadilla, and the tender, citrusy carnitas. Save room for churros: the spicy 'Mexican hot chocolate' dipping sauce is well worth the calories.”
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What Our Inspectors Say: “Set in a bohemian area known for its street tacos and bare bones eateries, Californios aims to elevate the Mission district’s south-of-the-border fare to contemporary Mexican cuisine and it more than succeeds. A complex, layered mole here isn’t just likely to please—it’s bound to turn your entire understanding of this nation’s cuisine on its head. The luxurious space only ups the appeal. Caramel-hued banquettes pop against dark-lacquered walls, while chandeliers and shelves of cookbooks further punctuate the upscale mien of the intimate room. You’ll feel as though you're dining in chef Val M. Cantu’s very own atelier, made extra personal by the deeply knowledgeable staff, who seem to pride themselves on knowing every detail about the dishes coming out of the open kitchen. One lengthy tasting menu is served nightly. It changes often, but expect inventive items like squid-ink tostadas heaped with guacamole, Monterey squid and truffles. A wonderfully spicy flauta is filled with duck barbacoa; while butter-poached lobster is tucked into blue corn tortillas and topped with fennel and aji amarillo. Sorbet made from local guavas, nestled in a spread of pistachio butter is an astounding send-off.”
What Our Inspectors Say: “This local favorite always has a queue because everyone loves it—from tech bros in hoodies to families out for Sunday lunch. The jovial Miguel Jara runs this show—you may find him working the register or handing out roses to customers. Counter service makes it feel no-frills, but this is the kind of place that relishes in its simplicity. Everything here is supremely fresh, as exhibited in the open kitchen with its mountains of char-grilled steak alongside vibrant tomato, cilantro and onion. The carne asada super burrito is everything you dream it should be. It may not be on the menu, but order your taco 'Dorado-style,' which begins as a corn tortilla crisped on the plancha, layered with cheese and another tortilla before getting loaded with toppings.”
What Our Inspectors Say: “It might be French-owned (neighboring bistro Chez Maman is a sibling), but Papito is appealingly Mexican, as your first bite of the outstanding shrimp tacos, piled with spicy adobo and sweet mango salsa, will attest. An ear of caramelized, grilled corn slathered in spicy mayo, lime juice and cotija cheese will transport you to the streets of D.F., while the smoky coloradito sauce that bathes tender chicken enchiladas will have you scraping your plate for more. Papito’s flavors are big, but its space is no more than a shoebox, so be prepared to wait or take your order to-go. If you dine in, the vibrant look matches the energetic food, with bright walls and a bustling side bar. Note: Hayes Valley's Papito, once a satellite, now has different owners.”
Hero image courtesy of Californios.