Nopalito: So Much More Than a “Little Cactus”

Since it’s Thursday, I wanted to do a “throwback” post highlighting a restaurant I visited a couple weeks ago when I was in San Francisco. This post has nothing to do with the fact that I miss San Francisco desperately and want to go back every second of every day.

My boyfriend lived in San Francisco for two years, so we were no strangers to the amazing food scene, but it takes a lifetime to try all of the amazing dining options. It’s hard not to stick to the favorites, but we try and explore our options when we go back up to visit. I’m so glad we finally tried Nopalito. With two locations, it just so happens we were staying within walking distance to the Inner Sunset location. We ventured out on one of our last nights in the city and were able to be seated right away. It is a medium size space with a fresh green color scheme and light wood tables. The wall between the kitchen and dining room is low and has a glass display, so you can look in on the chefs preparing the colorful meals from scratch, including the tortillas. Their website boasts that they are a “vibrant neighborhood Mexican kitchen celebrating the traditional cookery of Mexico with the philosophy of purchasing local, organic and sustainable ingredients.” This description could not be any more true. From the decor, to the service, to the food, everything was very clean and fresh with a locals only feel.

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To start, they bring complimentary roasted garbanzo beans to the table. I love garbanzo beans, but have never had them so roasted or so spicy. The combination was addicting and definitely more fun than starting off with bread or chips.

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We both indulged in their housemade horchata. Steven got the traditional Almond Horchata while I opted for the Strawberry-Almond Horchata. I won. Steven’s was delicious, but mine was colorful, beautiful, and a bit sweeter because of the fresh strawberry puree-like juice on top.

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We chose the Quesadilla Roja con Chicharron as one of our appetizers to share. We had seen photos of this amazing dish on Instagram and, although drool-worty, did not do the dish justice. The chile-corn tortilla was filled with crispy pork belly, salsa, jack cheese, queso fresco, onions and cilantro. The chicharrones were light and added the perfect crunch to every bite. This is easily the best quesadilla I have ever had.

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Our next shared plate was the Empanada con Deshebrada de Res. We had seen at least 20 of them come out to the other tables, so we knew it was a must-try. We were not disappointed. The fried masa pastry was filled with grass-fed beef, tomato, jalapeno, and cabbage. It was topped with avocado, queso fresco and salsa frita de guajillo. We ate it too quickly for a picture, so I snagged this one from Nopalito’s Instagram. Between this and the quesadilla, we could’ve been done with our meal and left completely satisfied. Both were filling and perfect to share.

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I ordered the Pescado a la Veracruzana, a seared white fish with tomato, jalapeno, green olives, capers, pickled chile guero, cilantro and saffron rice. I love fish Veracruz style, and this didn’t disappoint. The tomato sauce wasn’t spicy enough for Steven’s liking, but if you took a bite of jalapeno with it, it was the perfect spice level for me. The fish was fresh and juicy, not at all dry, and the saffron rice paired well with the sauce.

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I loved my dish, but I will be completely honest: Steven won for best entree. I have had a lot of carnitas in my day, Nopalito had to be the best. He got the Carnitas entree which consisted of the braised pork, orange bay leaf, milk, cinnamon, beer Cabbage salad, pickled jalapeno and salsa de tomatillo. The carnitas were perfectly cooked and not oily, but so tender and juicy. We took some carnitas, cabbage, and the heavenly green sauce and put it all in a small tortilla. The combination was a party in my mouth.

The best part is that this restaurant is an offshoot of Nopa, an urban rustic restaurant that specializes in organic wood-fired cuisine, located north of the Panhandle. This place is always bustling and I was lucky enough to celebrate my 21st birthday there two years ago. Once we found out that owners Allyson and Laurence Jossel opened another restaurant, and that restaurant would be serving traditional Mexican fare, we were intrigued. I’m so glad we were finally able to go.
The food was delicious and the service was impeccable. The only complaint I have is that I was too full for dessert! If you are ever in the Inner Sunset or Lower Haight areas, I highly recommend popping in to either of their locations. You won’t regret it.