No, Nopalito and Nopa are not related restaurants. Nopalito is a Mexican restaurant with locations in San Francisco and Oakland, while Nopa is a Mediterranean and California cuisine restaurant located in San Francisco. The two restaurants have different owners and culinary styles despite their similar names.
Background on Nopalito
Nopalito was founded in 2009 by chef Gonzalo Guzman along with owners Laurence Jossel and John Paul Carman. Guzman, a native of Mexico City, wanted to create an authentic Mexican restaurant using ingredients sourced from local, sustainable farms. The name “Nopalito” means “little cactus” in Spanish, referring to the restaurant’s specialty in dishes incorporating nopal cactus paddles.
Nopalito started as a small take-out place focused on tacos and burritos located inside the sandwich shop The Sentinel in San Francisco’s Nopa neighborhood. It quickly gained popularity for its fresh, flavorful Mexican fare and expanded into a full-service restaurant with its first location on Broderick Street in the Inner Sunset. Nopalito has since opened two additional locations, one on 9th Avenue in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond and another in Downtown Oakland.
The cuisine at Nopalito focuses on traditional recipes and cooking techniques from various regions of Mexico. Some signature dishes include carnitas, cochinita pibil, fish tacos, and vegetarian options like squash blossom quesadillas. Nopalito makes its own fresh tortillas, salsas, and other staples from scratch using high-quality ingredients. The restaurant also offers creative cocktails featuring tequila and mezcal.
Background on Nopa
Nopa was founded in 2006 by chef-owners Laurence Jossel and Jeff Hanak. Located in San Francisco’s Nopa neighborhood (North of the Panhandle), the restaurant is an acronym using the neighborhood’s name. Jeff Hanak is the executive chef and oversees Nopa’s California-inspired menu.
Nopa has a seasonally changing menu focused on farm-to-table cuisine and wood-fired cooking. It sources sustainably raised meats, poultry, and seafood as well as organic produce from local farms and food purveyors. Nopa’s dishes incorporate various international flavors including Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and North African spices and cooking techniques.
Some popular menu items are the wood-oven roasted chicken, grilled flat iron steak, braised lamb shank, and vegetarian dishes like ricotta gnudi. Nopa is also known for its cocktail program overseen by bar manager Gilchrist Cooke. The restaurant has an extensive wine list with over 500 selections curated by wine director Cara Patricia.
Nopa’s warm, inviting space features an open kitchen, exposed wood beams, and tables made from reclaimed wood. The vibe is lively and energetic, popular for both dining and as a neighborhood bar. Since opening, Nopa has received numerous accolades including multiple James Beard Award nominations.
No Ownership or Management Connection
Despite the similar sounding names, Nopalito and Nopa have no direct connection in terms of ownership, management, or culinary style. As outlined above, they were founded independently by different owner-operators.
Nopalito was opened by Gonzalo Guzman, Laurence Jossel, and John Paul Carman over a decade after Nopa first opened its doors. The two restaurants simply ended up being neighbors in San Francisco’s Nopa neighborhood. Jossel is a partner in both restaurants, but she serves different roles for each.
At Nopalito, Jossel focuses more on the business operations side and provides guidance from her experience building Nopa into a successful restaurant. She allows chef Guzman to fully oversee Nopalito’s culinary program and highlight authentic Mexican flavors.
Meanwhile, Jossel works directly with executive chef Jeff Hanak at Nopa to shape the restaurant’s California cuisine approach using high quality, seasonal ingredients. While both restaurants care deeply about sourcing and preparation, Nopalito and Nopa have distinct food philosophies and styles.
Distinct Culinary Styles
As described earlier, Nopalito serves traditional Mexican fare in a casual setting with a focus on authentic recipes and ingredients. Dishes like ceviche, homemade mole sauces, and tamales pay homage to various regional food traditions across Mexico. Nopalito makes everything fresh in-house from scratch.
Nopa focuses on a contemporary, California-inspired menu that changes based on the seasons. It uses Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors while highlighting the best produce, meats, and seafood from local purveyors. The wood-fired oven and grill play a big role in Nopa’s cooking. The restaurant also has a major emphasis on its bar and cocktail program.
While both restaurants work closely with area farms and artisan food producers, Nopalito’s traditional Mexican dishes have a completely different flavor profile than Nopa’s California-style plates. Nopalito aims for authenticity to its Mexican roots, while Nopa takes a more adventurous global approach.
Different Restaurant Spaces and Vibes
In addition to distinct menus, Nopalito and Nopa have very different dining spaces that create unique vibes. Nopalito has a casual, laid-back setting with rustic Mexican details like colorful tiles and warm lighting. Diners sit at wooden tables and booths, often sharing family-style platters of food. There’s usually a wait for tables since Nopalito doesn’t accept reservations for small groups.
Nopa has a more polished and upscale ambiance. The large space features high ceilings, exposed wood beams, and an open kitchen. Tables are elegantly set with cloth napkins and flowers. The restaurant has a lively bar scene popular for craft cocktails and wines by the glass. Nopa accepts reservations, so the vibe is a bit calmer and less hectic than Nopalito.
The San Francisco locations are less than a 10-minute walk from each other in the Nopa neighborhood. But the different decors, services styles, and menus create distinct dining experiences. Nopalito feels like a fun, casual taco joint while Nopa offers a refined yet welcoming upscale bistro.
As the two restaurants grew in popularity, they took different approaches to expansion beyond their original locations.
Nopalito now has three locations focused within the Bay Area: the original Broderick Street outpost, a second Inner Richmond location, and its Oakland restaurant. All the locations have a consistent look, menu, and ambiance while highlighting local ingredients.
Nopa has stayed focused on its flagship location in San Francisco, which has expanded seating over the years to meet demand. They have not opened any additional Nopa restaurants, instead focusing on growing the business at their existing high-volume space through events, the bar program, and brand partnerships.
The owners have not shown an interest in duplicating Nopa’s success with more locations. Meanwhile, Nopalito has strategically added two more restaurants while staying true to its traditional Mexican roots.
Different Brand Identities
From a branding perspective, Nopalito and Nopa have each cultivated a distinct identity and guest experience built around their respective strengths.
Nopalito established itself as an authentic Mexican eatery where guests can taste traditional dishes just like in Mexico. The brand feels fun, casual, and welcoming with its homemade tortillas, salsas, and mix of classic and creative tacos. Nopalito stands out from other Mexican chains by highlighting regional flavors and custom recipes.
Nopa built its name through inventive California cuisine featuring seasonal ingredients. Its brand focuses on delivering an upscale yet unpretentious dining experience for special occasions or everyday meals. Nopa is also known for its bustling bar scene and handcrafted cocktails. The restaurant brings a touch of urban elegance and style.
Both brands succeed by staying true to their culinary visions and strengths. Nopalito celebrates traditional Mexican cooking while Nopa showcases contemporary California flair, creating two unique dining identities.
In summary, while Nopalito and Nopa sound similar and are neighbors in San Francisco’s Nopa neighborhood, they do not share any direct ownership or management connection. The restaurants have different founders, chefs, menus, styles, and brand identities that happened to converge in the same location. Nopalito serves authentic Mexican cuisine in a laid-back setting while Nopa focuses on seasonal California fare in an upscale-casual environment. Their unique histories, approaches, and identities clearly demonstrate that these two popular restaurants are completely independent operations.