San Francisco is known for its diverse and vibrant food scene. As a major metropolitan area on the West Coast with a large Latino population, San Francisco has no shortage of Mexican restaurants. But does the city actually have good Mexican food? Here’s a deep dive into San Francisco’s Mexican food offerings.
The Quest for Authentic Mexican Food
Many Mexican food lovers searching for authentic flavors will argue that places like San Francisco simply can’t compete with cities closer to Mexico. It’s certainly true that locations like San Diego and Tucson, with their proximity to Mexico, are able to offer Mexican food that’s a closer representation of the “real thing.”
However, just because San Francisco is farther away doesn’t mean it’s devoid of good Mexican food. The key is knowing where to look – and understanding that many restaurants adapt their cuisine to local tastes. SF has plenty of Tex-Mex spots serving up cheese-laden nachos and burritos, but you can also find kitchens dedicated to regional Mexican cooking if you know where to go.
The Rise of Mexican Food in San Francisco
Mexican cuisine has had a presence in San Francisco ever since California became part of the United States back in 1848. Neighborhoods like Mission District have long been Mexican-American enclaves, where taquerias and carnicerías (butcher shops) have been community staples for generations.
In the past couple decades, the Mexican food scene has expanded across the Bay Area. High-end restaurants like Cala, Máximo Bistrot Mexicano, and Brenda’s French Soul Food are putting unique spins on Mexican flavors and ingredients. There are also dedicated spots for specialties like tacos (Tacolicious), tortas (La Torta Gorda), and breakfast (Breakfast Buffet).
The Best Mexican Restaurants in San Francisco
Here are some of the top places in San Francisco to find excellent Mexican food:
Widely regarded as having the best burritos in San Francisco, La Taqueria is a longtime favorite located in the Mission. Their massive burritos are packed with authentic meats, beans, rice, and all the fixings. Tacos and quesadillas are equally delicious.
Also in the Mission, El Farolito is a popular late-night spot, with locations on Mission Street and 24th Street. Their massive super quesadilla packed with meat and melted cheese is perfect after a night out.
Run by sisters Karla and Stephany, Tlaloc SF serves creative Poblano-influenced cuisine. Unique dishes like Poblano chicken torta and roasted chicken in adobo are standouts. The horchata is also considered some of the city’s best.
For Mexican seafood, Lolo Cevicheria in the Mission has ceviches, aguachiles, and tostadas served in a colorful, laid-back environment. Try the shrimp aguachile and sample from their large mezcal selection.
With locations in Inner Sunset and Nopa, Nopalito has some of the city’s most inventive and delicious Mexican food. Their house-made masa is the base for scrumptious dishes like soupy tamales and fresh tortillas.
This tiny Mission spot with just a few counter seats focuses on delicious tacos, quesadillas, and nachos loaded with authentic meats and toppings. Favorites include the al pastor and lengua tacos.
Papalote Mexican Grill
With several SF locations, Papalote serves Mission-style burritos and tacos packed with flavor. Their carne asada burrito is loaded with perfectly seasoned meat.
Regional Mexican Food Varieties
One great way to experience authentic Mexican cooking is to try some of the regional specialties available around San Francisco:
From the southern state of Oaxaca, signature Oaxacan dishes include tlayudas (large crisp tortillas), moles (complex sauces), and chapulines (crispy grasshoppers). Try the flavors at Comal or Casa Sanchez.
Cuisine from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula features fresh seafood, chicken cooked in acidic marinades, and complex salsas. Head to MXG in Bernal Heights for standout cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork).
The western state of Jalisco is known for dishes like birria, tortas ahogadas (dipped sandwiches), potato tacos, and goat stew. Sample Jaliscan specialties at Birria Bar or Tacos El Patron.
Originating in the city of Puebla, Poblano cooking incorporates seasonal ingredients into moles, chiles en nogada (stuffed peppers), and rich stews. Tlaloc SF serves creative takes on Poblano cuisine.
San Francisco’s Best Mexican Restaurants by Area
Here’s a breakdown of top neighborhoods for Mexican food in San Francisco:
The Mission is the epicenter of Mexican food in SF, with restaurants like La Taqueria, El Farolito, Papalote, and La Palma Mexicatessen representing the heart of the scene.
Often overlooked, the Bayview has excellent home-style Mexican food spots like El Pipila, Old Skool Cafe, and Nieves’ Cinco de Mayo Restaurant.
For outstanding tacos and cocktails, check out Mauerpark and Poesia in the Castro neighborhood. Their modern atmosphere and globally-inspired Mexican menus attract hip crowds.
The Outer Sunset’s strong Mexican presence includes family-owned joints like Elena’s Mexican Restaurant, Sunset Restaurant, and Arizmendi Bakery with its Mexican-inspired pastries.
Fidi & North Beach
Downtown and North Beach may not be Mexican hubs, but spots like Trestle and Nopalito offer upscale takes on Mexican fare with luxe ingredients and creative cocktails.
San Francisco’s Influence on Mexican Cuisine
While San Francisco has been shaped by Mexican flavors brought by immigrants, the city has also influenced the evolution of Mexican food north of the border:
- Burritos, tacos, and Mission-style food have taken on local adaptations and become Mexican-American staples.
- SF restaurants like Máximo Bistrot Mexicano and Cala push boundaries with modern takes on tradition.
- High-end eateries integrate Mexican ingredients into California cuisine using local, sustainable ingredients.
- Food trucks like Tacorgasmic, El Sur Taco Bar, and Aztecas adjust Mexican street food for Bay Area palates.
So while San Francisco has not completely replicated authentic Mexican cooking, it has made the cuisine its own in many ways.
Produce, Spices, and Ingredients
To create the complex flavors of Mexican food, you need quality ingredients. Here’s a look at where restaurants source key components:
Ingredients like chilies, avocados, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and limes come from both Mexico and California’s Central Valley farms. Local, organic produce is used at higher-end eateries.
Grass-fed beef and pastured pork are prized by top SF Mexican spots. They use high-quality proteins to make fillings for tacos, salsas, soups, and other dishes.
Dried chilies, cocoa, Mexican oregano, cumin, and canela (cinnamon) provide distinctive flavors. Spices come from Mexico or specialty importers.
Authentic queso fresco and cotija cheese is key for ingredients like tacos and empanadas. Restaurants source from local cheesemakers or import from Mexico.
Masa, or corn masa dough, is essential for tamales, tortillas, sopes, gorditas, and more. Masa is produced from soaked, cooked, and ground corn. Quality masa makes a big difference.
Varieties like pinto, black, kidney, and navy beans are cooked to perfection in soups, tacos, burritos, and other specialties. Both canned and dried beans are used.
Dining Experiences Across San Francisco
You’ll find a wide range of Mexican dining experiences throughout the city of San Francisco:
For quick, casual Mexican food, San Francisco has plenty of no-frills taco shops and taquerias. These spots focus on big portions and low prices over ambiance.
Some eateries like Cala, Mosto, and Nopalito offer elevated, modern Mexican dining focused on scratch cooking and luxe details. Expect creative cocktails and refined decor.
Street Food Style
Food trucks around SF serve Mexican-inspired eats like classic tacos, quesadillas, and mulitas. Look for trucks parked around the city dishing out fast, flavorful bites.
Many neighborhood gems like Papalote, El Pipila, and Panchita’s #2 are family-owned spots cooking traditional recipes passed down through generations.
Try breakfast classics like huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, and breakfast burritos at spots like Manna, Panchita’s #2, and Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack.
Lunch & Happy Hour
Restaurants like Nopa, Mosto, and Trestle offer lunch and happy hour deals on tacos, burritos, margaritas, and other Mexican favorites.
Pairing Drinks With Mexican Food
When dining on bold, complex Mexican cuisine, it’s important to have drinks that complement the flavors. Here are top choices:
A classic margarita with lime, orange liqueur, and tequila balances the spices. Upscale spots create craft margaritas with fresh ingredients.
Cool, crisp Mexican lagers like Corona, Pacifico, Tecate, and Modelo pair perfectly with spicy dishes and washed down greasy tacos.
Made with real cane sugar instead of corn syrup, Mexican Coca-Cola has a bolder flavor that stands up to big flavors.
Sweet, creamy horchata made from rice milk provides a cooling contrast to spice. It’s especially refreshing with tacos.
For a savory, spicy drink, micheladas made with Mexican beer, lime, spices, and chili sauce complement a wide range of foods.
Sipping smoky mezcal or smooth tequila is a perfect match with Mexican ingredients. Many restaurants carry specialty artisanal brands.
Although not as common, Mexican wines like those from Baja, Parras Valley, and Guadalupe Valley work with a range of moles and meats.
Made with natural flavors and cane sugar, sodas like Jarritos (in flavors like tamarind) provide a refreshing acidic complement.
While Mexico is known mostly for its savory dishes, there are some sweet items that provide the perfect ending:
These fried dough pastries coated in cinnamon and sugar paired with chocolate dipping sauce are a delicious classic.
Custardy flan made with sweetened condensed milk and eggs is served creamy and smooth.
Tres Leches Cake
Sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk – sweetened condensed, evaporated, and heavy cream.
Arroz con Leche
Rice pudding made with rice, milk, cinnamon, and sugar with sliced fruit.
authentic Mexican ice cream comes in an array of fresh fruit flavors like mango, guava, lime, coconut, and more.
These fried fritters coated in cinnamon and sugar make an indulgent dessert, especially when served with ice cream.
Bringing a Taste of Mexico to San Francisco
While SF Mexican may adapt traditions to local culture, the city offers opportunities to experience authentic cuisine if you know where to go. Taquerias in the Mission provide classic tastes alongside upstarts doing creative takes on regional fare with quality ingredients. Traditions are passed down at longtime family spots, while trucks infuse classics with new personality. Modern eateries incorporate Mexican staples into California cuisine with respect for their roots. And within its diversity, San Francisco embraces Mexican food not as a trend, but an integral part of both history and the future.