Dining in SF: Nopalito

While in San Francisco, I met up with fellow Xangan Jason to try Nopalito, a Mexican restaurant that made it into the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants listing earlier this year. The genesis of Nopalito reportedly came from the staff meals prepared by chefs Jose Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman at owner Laurence Jossel’s nearby California-Medierranean restaurant, Nopa. The conceit is that in a city chock-full of taquerias and inexpensive burrito shops, Nopalito delivers Mexican food with an unusually high level of attention to detail and quality.


Located in the Western Addition, close to the Golden Gate Park panhandle, Nopalito buzzed on the weekday evening when Jason and I visited. While the restaurant was busy, we were able to score two seats at the counter overlooking the kitchen with no wait.


The restaurant’s interior has an unfussy, minimalist decoration that is warm and inviting. Tables are close together but the volume doesn’t reach unbearable levels. The staff, including the cooks, are friendly and engaging.


Within moments of being seated, our server had placed a dish of spicy fried corn in front of us, given us menus, and brought water. The menu follows the “small plates” style that has become de rigueur in the San Francisco dining scene, with selections that were inexpensive (about $4.50 to $16) and easy to share. We glanced at surrounding tables and across the kitchen to identify dishes that looked interesting and quickly settled on five.


For refreshment, we ordered a bottle of the house-made sangria. With white wine, Chartreuse, lime, orange liqueur, and thyme, this aromatic sangria was a refreshing departure from the usual red wine version to which I’m accustomed.


Our first dish was ceviche verde de pescado y calamare – fresh fish and squid marinated in a sauce of lime, tomatillo, jalapeno, and cilantro, served with avocado and freshly fried tortilla chips. Ceviche, which relies on the acid of the dressing to cook the seafood, is a favorite of mine and every element of this version was super-fresh. My only complaint was that the verde sauce was so thick that it overwhelmed – masked, even – the flavor of the seafood. There was no denying the quality of the ingredients, though. They were exceptional.


The next dish was tamal de amarillo con calabaza – a tamale of home-ground masa with butternut squash, pasilla chilies, and Oaxacan cheese, with a mole made with dried chilies, tomatillos, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and spices. This was a standout dish with intricate flavors and none of the greasiness I often associate with tamales.


We were seated right next to the counter where dishes were expedited, so continued to be tempted by all the things we hadn’t ordered. The cook on the left chatted with us several times, answering my questions about the various ingredients. You could sense that everyone working at Nopalito takes pride in the food they serve.


The empanada con deshebrada de res – fried masa pastry with grass-fed beef, tomato, jalapeno, cabbage, avocado, queso fresco, and salsa frita de guajillo. Empanadas, fried meat-filled pastries, can be a pleasant, if sometimes heavy, treat. This version avoided all oiliness and was light and flaky. The filling was tender but the seasoning was underwhelming. There was no doubt it was expertly prepared, but the technique didn’t compensate for the bland flavor.


The next dish visually exceeded my expectations, so much so that when it arrived, I thought we had mistakenly received someone else’s order. The quesadilla roja con chicharron, a crispy pork belly quesadilla, featured a mulato chile-corn tortilla, and salsa made from the cascabel chilies, which have a nutty flavor. Being a fan of pork belly, I was eagerly anticipating this dish. The tortilla had an enticing crunch but the pork and salsa were again underwhelming. Like the empanada, I was left wondering who had turned down the volume on the use of seasonings.


Our final dish was an impulsive order based on what we saw coming out of the kitchen. The carnitas, pork braised in orange, bay leaf, milk, cinnamon, and beer, are served in a brown paper wrapper with a side of cabbage salad and tomatillo salsa. The pork had loads of flavor, but was a bit stringy and tough to chew, almost as if it needed to be cooked a while longer. The accompanying tortillas, which we watched being made not five meters away, were so good I wanted to swear off the store-bought version forever more. 


With the bill (and the box of leftover carnitas for Jason to take home) we received a pair of Mexican cookies, a sweet way to end the meal. Looking back at everything we ate, it is abundantly clear that chefs Ramos and Guzman bring a level of sophistication and mastery to Mexican cooking that I’ve never seen before in the Bay Area. Quality and attention to detail are apparent in each dish.

When it comes to the question of flavor, though, some dishes were more successful and others were less so. That said, I look forward to making a return visit to Nopalito to experience more of their cooking and their staff’s hospitality, and to see whether the depth of flavor is perhaps hiding elsewhere on the menu. 


Cooking Mexican Food in Bangkok

A few months ago, a group of our friends gathered to cook dinner. Being mostly from the United States (or having lived there), we were missing Mexican food, something that is difficult to find in Bangkok – at least if you want decent quality Mexican food and not something akin to Taco Bell. Thought I would share some pictures with you.


The final spread, a mishmash of sauces, condiments, and dishes, all of which were very tasty.


Home made black beans and rice with a soffrito – onion and pepper mixture.


Put them all together and we wind up with a wonderful soft taco and side of black beans and rice.


I also served homemade horchata, the traditional Mexican rice milk beverage. I followed a recipe on the internet which is based on one from the book “Paletas” by Fany Gerson. Can’t say if it is the authentic process, but the end result tasted familiar.

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From left to right, blend the uncooked rice. The result is a rough, sandy powder. Put the powdered rice and cinnamon stick in a container and add warm water, letting it soak overnight. The next day you remove the cinnamon stick, puree the rice and water mixture, strain it to remove any solids, and then add sugar and rice milk (or cow milk) and mix until dissolved. Of course, adding rice milk at the end seems a bit redundant but as I said, the flavor turned out as I remembered from the taquerias of San Francisco.


Candice shows us a baby lychee, the runt of a large batch of lychees we ate our way through.


For dessert, I served mangoes on home made cornmeal pound cake. I brought my panini grill along and was going to grill the pieces. Unfortunately, I forgot that the waffle plates were in the grill instead of the panini plates. Undaunted, I used the waffle plates instead, which produced this interesting toasting pattern.


End result of the dessert: curiously toasted cornmeal pound cake with mangoes and fresh whipped cream spiked with a touch of almond liqueur and a sprinkle of cinnamon.


Cooking: Easy Taco Salad

A picture posted by my cousin Jane was all it took to inspire me to try making taco salad at home.  But something I didn’t want to deal with was deep frying tortillas to make the taco bowls.  Not only does deep frying add a lot of fat (and, thus, heaviness) to the meal, but it is also more work than I want to deal with.  The key was finding an easier, lower fat way to make the taco bowls.

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After some searching on the internet, I found two techniques for baking taco bowls that sounded promising.  The first involved spraying a tortilla with cooking spray (Pam, Crisco, or another brand).  The second technique involved pouring a tablespoon or so of oil on top of about an inch of water in a large container such as a roasting tray and then dipping the tortillas into the water.  Regardless of which method you used, you then shaped the tortilla between two oven proof bowls and baked for about five minutes in a 400 F oven.  Ofter that, you remove from the bowls and bake the bowls another five minutes until crisp.

Both techniques work well, although if you are going to spray the tortilla you need to be careful about overdoing it.  It also works better if your tortillas are at room temperature or even zapped in the microwave for a few seconds before trying to shape them, otherwise they may crack or tear.  The flavor of the baked bowls was very enjoyable, albeit less oily than with the fried bowls.

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As for ingredients, you could use whatever suits your budget, sense of taste, and amount of prep time.  I used chopped romaine lettuce for a base, although mixing in some spinach or other greens would have been a nice alternative.

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To the lettuce I added chicken and beans.  The chicken had been marinated in a coconut chili sauce that I had handy, although simply sprinkling the chicken with some salt, pepper, and cumin and pan frying would have been fine, too.  For the beans, I drained a can of kidney beans (no black beans were available at the store), then cooked them for just a few minutes with some chopped onion and chopped red bell pepper. 

On top of the protein, I aded freshly boiled corn, chopped tomatoes, and some more red bell pepper.  For a dressing, I used homemade tomato salsa, although if it were the right season, some homemade mango salsa would have been spectacular.


Garnished with some shredded pepper jack cheese and sliced green onions, these taco salads made for a healthy and tasty treat.  Many thanks to Jane for inspiring me.



Cooking with Friends

The past few weeks we’ve had the opportunity to cook at other people’s houses, which is always a fun change of pace.  I find cooking outside my own kitchen to sometimes be a challenge – What do you mean you don’t have a potato ricer!? – but also fun because many friends have kitchens larger and more geared to socializing than mine.


Over Songkran we went to Ko and Per’s house.  Ko was Tawn’s university classmate and her husband, Per, is from Sweden and moved here late last year.  We decided it would be fun to try and make Swedish meatballs although we didn’t have a specific recipe and I’m not sure any of us knew what we were doing. 


Nonetheless, we intuited our way through it, and wound up with something that despite looking kind of gloppy, tasted good and seemed close to the real deal.  At least that’s what Per said.  Maybe he was just being polite.


Ko takes pictures of the meal: Swedish meatballs, roast potatoes, mixed green salad, and I think we made spaghetti with meat sauce, too.  It was tasty and, more importantly, the company was wonderful.


Tawn and me after a dinner of Swedish meatballs.  Compare that to our picture on the beach after the rough 30-minute ride on an unpaved road on Kauai!


The following week I went to cook at another friend’s house.  Chow, who is the author of the must-buy and use guide Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, invited friends over to cook Mexican food in honor (kind of) of the upcoming Cinco de Mayo holiday.  Never mind that we were a bit early.  Unfortunately, Tawn was not able to make it.  That didn’t stop us from having fun, though, and making too much good food.


Enchiladas stuffed with avocado and smothered in red sauce and cheese sauce.  Tasty!


Chicken enchiladas baked in a homemade mole poblano sauce.  Pronounced “mo-lay”, this sauce has cocoa powder in it, lending an unexpected flavor to its spiciness.


For my contribution, I resurrected a recipe for fish tacos from Michael’s blog, using his avocado cilantro lime sauce.  This sauce just goes perfectly on fish tacos!


And finally, a random picture not related to cooking with friends.  We had a visit from Ty, someone who was a very active member of the Xanga community under the username Just2Tyght when I first started almost six years ago.  We met in person several years back in SF and while Ty has gone AWOL from Xanga, we’ve stayed in touch through other channels.  Glad we had the opportunity to meet here in Bangkok.

Coming up soon… caramel rice flan.


Dining in Houston – Chapultepec Lupita

My week in Houston was spent on the industrial northern edge of the city, in an area called Greenspoint but often called “Gunspoint” for its reputation for violence.  Meals were of the highway frontage road variety, chain restaurants of the family style that for the most part don’t distinguish themselves.  Friday afternoon on the way to Hobby Airport, I had the opportunity to try something more memorable: Chapultepec Lupita.


Located in a run-down looking, funky former house in Houston’s Fourth Ward, Chapultepec Lupita – “Where the beautiful people meet” according to the menu – is as local as tex-mex is going to get.  A friendly staff provided attentive service, although since the place was nearly deserted in the middle of the afternoon, we weren’t competing for attention.


Homemade chips and a fiery salsa were an inviting start.


Skipping the fajitas – although they are recommended by a lot of review sites – I went for stewed beef, the proper name of which I forgot.  The meat was very tender and flavorful, which a rich, spice-infused broth.  The accompanying tortillas were fresh and hot.  The rice, unfortunately, was bland and not noteworthy.


Dishes came with a choice of beans three ways: refried, pinto, or black.  I opted for the black beans, which very very tasty.  A dollop of sour cream and some chopped peppers and this could have been a soup on its own.


The chicken enchiladas with salsa verde were also very tasty.

In the past few years, Bangkok has seen the opening of several “authentic” (so they claim) mexican restaurants, all of which have been a disappointment.  There is just something that they don’t seem to be able to recreate in the flavor of the sauces, the tortillas, and the beans.  The first person who does will have my eternal gratitude.

Until then, there remains one more good reason to return to the United States.


Fish Tacos with Avocado-Cilantro Lime Cream Sauce

First, off, this isn’t my recipe.  It came from Michael, known variously as Arenadi on Xanga and chow on IReallyLikeFood.com.  He’s been AWOL for the last several months, wrapped up working on a congressional campaign in Hawai’i.  He took the time a week or two back to post this recipe on his Facebook account and it sounded so good I figured I should do my part to share it with Xangaland.

As is often the case, I managed to vary the recipe a bit.  It still turned out quite nicely.

Fish Tacos with Avocado-Cilantro Lime Cream Sauce

You’ll need:

Yellow Corn Tortillas (the 4-5 inch kind)
Red Cabbage
Red Onion
Tabasco Sauce
Cream or Half-and-Half
Fish (firm white fish – snapper or cod are good)
Panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)

Prep work:

First thing you want to do is get your mise en place set up for dressing the tacos. This means chopping the red cabbage and mincing the red onion.  Chop your cilantro roughly.  Slice your avocado about 1/4″ thick and remove the skin.

Put a handful of cilantro, a clove of garlic, about 1/4 of the avocado, a liberal dousing of Tabasco sauce, the juice of 1/4 of a Lime, a small scoop of mayonnaise, and about 2 Tbsp of cream into a blender/ food processor, and combine until you have a nice creamy sauce.  Add more or less cream depending on how “loose” you want the sauce.  Not being one to follow instructions carefully, I put the entire avocado into the sauce, making it very avocado-y and leaving none left for the taco itself.  That’s okay, though.

Optionally, make some salsa. 

This wasn’t in Michael’s recipe, but it is easy to make.  Chop some tomatoes, onion, chili peppers (to taste), and green pepper and pulse a few times in a blender or food processor.  Add some cilantro and a few more chopped tomatoes and then season to taste.  A squirt of lime juice is nice.  Some salt will work, too.

Make the taco shells:

Note – if you like your tacos soft shell (the way I do) you can skip this step, opting instead just to warm up the tortillas in the microwave or in a skillet.

Heat your oil in a skillet at about 1 to 2 inches depth to about 320 F.  Using tongs or chopsticks, hold half of the tortilla into the oil and let it cook for about 30 seconds.  Release it, pick up the other side (that was in the oil), and hold the side that wasn’t in the oil down into the oil to cook.  Repeat until the desired crispness is achieved.

Cook the fish:

Heat the oil (1 to 2 inches) in a skillet to about 340 F.  Cut your fish into strips.  Roll in some flour and then shake to remove excess.  Then dip the fish into a beaten egg, and then roll it in the panko bread crumbs.  Fry fish strips in the skillet for about 3 minutes and then turn over for another 2 minutes.  Note that the timing will depend upon the thickness of the fish and could be much shorter.  It is a good idea to try one piece first, remove it once browned and cut it open and see if it is cooked through.  Increase or lower the heat as necessary to ensure that the fish isn’t browning on the outside before the inside is cooked the way you like it.

To assemble:

Place red cabbage (you’ll notice I used green, which tastes fine) and red onion on the tortillas. Lay avocado slices on top of that.  (Whoops – none left thanks to my mistake with the sauce!)  Lay the fish on top of that.  Put a nice dollop of avocado-cilantro sauce on the fish.  Add some salsa (optional), a squeeze of lime, a splash of Tabasco sauce, and you are ready to serve.

Serve with some black beans on the side.  I made some homemade beans with some sofrito to flavor them – a combination of onions, red bell peppers, and various spices.  Easy and very healthy.

The finished product.  Very tasty.  Extremely tasty.  That avocado sauce is amazing.  Deep-frying the fish was an extra step that might be more work than I’d always want to put into it, but I think I could have just pan fried the fish and it would have turned out equally nice. 

Thanks to Michael for sharing this recipe with me and I hope he puts it on his Xanga site soon enough.