San Francisco is having a love affair with upscale Mexican food. In the past few years, the always-crowded Nopalito opened a second location in the Sunset, Mexico City-inspired La Urbana opened on Divisadero, Cow Hollow's Mamacita expanded to Cole Valley with Padrecito, Sabrosa opened in the Marina, and crowd fave Lolo moved to sleek new digs in the Mission. All offer craft cocktails and pricey seasonal interpretations of taqueria standards, including their own fresh, handmade tortillas. I wondered: When it came to that most basic of ingredients, how did some of the fancy new places stack up with some of the Mission's most beloved taquerias? I grabbed some friends and went on a highly unscientific voyage of discovery to three budget and three upscale spots to see how price affected tortilla quality.
3248 18th St., 436-9387.
Atmosphere: This perennially popular Mexican stop recently moved from the SoMa/Mission border to sunny digs at the corner of 18th and Shotwell. Vibrant yellow walls and large photos of Mexican movie stars give the room an upbeat atmosphere, as did its mostly family crowd getting a brunch fix on chilaquiles, birria, and menudo (all of which are rumored to be excellent).
Texture/structural integrity: These tortillas were soft and pliant, not particularly thick. Which turned out to be a tragedy, because despite a double-tortilla proposition on each taco, they failed to contain the overloaded ingredients, and the tacos needed to be eaten with a knife and fork. Unforgivable.
Flavor: Corn was distinguishable, if not front-and-center, but the taco's tasty marinated steak filling took precedent — so much that I ended up eating the meat and pico de gallo and left the tortilla behind.
Overall rating: 1.5/5 masas
306 Broderick, 437-0303, nopalitosf.com (also at 1224 Ninth Ave., 233-9966).
Atmosphere: Little sister to the formidable Nopa, this restaurant hidden a block off Divisadero has the same upscale-casual vibe, and an impressive mezcal program to boot. There are as many families as there are dates and groups of friends, and overall, like its sister restaurant, it feels like a neighborhood spot despite its fame as a destination restaurant.
Texture/structural integrity: Flat, without much sponginess or life. But because of their sturdiness, they're a great match for carnitas ($16) — you can pile on as much meat, cabbage, and salsa verde as you want without worrying about breakage.
Flavor: Of all the tortillas I tried, Nopalito's tasted the most strongly of corn, with its toasty flavor coming through with every bite. It was a little too much.
Overall rating: 3/5 masas
901 S. Van Ness, 648-8383.
Atmosphere: Colorful flags on the ceiling, eclectic art on the walls — pottery, blankets, old photos, and the biggest panties you've ever seen in the women's bathroom — along with the best michelada in the city make this friendly family-run taqueria an always-welcome stop.
Texture/structural integrity: Thinner than many, crispier, and made without lard, the tortillas at San Jalisco are almost like tostadas. Despite their paper-thin diameter, they still held up to the greasy carnitas ($2.95) like a champ.
Flavor: These tortillas repped the masa flavor pretty well, but weren't anything spectacular — not that there's anything wrong with being average when the fillings are this good.
Overall rating: 3.5/5 masas
3200 Fillmore, 638-6500, sabrosasf.com.
Atmosphere: This newish Marina restaurant features lots of dark wood, brass light fixtures, tan banquettes, and an almost clubby atmosphere. How much you will like it will depend entirely on how much you like the Marina after dark. It also seemed to be a popular date spot; we were interrupted twice at the communal table by pairs hoping to nab the coveted, semi-private spot at the corner.
Texture/structural integrity: A little thick and a little greasy, Sabrosa's corn tortillas had a good amount of chew but weren't tough — they just added a bit of resistance to every bite.
Flavor: One espazote-laced tortilla in a quesadilla was a little too vegetal, especially considering the shredded Brussels sprout filling ($11). But the plain corn tortillas that came with the carnitas ($22) had just enough masa to add a subtle corn flavor without overwhelming the excellent fried pork.
Overall rating: 3.5/5 masas
974 Valencia, 643-5656, lolosf.com.
Atmosphere: Last week, this beloved Mexican restaurant reopened in a fun, pop-art-filled space on Valencia, replete with quirky decorations like oilcloth wallpaper, large-scale photos of beach scenes, a wall studded with cowboy boots, and a bar and backsplash covered with black-and-white lottery tickets from Mexico. An agave bar and ambitious cocktail program rounded out the expansion.
Texture/structural integrity: The only flour specimen I tried on this quest, the Lolo tortillas were almost — but not quite — as fluffy as La Palma's. They came with nice brown marks from the griddle, and held up well in the face of juicy fillings, never becoming too soggy.
Flavor: Flour tortillas are more a vehicle for the fillings than a flavor component in their own right, but these played their role well, acting as a soft foil to toppings like panko-crusted avocado and seared tuna ($10).
Overall rating: 4/5 masas
2884 24th St., 647-1500, lapalmasf.com.
Atmosphere: The bustling "Mexi-catessan" has been serving up handmade tortillas since 1953, and now supplies them wholesale to a few dozen restaurants and shops — including about 8 million a year to popular chain Tacolicious. Inside the cramped shop, tortillas, dried chiles, masa, and other groceries are for sale, and the counter does a brisk business in tacos, burritos, tamales, and the like. (You can take them home or enjoy them on the few tables outside.)
Texture/structural integrity: I'd never considered a tortilla "fluffy" until I encountered La Palma's delightfully light version. Even the machine-rolled tortillas the shop now sells have a lightness that most tortillas only dream of achieving, but the handmade ones, available in taco form for 60 cents more ($2.59/$3.19), are a revelation, with a griddled, buttery, crispy exterior and almost-custardy interior. The thickness held up to the meats well, so much so that two tacos leaning against each other stand up by themselves.
Flavor: The corn taste of the masa is subtle, but it's definitely present — it doesn't overpower the fillings, but works in tandem in them, making these tortilla a necessary part of the taco experience instead of merely acting as a girdle for the meat inside.
Overall rating: 5/5 masas