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Papalote is a cheap, no-table-service Mexican restaurant in the Mission that breaks the taqueria stereotype. There's no fug of carnitas grease in the air -- you leave smelling as pristine as when you entered -- no shouted orders, and no obscure stickum on the floor. The meats and vegetables are grilled before your eyes, the salsa is distinctive and top-notch, and the décor is decidedly different. Kites hang from the ceiling (papalote is Spanish for "kite"), the wooden floor is bright blue, and original art hangs on the red walls -- though none of it can rival, for sheer kitsch value, the painting of a vertical rotisserie meat broiler that graces El Farolito's rear wall.
3409 24th St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
But you can definitely get a burrito at Papalote. The basic arroz y frijoles number is $3.50, and quite delicious, with a choice of pinto, black, or refried beans. It, and every dish, comes with the excellent thin and smoky house salsa and nice fresh tortilla chips. But the $4 and $5 burritos are well worth splurging on. The carne asada ($4.25) features tangy, tender steak, tasting strongly of the grill, while the chile verde ($4) consists of terrific soft pieces of spicy and vinegary pork. Also available are two vegetable burritos: one with melty, flavorful grilled zucchini and eggplant ($4), the other somewhat blander, with potatoes and obstreperously crunchy carrots ($3.75). A prawn burrito ($6.50) is also sometimes available, and of course similar fillings grace excellent interpretations of the classic taco and quesadilla. You can get an order of two tacos or quesadillas for about a dollar less than an equivalent burrito.
Entree platters are also available, at $6.50 each; the best of these is the pechuga al achiote, a marinated and grilled chicken breast. The marinade includes annatto, which gives the meat a thrilling orange color, and the flavor of the chicken is vaguely peppery and citric. The rice and beans on the plate are tasty but don't have quite enough flavor of their own to stand up to the flavorful chicken, and, tragically, when the three are combined in a tortilla wrapping the chicken can be lost. Fortunately, in this roll-your-own format, each diner can adjust the ingredients' proportions to suit his or her palate. Carne asada and chile verde pork options, as described above, are also available: These more robust, baritone meats are not as easily overwhelmed by the rice and beans. For vegetarians, an assortment of succulent grilled vegetables can form the centerpiece of a platter. Again, the carrots are a little undercooked for easy eating, but the flavor is terrific. Entree plates are graced with a simple but ripe chunky guacamole, dollops of sour cream, for adding a healthy dose of fat, and mild, refreshing salad containing jicama, cucumber, and melon. There are also a few breakfast offerings on the menu: eggs with chorizo, beef, or tomato, on a plate ($4.50) or in a burrito ($3.50), and chilaquiles ($5.50).
Papalote isn't a substitute for the classic taqueria, which will always have its role and its devotees, but it's a nice alternative. It's more peaceful, more airy, the food tastes fresher and healthier, and the staff seems a bit more personable and attentive -- and it still offers bargain pricing and a familiar Mexican modality. It's a good idea, and a great addition to the Mission scene.
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