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Nopa offshoot Nopalito offers rustic Mexican fare 

Wednesday, May 13 2009
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Nopa, the large, bustling Mediterranean place that serves dinner until 1 a.m. and has a thriving bar business, has been a hit in its North of the Panhandle neighborhood since it opened in 2006. Two of its cooks, Jose Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman, often prepared the Mexican food they grew up on for the communal repasts for kitchen workers and servers. Nopa owners Allyson and Laurence Jossel were so impressed by the flavors of Ramos and Guzman's food that they looked around for a space to devote to rural Mexican cooking, and found one just a block and a half away.

The Jossels named the new place Nopalito, riffing on both Nopa and the nopal cactus. The setting is a bit eccentric. It's part of Falletti Plaza, the upscale grocers' complex between Fell and Oak that also houses a branch of DeLessio's takeout and bakery. You enter from the parking lot (which is not validated for Nopalito customers unless you're picking up takeout), into a tented, heated patio that contains more than half the seating for the place. Beyond the patio is a chic glassed-in room that houses a big open kitchen and some slender wooden tables, most of them quite close together.

I've eaten in both rooms. I'm not fond of heat lamps (which always seem to be cooking you alongside your food), and the main room can be noisy and not very comfortable. But most of the food I've eaten at Nopalito is so satisfying that I'll gladly sit anywhere to savor it — and endure a wait; the place doesn't take reservations, though you can call ahead during busy hours to put your name on a waitlist.

As you check out the one-page menu, which has a list of antojitos (masa-based appetizers) and salads on the left, and main courses on the right, you can nibble from a free bowl of salty fried chickpeas.

Nopalito grinds its own masa out of dried organic yellow corn, patting out big, thick, lumpy tortillas with a true corny taste, or molding it into tamales. The antojitos we tried were consistently good. The quesadilla roja con chicharron ($9) is a big corn tortilla filled with shredded pork belly, jack cheese, mildly hot guajillo chile salsa, onions, and cilantro, the whole crisped on the grill. The quesadilla azul de hongos y huitlacoche ($8), a blue corn tortilla, contained the prized huitlacoche, a mushroomy fungus that grows on corn, known on the farm as corn smut, but here glamorized as corn truffles. The mildly funky huitlacoche was obscured, however, by the other ingredients: sautéed mushrooms, jack cheese, crumbled house-made queso fresco, the pungent Mexican herb epazote, and spicy salsa. You can choose an accompanying beverage from a brief list: three wines, about a dozen beers, or housemade nonalcoholic drinks. We preferred the almond horchata to the intriguing-sounding but watery citrus blends (all $3.25).

Nopalito's fish taco, the taco de pescado al pastor ($8) was delightful, stuffed with seared sturgeon — a good oily white fish we've never seen in a taco before — rubbed with a smoky adobo paste and adorned with a fresh tomatillo salsa brightened with oranges. The tamal enchilada de queso y puerco ($4) was made with a special ancho chile masa, stuffed with stewed pork shreds, drenched in rich dark sauce, showered with queso fresco, and served with a dab of crema. We gazed with envy at the antojitos that arrived at neighboring tables: a gordita de picadillo topped with grass-fed beef and refried beans ($4.50), and a tostada de tinga ($4), a fried tortilla topped with shredded chicken.

You could make a full meal here from a couple of antojitos, and on the whole I found them more satisfying than the hit-or-miss main courses. The pozole rojo ($11), described as a stew but much more like a soup in Nopalito's version, hides bits of pork shoulder, hominy, mulato chile, radishes, cabbage, and onion in a tomatoey broth we found a bit anemic, even when dressed up with the garnishes presented on their own plate: dried Mexican oregano, ground chile pepper, diced red onion, lime wedges, and tortilla chips. The mole poblano ($13), a dark, complex, long-cooked multi-ingredient sauce containing bitter chocolate, pulverized nuts, cinnamon, chiles, and tomatillos, totally obscured the flavor of the poached chicken it was served on, and tasted too strong and almost burnt.

Much better was the birria de chivo ($13), tasty chunks of goat stewed in a less-complex but easier to appreciate sauce of roasted tomatoes, dried chiles, and chocolate, served with steamed tortillas, a tiny bowl of pinquito beans, and a sharp arbol chile salsa. We also liked the chewy carne asada ($14), a cut of grass-fed skirt steak. The server showed us how to slice it against the grain for maximum tenderness; it was served with mashed black beans, grilled spring onions, queso fresco, and a pasilla chile salsa. All the numerous salsas are made fresh daily from organic produce, sourced locally when possible.

But the best dish was the carnitas ($14), a singularly succulent chunk of pork braised in beer seasoned with orange juice, bay leaves, and cinnamon and served in a little parchment bag, sided with a crunchy cabbage and shredded carrot salad, slices of house-pickled carrot and jalapeño, and steaming corn tortillas. I love carnitas — it's my go-to dish, whether served as soft shreds or in crunchy fried dice — but this was a splendid feast of pig I wanted to drag everybody I knew to Nopalito to savor.

Nopalito doesn't waste much energy on its dessert list, which both times we dined consisted of three different house-made paletas (popsicles) — lime, strawberry, and (much the best) chocolate-cinnamon. At the first meal, we were given them free because of a back-up in the kitchen that resulted in an hour-long wait for our main courses. After our second dinner, we settled for the tiny crumbly cookies, one each, that you're given free after every meal. The memory of the carnitas was sweet enough.

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Meredith Brody

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