It's impossible not to smile along with a menu that says, “You probably know what a taco is? If not, ask!” Earnestness on that scale is a winning move, and El Buen Comer, a 2-month-old, family-run Mexican restaurant in Bernal Heights, is the right place for it. Run by Isabel Caudillo and staffed by four of her five children, El Buen Comer — “good food” or “good eating,” en español — focuses on guisados, the slow-cooked stews typically found in Caudillo's native Mexico City. An alumna of La Cocina, the nonprofit that assists immigrant women in starting their own food businesses, Caudillo has won a significant following over the years, particularly at the Noe Valley Farmers Market.
La Cocina is an enterprise that gives you hope for San Francisco's future as a city where culinary and economic diversity might yet thrive hand-in-hand, and after one meal at El Buen Comer, you will certainly wish Caudillo your best. I spent a week in Mexico City last year, and this was exactly the stratum of food I didn't have. I mostly stuck to street tacos, breakfast chilaquiles, and unfamiliar produce items purchased at one of the bazaars spilling out of the metro stations, saving room to splurge twice at the high end. A sort of motherly touch was just what I missed, and I don't recall eating homemade tortillas this good, ever. They're extra durable, since the guisados are so thick and heavy with chunks of meat, and made with organic masa besides.
Of all the tacos, sopes, and tostadas (one for $3, three for $8, and six for $15) the chicken tinga sopes were the closest to flawless. (I'm a salsa verde partisan, but the milder rojo is no slouch, either.) Moist and flavorful, they offer a perfect textural contrast between shell and filling, but I'd be crazy not to recommend the ensalada de nopal, a cilantro- and onion-heavy cactus salad that lacked any trace of the sliminess that occasionally clings to nopales. And if you don't get it on a taco or tostada, it'll likely appear elsewhere.
Contornos — or sides — keep things simple; apart from the tortillas, the only choices are rice and “perfect beans.” They were black beans on each visit, and worth it both times. Apps are just as good: Simultaneously hot and cooling, the citrusy jicama ($4) will snap your palate to attention, and even a small guacamole — with cubed cotija and tortillas transmogrified into chips, of course — is enough to keep three people content.
A lunch of two tacos doritos de pollo ($12) with a guava agua fresca ($3.50) is more than sufficient, but their wet crunch is exceeded by the chilaquiles, a lime-y pile of chips and cheese with two lightly fried eggs on top. This is pure speculation, but I can imagine Caudillo preparing it every day for her hungry sons. On my third trip, another dinner, I went with the eponymous option, a $40 dream of homemade cooking in which you essentially eat a greatest-hits version of whatever Caudillo's got that night. My trust was not misplaced: Even though milanesa de res is almost never my favorite dish, the flavor of this one was unimpeachable, a breaded steak superior to any wienerschnitzel I've ever had. (It was off-menu altogether, too, which is always a thrill.) And the quartet of stews and contornos that round out El Buen Comer, especially the luscious mole that evaded bitter-cacao territory and went for spices instead.
Like the food menu, the wine list is fairly brief. At $8, a glass of Malbec — with a hefty pour again and again — feels like a combination workhorse and show pony, pairing nicely with just about every flavor on the table. For dessert, I'd suggest the flan, which is more creamy than milky, over the churros, because the chocolate sauce is drizzled on the plate rather than poured in a bowl for dipping, making it hard to sop up.
The main issue is service, which I ordinarily try not to get too hung up on lest I sound like a venting Yelper. But it's on the poorer side. The first time I went, the issue was water. I maintained eye contact with my dinner date every time the server stopped by and neglected to see that there was only one water glass on the table, and it was empty. On my second visit — lunch — it was vanishing silverware and staff. I only noticed my fork got cleared with my soup after the main course arrived, by which time a large party had been seated, gumming up the works for everybody else. After trying in vain to flag someone down, I just swiped a fork from the next table over like an impatient jerk because my table-mate was reluctant to eat without me, but the two women to my right were stuck in ordering limbo for more than 15 minutes — and their rising tension was palpable. From years of waiting tables, I know that everybody's going to be in the weeds from time to time, but lunch is tricky: Most people have somewhere else to be and comparatively few have drinks in front of them to help pass the time, so it's crucial for servers to stop by, if only to apologize. My third and final visit, a busy Friday night, was impeccably professional — but I'd also tried to walk in at 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday only to be told they'd closed two-and-a-half hours early. (If it was for lack of business, I can't imagine that lasting.)
Compared to many of the Latin American restaurants lining Mission Street, it's arguably easier to spend $100 or more on a dinner for two here. Dollar for dollar, the El Buen Comer option is the best way to go; it's not an end-run around the expenditure in strict price terms, but it feels simultaneously like a steal and a treat. “We would always love to just cook for you,” hints its menu explanation, the equivalent of someone coughing “ahem” into their hand. It pays to listen.