Padrecito: Mexican Cuisine Gets a Makeover in Cole Valley

San Francisco's certainly no stranger to Mexican food, from the taquerias on every block to the upscale explorations of the cuisine at places like Nopalito. Padrecito, the new brother restaurant of the Marina's Mamacita, is of the latter variety, highlighting seasonal variations of Mexican food in a dressed-up atmosphere. Is it “authentic?” Who cares, or even knows what that means anymore? The food's a fun romp through the regions of the country to the south, made with local meat and produce, and complemented by interesting cocktails. Most importantly, the restaurant's stylish remodel and menu tone fit perfectly with its Cole Valley neighborhood, making the cozy spot seemingly guaranteed for success long after the opening buzz wears off.

Padrecito's biggest departure from Mamacita, its sibling restaurant, is that the menu is tightened and the menu items themselves are less complex. While a dish at Mamacita might have 15 or 16 ingredients, the dishes here are more dialed back to focus on simple, clean flavors, says general manager Jordan Dunn.

A major reason for this is the restaurant's access to produce from sustainable, organic Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen, which happens to be run by chef and owner Luis Contreras' grandmother. Because of the personal relationship with the farm, the kitchen can keep itself supplied with herbs like espazote that appear often in Mexican cuisine but can be hard to source en masse outside of Northern California. The quality of the produce — as well as hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and poultry from Niman Ranch, Mary's, and Marin Sun Farms — allows the menu to be driven by what's in season.

Which means that you shouldn't get too attached to a particular dish, as I did with a side of kale sprouts, because it might go out of season in a hurry. The greens were flash-fried with a bit of lime juice and a salty cotija cheese, and tasted like earthy Brussels sprouts combined with the light vegetal crunch of kale chips. But kale sprout season is over; broccolini is its replacement.

The menu is pan-Mexican, but focuses mostly on the food of Oaxaca and the Yucatan Peninsula. So, there are lots of moles — like the mesa-red, smoky, chipotle mole that coats the duck chilaquiles. It's a large portion, and the smoke-and-spice flavor drowns out the more delicate taste of the duck carnitas piled on top — probably best as a dish ordered in a group rather than as an entrée, because I lost interest in the one-note flavor after a few bites.

But it's easy enough to keep your taste buds entertained with the varied small plates on the menu. The guacamole is pitch-perfect, with ripe avocadoes and just a hint of lime, and comes with warm tortilla chips and a trio of salsas that range from smoky to fiery (there are a dozen salsas on the menu, all made in-house). Another standout appetizer is the lamb meatballs, which were delicately gamy and served on fluffy, wonderful yellow rice. Sturdy masa chips came with the citrusy ceviche, though it had a high liquid-to-mahi-mahi ratio and was more like tangy, cold fish soup. And chicharrons were light pillows of puffed fat that melt away in your mouth to leave a pleasantly porky flavor behind, enhanced by a creamy pumpkin seed dip.

Sit upstairs, if you can — the deep blue mezzanine is great for private confabs (also for spying on the diners below). Downstairs has booths and tables made from reclaimed wood in one room and a crowded bar with artfully worn plaster and an impressive collection of tequila and mezcal in another. Small touches throughout, like copper lamps and framed Mexican art on the walls, show the thoughtfulness behind the remodel. And the noise level is just right: a low hum of conversation that never gets too loud, but contributes to a buzzy, neighborhood-hot-spot feel.

If there's one signature dish, it's the tacos, which come two to an order and are worth sharing. They're hefty, the house-made tortillas piled high with toppings almost like mini-tostadas, and one order might even satisfy for a main course dinner — but then you'd only get to try one of the varieties, which would be a shame. The selection ranges from safe (crispy chicken with crumbled Oaxacan cheese, shredded lettuce, pinto beans, and standard salsa), to adventurous (goat barbacoa with avocado, manchego, and salsa arbol). My favorites were the pork belly, a bacony, rich, fatty bite enhanced by smashed beans with chorizo; and arctic char, flaky and rich and moist, with an achiote chile rub and topped with a soothing avocado aioli and mango-jicama slaw.

Even if you're stuffed, you should cleanse your palate with one of the vibrant paletas — popsicles in flavors like mezcal blood orange, strawberry hibiscus, kumquat horchata, and mango-chile with mascarpone (the last one a brilliant overhaul of the orange dreamsicle).

Padrecito is busy, especially on weekends, and if you don't have a reservation you might need to wait for a table in the bar. That's not a bad thing, because the cocktail menu, designed by bar manager David Ruiz, has a lot to awaken the taste buds. I'm still thinking about La Copa Verde, a swampy green drink made with mezcal, cilantro, chipotle powder, and lime — it was beautifully balanced, with subtle heat, smoke, and just on the right side of savory. Tequila and mezcal mostly dominate the cocktails, though there are a few made with rye, gin, and pisco.

And even if you don't feel like expanding your culinary horizons, there's nothing wrong with ordering a margarita and a side of chips and salsa — all of it made fresh that day … just like you'd find at a small, family-owned restaurant in Mexico.

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