Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Tropisueño

Tropisueño is one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in San Francisco.  To start, it is an actual restaurant, not a taqueria.  Except ... that isn't really true.

Let me rewind.

Tropisueño opened a few years ago, and I stumbled into it during their very first few days open, as it is located near where I used to live.  I loved it instantly, as I like Mexican food, but I'm a bit of an ingredient quality snob, and just don't really ever like the meats or vegetables used at pretty much everywhere I go in the Mission (except Papalote ... mmm, love their soyrizo!).   Besides the quality ingredients, what really struck me during my initial few visits was how much love and care when into the cooking.  It reminded me of home cooking, just obviously not the cooking I'd get at my home.  The servers were friendly, the quality was high, and the price was remarkable, particularly given the location.

The restaurant quickly got very popular, and I could no longer just walk in anytime.  Reservations became required, otherwise waits were always over an hour.  Prices went up, the homey feeling somewhat disappeared, but it did stay incredibly tasty, and everyone I've ever brought there has really enjoyed it.

They also have a decent sized bar area and make a wide variety of interesting margaritas, all with different flavored salts.  Even if you aren't up for a full meal, it can be a nice place to chill for happy hour and eat some delicious fresh chips and salsa.

So as I mentioned, this is a full service restaurant ... at night.  But during the day, they actually operate taqueria style.  It is really incredible to see how they transform the entire space every day!  During the day, there is a menu on the wall, and a long counter where you order with all of the meats, veggies, sides, etc all lined up, and a cashier at the end.  You order, seat yourself with a little number on your table, and your food is delivered very quickly.  Chips and salsa are of course included.  Many people also get their food to go, and they have a very large salsa and condiments bar equipped with takeout containers.

I've been wanting to go during the day for ages to check out the casual style, but I eat lunch at work during the week, and I'm usually brunching on weekends.  But ... they are on GoPago, which of course finally pushed me over the edge to try out the daytime menu.

The seating area is the same whether you go for lunch or dinner, except that during the day you seat yourself, and in the evening, you are seated by a hostess.  And of course, you order first at the counter during the day, and have regular table service at night.  The decor is somewhat hard to describe, basically, as rustic and Mexican as you can get, while still fitting in the with SOMA vibe, if that makes any sense.

I really like Tropisueño for dinner, Happy Hour, and now, for lunch as well.  I wish they operated the casual side in the evenings too, as I'd love to be able to get a high quality, cheap, fast taco in the area at night too!  I'll be back, just not sure what time of day ...
Baja Fish Taco: crispy, battered tilapia with salsa verde, sour cream, house slaw,  served taco truck style on soft corn tortillas. $3.95.
This was a very large taco, particularly for the price!

It was delivered to my table, nice and hot.  The presentation was much better than other tacos I've had.

The corn tortillas were soft, but didn't have a very strong corn flavor.  They reminded me of a cross between the two different types of soft taco shells from Rubios.  Even though the flavor of the Rubios corn tortilla was much stronger and better, I preferred these for their softness, warmth, and overall consistency, as the Rubios ones were a little soggy.  I was a little confused when the menu said "soft corn tortillas" and thought it was a type-o, but it did indeed come wrapped in multiple tortillas.  I'm not really sure why.

The fish was a fried and battered tilapia, a decent size chunk.  A few bites had a bit of fishiness to them, but others didn't at all.  The fish was flaky and nice and buttery, seemingly high quality, better than the Rubios fish.  The batter was ok, but got very soggy quickly from the other things in the taco.  I'm not sure how crispy it was to begin with.  I actually think I'd have preferred this just with some grilled fish, as the batter was lost with everything else going on the taco, and in particular, the crispiness wasn't there, and that is what deep frying is all about!

The house slaw was what really made the taco.  It was crisp, fresh, and delicious.  There was a generous amount of it.  It really just tied everything together.  Much better than the cabbage or spring greens that Rubios used.

The salsa was their tomatillo-avocado salsa.  It was creamy and had a decent flavor, but not much kick. Since I have a mild avocado allergy, I mostly scraped this off when I realized what it was, the menu had said "salsa verde" and I knew they made another green salsa, and was expecting that instead.  Whoops!

The sour cream added another creamy component, and I appreciated it.

Also included was a fresh slice of lime.  It was incredibly juicy and provided a nice flavor.

I went to the amazing salsa bar and added some salsa fresca and some pickled jalapenos as well.  They added some great additional freshness and kick.

I'd definitely get this again, although I'd have them leave off the salsa, and I'd just dress it up myself using the salsa bar.  $3.95 was a fantastic price for quality ingredients.

Compared to Rubios, this was a much higher quality taco, and the price was the same.  It was about twice the size, the tortillas were far better, and the fish was better.  But Rubios definitely wins on the creative, delicious, sauces, although that also makes them far less authentic.
Barbacoa Taco: braised shredded beef, fresh onions and cilantro.  $2.55.
I went back a second time when I received more GoPago credits.  This time, I only had a $3 credit, so I couldn't afford the fish or shrimp tacos, which is what I'd normally order.  A plain taco was my only choice if I wanted to stay within my freebie budget!

They offer a slew of filling choices: 3 types of chicken, 3 types of beef, 4 types of pork, tofu, or veggies.  Since none of them are things I normally would pick, I asked the staff member for advice.  She recommended the barbacoa, the braised shredded beef.  So I went for it.

The preparation of this was very different from the fish taco.  The fish taco seems to be more of a special case, and they prepare it in the back kitchen, presumably because they are frying the fish, whereas this was prepared standard assembly-line taqueria style.  Like all of the standard meat options, there are just containers of the meats sitting there that they scoop out of, etc.  As such, it was ready before I even had time to get my salsas ready!

The taco shell was the same as the fish taco, soft, corn, pretty decent flavor, nice and warmed up.  And doubled up again.  This time, it made sense to me why it was doubled, as this was a big juicy mess!  The meat was swimming in liquid and the shell got soggy pretty much instantly, even with two layers.

The meat was tender, well cooked, and seemingly high quality.  I didn't find any fatty bits or gristle.  And there was a very generous amount of it.  Unfortunately, it didn't really have much flavor.

The onions and cilantro were pretty boring, and nothing compared to the slaw from the fish tacos, or the cabbage or greens that Rubios used.  Perhaps if I'd made it a super taco, which includes lettuce, cheese, guac, and sour cream, it would have been better, but I'm allergic to the quac, and that was over budget!

I did dress it up at the amazing salsa bar again.  I added pickled jalapenos for some kick, radishes for some crunch, some creamy green sauce (I have no idea what it was, it was fairly flavorless, but I think it might have been sour cream based), salsa fresca for some more veggies, and some regular salsa for more flavor.  It was much better with all of these additions, but overall, still wasn't anything remarkable.

I wouldn't get this again, but it was again a good price for a high quality taco.
Fresh, hot, chips!
Chips are $1.95 for take-out, free with in-house orders.  This makes no sense to me, as the price for food is the same, and it seems like you are using fewer of their resources for take-out.  They are also free at bar and at dinner.  During lunch hours, you can enjoy your chips with a slew of different salsas from the salsa bar, but at dinner time, they only provide a trio of salsas (although you can always ask for your favorites and they'll bring them).

The chips are served hot.  They are thin, crispy, salty.  Always enjoyable.  Sometimes greasier than other times, but always very fresh tasting.
Assorted salsas from the salsa bar.
The salsa bar contains 8 - 10 different salsas, along with other condiments like radishes, cilantro, lime wedges, and pickled jalapenos.  This photo is just a sampling of a few of them.

(Clockwise, from top left)
  • There is one salsa that I just adore.  Honestly, you can put this on anything and I'd eat it.  It is orangeish in color, and incredibly creamy.  I think this is the chili de arbol salsa.  It has nice spicing, and the creaminess is just to die for.  By far my favorite of the salsas, and I always take any leftovers home with me to slather on anything I can find.  They sometimes serve it warm when you get it at the bar or at dinner.  So amazing.
  • Salsa fresca/ pico de gallo:  Mix of tomatoes, onions, herbs.  Fresh, light, but no spice. [ Fresh, nice tomatoes, not spicy ]
  • Avocado-tomatillo salsa (light green): not spicy, creamy, avocado in it. [ Creamy, slight avocado flavor ]
  • Light red, standard salsa: Spicy, fresh tasting, but almost too spicy. [ Spicy, fresh, serious kick. ] [ creamy and decently spicy ] [  nice spice and creamyness, my fav of the red salsas ]
  • Salsa verde (dark green): Really great flavor, not spicy, I really like this one. [ Good flavor, second favorite salsa ] [ I love the smokiness in this, really intense flavors ] [ great smoky flavor, second favorite ]
(Not pictured)
  • (dark red): Not spicy, really boring, more like enchilada sauce.
  • (light green creamy one): was it sour cream based?  Not much flavor.
  • Habenero: just hot, not that great.
[ Not Pictured ]
Margaritas!
  • Tropisueño: House signature drink.  Good ginger flavor, nice balanced drink.
  • Virgin: Meh.  Not very strong lime flavor, just sweet.  [ Note: I remember loving these when they first opened and didn't have a liquor license, and thus they could only serve virgin margs.  They gave them out complimentary then to show off their fresh squeezed marg base and fancy salts, and to apologize for not having the ability to serve the real deal then ]
  • Cena del Oso: Pink!  ok ...
  • Duende: Awesome anise flavor
  • (spicy one ... forget what it is called ): very spicy, decent.
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