The City by the Bay is one of the world’s foremost foodie destinations, which often means restaurants that can take a huge bite out of your wallet (if you can even secure a reservation). But not every culinary experience in San Francisco is dearly expensive. If you’re looking for a cheap, filling and tasty meal, look no further than one of the city’s numerous taquerias—like the spots we recommend, below.
EL TORO TAQUERIA
Lunchtime is primetime at El Toro, but the assembly-line set-up ensures that the line moves quickly and that your order is efficiently prepared. There are no surprises on the extensive menu—it’s all reliably good taqueria fare. Try the al pastor (marinated pork cooked on a slowly revolving spit), prawn tacos, garlic mushroom quesadillas or a tofu ranchero vegetarian burrito. The salsa bar includes items like radishes and pickled carrots. They also have traditional agua frescas and Mexican coke; both beverages are good foils for the food, especially if what you’re eating is on the spicy side.
As old-school as it gets, tiny Gordo Taqueria, in the Outer Richmond neighborhood, has a narrow counter along the window that seats five in a pinch, so you might want to get your grub to go. A line starts forming as soon as the place opens; survey the various burrito and taco permutations posted on the wall, then call out your order and watch as the cooks assemble it. Ask them to add a splash of crema and also to grill your tortilla so the cheese melts. The meats, rice, beans, guacamole and add-ons are all standard and all absolutely delicioso.
La Taqueria is one of San Fran’s oldest taquerias. It also does things a bit differently; the burritos are smaller than what you’ll get elsewhere, and rice isn’t one of the ingredients—just beans, salsa and your choice of meat. That puts the spotlight on the protein, and on quality as opposed to quantity. Case in point: the carne asada (grilled beef) is deliciously juicy. Like several other taquerias around town it’s cash only, so bring some dinero.
Once you’ve seen brand-name San Francisco, take some time to check out these off-the-beaten path attractions
THE LITTLE CHIHUAHUA
A Lower Haight-neighbourhood mainstay, The Little Chihuahua has just a bit more atmosphere than the hole-in-the-wall joints in the Mission, but the food is no less delicious. The super burrito with grilled chicken, vegetarian black beans, rice, salsa, pico de gallo, sour cream, jack cheese and guacamole is totally delish, and the tortilla is grilled, not steamed. Plus, the help-yourself salsa counter offers more than the standard chopped tomato, onion and cilantro (try the mango salsa if they have it).
PAPALOTE MEXICAN GRILL
Fun and festive, with decorations hanging from the ceiling and a bathroom festooned with wall-to-wall graffiti. Papalote brings in Noe Valley families and young hipsters for standard taqueria fare with “designer” touches (tacos topped with shredded romaine, for example). The “Triple Threat” burrito includes marinated chicken, grilled shrimp, carne asada and a secret sauce. Diners beware: The orange-hued, creamy-smooth salsa packs a fiery punch.
The no-frills food at Taqueria Cancun (2288 Mission St., 415-252-9560) totally rocks. Again, there are no surprises on the menu at this Mission District spot, but that’s a good thing. Order the carnitas plate and you’ll get a small mountain of shredded pork, with scattered fried bits adding flavorful crunch. Pile it on a tortilla along with some rice and refried pinto beans and you’ll be sighing with pleasure. Both the salsa verde and the salsa fresca are yummy and not too hot.
TAQUERIA SAN FRANCISCO
Deep in the Mission on a street chock-a-block with panaderias (Mexican bakeries) and Colombian and Salvadoran eateries, Taqueria San Francisco oozes authenticity: In addition to the usual burrito and taco combinations, you can order house-made chorizo or menudo (tripe). The super chicken burrito (also available as a plate sans tortilla wrapper) is a good-size slab filled with grilled poultry, rice, pinto beans, melted white cheese, sour cream and slices of avocado. The chips are excellent, and the salsa (in glass containers on the 10 or so small tables) is near the top of the heat scale. Definitely check out the amazing blue wall mural on York Street, adjacent to the front door—you can’t miss it.