Not to interject too much politics here, but I had to laugh last year when a political supporter tried to inflame anti-immigrant fervor by decrying that if this country didn’t take measures, we’d end up with a taco truck on every corner.
We should be so lucky.
In fact, if we had a Nopalito in every neighborhood, we’d be quite fortunate, indeed.
The beloved San Francisco restaurant is headed by Executive Chef-Partner Gonzalo Guzman. Born in Veracruz, Mexico, he came to the United States as a child. His first restaurant job was as a dishwasher at Kokkari in San Francisco. He soon rose through the culinary ranks there, as well as at San Francisco’s Boulevard, Chez Nous, and Nopa.
In 2009, he partnered with Nopa owners Laurence and Allyson Jossel and Jeff Hanak to open Nopalito on Broderick Street. It was so successful, it led to a second Nopalito location on Ninth Avenue, near Golden Gate Park.
Just one taste, and you know why the restaurant has such a devoted following. This is food that is vivacious, with flavors that are punchy and complex, yet also clear and true.
Even if you don’t live near Nopalito, you can now enjoy a taste of its craveable dishes in the new cookbook, “Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen” (Ten Speed Press) by Guzman with food journalist Stacy Adimando.
The 100 regional Mexican dishes with California influences will necessitate a trip to a Latin supermarket. But what a great excuse to explore the shelves there while trying your hand at recipes such as “Queso Flameado Con Chorizo Y Nopales” (Hot Oaxacan and Jack Cheese Dip with Chorizo and Cactus), “Birria Al Res” (Short Rib Stew), and “Camote Enmielado” (Candied Sweet Potatoes).
I can never resist a great fish taco, so I decided to give “Tacos De Pescado Al Pastor” a whirl.
The fish isn’t battered and deep-fried fish, but marinated in a robust, fruity-smoky thick adobo paste, before being cooked quickly in a skillet. You will have leftover adobo paste. I smeared mine on pork chops to throw on the grill the next day. Guzman also says it’s delicious on beef, chicken or shrimp, or even stirred into scrambled eggs.
Pile the fish onto warm corn tortillas that are store-bought or home-made. I actually made my own, well, sort of. I had help, as the wonderful folks at Sebastopol’s Handline restaurant, where the corn is ground on site, had given me some of their house-made masa to take home, which I had stored in the freezer for just a time like this. All I had to do was roll it into balls, flatten each with the bottom of a cast-iron pan, before frying them in a skillet until they puffed up and were golden.
The fish is snuggled into the tortilla with onion, cilantro, and fresh orange segments or chopped pineapple, for a burst of tangy, fruity freshness.
Salsa gets dolloped on top. Now, here’s where I have to make a confession. I accidentally made the wrong tomatillo salsa recipe in the book. They were within a page of each other, and I mistakenly landed on the wrong one. No matter, it was still delicious.
So, I’m including both salsa recipes below. Salsa de Morita con Tomatillo is the one that is supposed to go with the fish tacos. It’s a little more work to make because you have to cook the chiles. It offers a smoky taste and a jammy consistency. The one I made is Salsa De Tomatillo Y Jalapeno, which takes all of a minute to make in a blender. It’s a raw salsa of just tomatillos, jalapenos and lime juice. It’s tangy, grassy and lighter in body.
However you decide to dress the tacos, you will be richly rewarded in the end. No matter what your political persuasion.
Tacos De Pescado Al Pastor
For Adobo Paste:
8 dried ancho chiles (also known as pasilla)
3 dried puya chiles
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1/2 tablespoon dried thyme
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon ground chili pepper
1/2 bunch cilantro
1 pound skinless snapper, cod or halibut fillets
2 tablespoons Adobo Paste
Rice bran oil or canola oil, for sauteing
8 warm homemade soft corn tortillas or store-bought soft corn tortillas
Diced white onion
Chopped fresh cilantro
Small orange wedges or finely chopped pineapple
Salsa de Morita con Tomatillo (recipe follows)
Salsa De Tomatillo Y Jalapeno, optional (recipe follows)
To make the adobo paste: Preheat a griddle or skillet over medium heat. Add all of the dried chiles and let toast, turning them every 10 seconds, until you can smell them and the color has slightly changed, about 1 minute total. Transfer the chiles to a medium bowl and cover with boiling water; let sit until soft, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the garlic and all of the dried herbs and spices on a baking sheet and bake, stirring the spices around on the baking sheet halfway through, until toasted and aromatic, about 10 minutes.
Transfer the spices and chiles to a blender (reserve the soaking water). Add the fresh jalapenos and the cilantro. Starting with no soaking water and adding small amounts only as needed, blend until the mixture forms a smooth paste. Makes about 1 1/2 cups. (Note: This will keep in the fridge, covered, for 1 to 2 weeks.)
To make the fish tacos: Cut the fish into thin 2-ounce pieces (about 5 inches long); season with salt and coat with the adobo. Cover and let marinated at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
In a large skillet or on a griddle, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the fish and cook until seared on one side, about 3 minutes. Turn and cook on the remaining side until just cooked through, about 3 minutes more.
Divide the fish among warm tortillas. Garnish with onions, cilantro, oranges, and salsa.
Salsa de Morita con Tomatillo
(Makes about 2 cups)
12 medium tomatillos, husked and rinsed
1 tablespoon rice bran oil or canola oil
6 medium dried morita chiles, stemmed
3 cloves garlic
1/2 white onion
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place tomatillos on a medium ovenproof skillet or small rimmed baking sheet. Roast until tomatillos are slightly browned and look charred on top, about 20 minutes. Remove and let cool.
In a small pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chiles and cook, turning frequently, until blistered in places but not burned, 30 to 40 seconds. Pour enough water into the pan to cover the chiles, then bring the water to a simmer. Let simmer until the chiles are very soft, about 25 minutes. Remove the chiles and discard the soaking water.
In a molcajete or a food processor, process the chiles into a paste. Add the garlic and onions and continue to process until the mixture is finely ground. Remove the mixture to a medium serving bowl and add the tomatillos to the molcajete or food processor. Process until jammy (you will still be able to see the seeds and some chunkiness). Stir the tomatillos into the bowl and season with salt to taste.
Salsa De Tomatillo Y Jalapeno
(Makes 1 1/2 cups)
4 large tomatillos, husked and rinsed
1 to 2 jalapenos, or more to taste
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
In a blender, combine the tomatillos, jalapeno, and lime juice; blend until the mixture is somewhat chunky and you can still see the seeds of the tomatillos. Season with salt to taste.
From “Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen” by Gonzalo Guzman with Stacy Adimando
And: A Visit to Handline