Carefully made, Mayan-influenced Mexican food in a mod, if unlikely, setting
Photo by Rory McNamara

Nopalito might or might not offer "far and away the best Mexican food in the Bay Area," as a hyperbolic toot harvested locally and posted on the restaurant's Web site contends — I say not — but the food is very good. The menu card, moreover, gives a brisk tutorial in the persistence of Indian language and culture in Mexico and is worth scanning just as an intellectual artifact. In a world of burritos and quesadillas, often made with flour tortillas, it is revelatory to read about such possibilities as caldo tlalpeño (the traditional chicken soup), pollo al pibil (as part of a panucho), and huitlacoche (in a mushroom quesadilla). The Maya and Mexica who lived a half-millennia ago might well find aspects of these dishes, or at least their names, familiar.

Or would, if they could get in. Nopalito, although fairly sizable, doesn't take reservations, but it does allow you to phone yourself onto a waiting list and be phoned back when your table is imminently available. You will likely be given an estimate on the wait when you join the list, but this information is not of high reliability, and, like flying stand-by, you should be prepared to move fast to claim your place. The advantage to the restaurant, meanwhile, is clear: tables are not held, but filled immediately.

As the punny name suggests, Nopalito is an offshoot of nearby Nopa. "Nopalitos" are also shreds of prickly-pear cactus that often end up in morning eggs. Since Nopalito doesn't serve breakfast, this potentially signature ingredient is honored by being largely if not entirely invisible. But because "nopalito" is a diminutive form of "nopal" — the westernized spelling of the Nahuatl word for the parent plant — we can extract a useful clue, which is that words ending in a vowel and "l," such as "pibil" and "tamal," are often Nahuatl in origin and suggest that the food so described is more Indian than European.

Mexico is sufficiently huge and various to make generalization a perilous undertaking, but one way to think of Mexican cooking is as a modest overlay of European influence — much of it involving pork — on a broad and deep base of Indian ingredients and techniques. "Pibil," for instance, refers to a Maya method of wrapping marinated meat in banana peels and stewing it underground with hot stones. I didn't see the Nopaliteños tending any barbecue pits, but chicken cooked in some pibil fashion did find its way onto the panucho ($4), a crisped corn tortilla also topped with black beans, pickled onions, and a feisty salsa of habañero chilis.

Corn tortillas are subtle but pervasive, a reminder that corn — "tamal" is the Nahuatl word — was, along with beans and squash, a principal pillar of the Mesoamerican diet. We found a quesadilla made with a blue-corn tortilla ($8) and filled with mushrooms, cheese, epazote, salsa molcajete, and huitlacoche (the fungus that grows on corn and is sometimes compared with truffles) to be quietly effective. A bit more loudly effective was a tamal enchilado ($4), a tube of masa, like very thick polenta, imbued with ancho chili and cooked with stewed pork, queso fresco, and crema (the Mexican answer to crème fraîche).

The ultimate in stewed pork has to be the carnitas ($14), which are excellent by any standard. The cubes of meat were marinated in beer, orange, cinnamon, and bay leaf, sealed in a pouch of parchment paper, then slow-cooked to exquisite tenderness and flavorfulness. The accompaniments were appropriately simple: a salad of shredded cabbage, a few halves of pickled jalapeño pepper, and a small tub of tomatillo salsa.

On the other hand, there was carne asada a la plancha ($15): grass-fed skirt steak in a nocturnal, slightly smoky pasilla salsa.

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