For the last month or so, I’ve been observing Nopalito, the sister restaurant of Nopa. I’ve gone in the mornings to watch them prepare for lunch service. I’ve dined there frequently to taste through the menu. I’ve watched them prepare for large off-premise events. I’ve even spent an entire day following around Jose Ramos-the primary creative force behind the food of Nopalito- watching him prepare a single dish. It’s been an enlightening exercise, and I think it would be for anyone. But I’m a manager at Nopa. Because of this, it was impossible for me to spend that time at Nopalito without thinking of all the ways in which it is different than Nopa. And that is particularly vexing because it’s made me a hypocrite. Many times I’ve grown irritated at others for making this comparison. ”They’re very different restaurants!”, I’d say, dismissively. But after these recent weeks of observation, I think there is a conversation to be had about the relationship between these two. I’ll call it the Nopa Paradox.
Photo from Saveur Mexico Edition by Penny De Los Santos
A few nights back, I was on the Saveur website and came across an online only interview with the queen of Mexican Cuisine, Diana Kennedy. The interview begins like every other I’ve ever read with her: first, an assertion about her unsurpassed authority on Mexican food. This one begins by pulling the, “Julia Child of Mexico” card. Understandable, tempting even, because it’s so spot on. Diana Kennedy has the unique perspective of a foreigner (born in England) who has spent 50 years chronicling, researching, archiving, teaching and writing about the food of Mexico. And she does so in the wilderness, in the mountains of Michoacan in Western Mexico. You realize quickly her life has been about the complete and unwavering immersion into this food and culture. To that end, her time as a traveler and resident of Mexico, put Ms. Kennedy, at the age of 89, in a category unto herself.
Of the many insightful things that she shares in the interview, there was this one quote that resonated more than any other. This one quote that made Nopalito and Mexican cuisine make a lot more sense to me.
To me, French cooking is high technique. In Mexico you might have fewer ingredients in a dish, and there’s not much technique, but you’ve got to know how to handle them. If you put too much cumin in, it’s fatal. If you overdo the chiles, you can’t taste the other ingredients. It’s knowing how to toast the chiles, whether you toast them, whether you don’t toast them. Whether to asar [roast] the jitomates, or to cook them at all: It’s those details about how you handle the ingredients that make the difference in the dishes.
Making tortillas from scratch is a perpetual activity at Nopalito
That’s so well said. In this country, most of what we’ve come to know as Mexican is about familiar -if not pedestrian-ingredients (beans, rice, tortillas, tomatoes, citrus, avocados, etc), which helps breed that reputation of comfort. Mexican food does not feel nearly as exotic as say, French cuisine, to use Kennedy’s analogy.
Consider something like a terrine. Clearly not all terrines are created equal, but because that dish is less common and quite involved, there is a wider threshold for forgiveness if it doesn’t entirely hit the mark. Take Richard Olney’s Country Terrine. It features 17 ingredients (including veal, ham, bacon, pork shoulder, fat back and Cognac) and takes 3 days to make. Chances are if you’ve ever eaten a terrine, (especially if it’s been explained to you), that first time is because you wanted the experience of eating a terrine. You know that you’re eating something both adventurous and ornate. There is no “experience” to be had eating beans and rice. That is until you’ve had the experience of perfectly cooked beans and rice. That is the point that Ms. Kennedy is trying to make with that quote. That, I believe, is the challenge and exhilaration of Nopalito.
Nopa is definitely a striking space
If you’ve first experienced Nopa, then Nopalito, it can be a bit like having that terrine. Nopa is brash. It is large and full of stimulus. For instance, on a Friday night at Nopa, there are lots of babes. Friday night at Nopalito, you’ll find lots of babies. The experience of walking into Nopalito after the experience of walking into Nopa, then immediately comparing the two, I think is a disservice for you and us. “they’re very different restaurants!” That said, I do understand the temptation with related restaurants…
The paradox begins when you look at a Nopa menu. Although there is the frequent listing of headcheese or squab, we are primarily selling rustic, seasonal cuisine. For lots of people Nopa is just a burger or a pork chop. And those people love coming here because they want the experience of a well executed burger or chop, even though there are lots of places in the city that sell them. Even SF Chronicle Food Critic Michael Bauer recently acknowledged this when he made some nice remarks about the plainness of our burger. In other words, Nopa is the experience of a terrine, with the comfort of a burrito.
The experience of walking into Nopalito may not be as dazzling, but the scene in the kitchen sure is. For many, the menu is more demanding, the ingredients less familiar. But the strain of the menu is felt by our cooks too. They manage very intensive prep and do so in a fraction of the time given their lunch service. Any day of the week you can walk into Nopalito and find masa being rolled and pounded into tortillas. There is always citrus being squeezed, always whole fish being pulled apart for ceviche, always chiles being dried or smoked, always…something.
So where does that leave us? Where does it leave you, the diner, who has had the experience of Nopa? That’s leaves us in a peculiar space of having Nopa, the more formal of the restaurants, being more relatable than a casual Mexican restaurant.
The demands on the eater may seem unjust or worse, staunch, but really, what Nopalito is doing is special. It is authentic, regional Mexican fare using local produce, and to that end, the things that happen in the kitchens of Broderick and 9th Avenue are pretty uncommon. It is a place where everything is made from scratch and everyone must know how to handle those ingredients. The true epiphanies of Nopalito, and in fact, Mexican cuisine, as Ms. Kennedy noted, rely on deft handling of ingredients. It’s not an easy thing to do. Truthfully, the dishes don’t always translate within those narrow margins for error. Plain food must be done perfectly for maximum impact.
Beautiful Quesadilla Roja: Mulato chile-corn tortilla, crispy pork belly, salsa cascabel, jack cheese, queso fresco, onion and cilantro
But more often than not, we believe this translation comes through loud and clear. It comes through unfiltered with the aid of copious or rich ingredients. The experience of Nopalito is in the understated nuance of the dishes, built not just through technique, but the handling of those spices, just the right amount of citrus and rice.
Over the next few months, we will begin a journey of exploring and sharing the food of Nopalito. We hope you grow more curious. We hope to answer more of your questions, and create fertile grounds for your epiphany of simplicity. Stay tuned.