Despite the proliferation of excellent burritos and taco trucks worth chasing down, it's hard to find a decent sit-down Mexican place in San Francisco. While Mexico DF isn't quite perfect, it's good enough to overlook the flaws and welcome its addition to the city's restaurants.
They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression; visually, Mexico DF nails it. From an oversized rustic chandelier made from a lattice iron grill and hanging crystals to vivid back-lit artwork by Oaxacan artist Rufino Tamayo, Mexico DF is a beautiful space with refined nods to the country that inspired it. Tables are laid with brightly colored chargers, and the open kitchen is roofed with a cherry red canopy. On a recent Saturday night, though the bar was calm, the dining room had a pleasant buzz to it. Service, though rumored to be amateur, was anything but. Our server was friendly, full of recommendations, happy to answer questions (where the goat was raised, for example) and he changed out our plates and silver between every single course.
The name of the restaurant, which refers to Mexico's capital city, gives some idea as to the focus of chef David Rosales' cuisine. The dinner menu offers a bit of everything (except burritos), from ceviche to soup, tacos to whole roasted fish.
We started with the house guacamole. If you had asked me to rate the restaurant after only one bite, I would have awarded it an A. Thick, creamy, and judiciously seasoned, the guacamole ($9) arrived with a handful of tortilla chips architecturally arrayed in its greenery, as well as two kinds of salsa (sweet chile de arbol and peppy tomatillo-habanero, which are available for sale by the bottle). Our server brought us a back-up supply of chips so we could lap it all up.
Both the margaritas we ordered -- the sweet, midnight-colored Xochimilco with hibiscus and peach juice ($9) and the classic Polanco ($10.50) with Herradura reposado -- were well-made and easy to drink. Next time I'd like to try a version with muddled grapefruit just for kicks. After our guacamole, we switched to wine. The Tobia tempranillo ($12) was smokier than I liked, but the fruitier MAS malbec ($8) suited me well. Neither were particularly astute matches for the food, however.
It was the corn fungus that convinced us to share the chile relleno rather than one of the ceviches. A gigantic mild green pepper ($14) was stuffed first with corn, summer squash, and the musky sweet Mexican delicacy known as huitlacoche, then coated in breading, deep-fried, and drizzled in crema and Tangerine tomato salsa. The fried coating got soggy under the sauce, but its inner beauty shown through, and we gobbled up the the insides wrapped in their crisp pepper shell.
For our mains, we heeded the mighty call of the taco. The chuleta consisted of small pieces of lean pork loin ($9 for two), a confetti of raw white onions, and chile de arbol salsa on the side. They were only okay. I was craving a juicier meat, I suppose, so it's my own fault for ordering the loin. But it doesn't change the fact that they were no better than average. Next time, I'll get the carnitas.
The cabrito ($12 for two), however, were oustanding. Goat meat is popular in a variety of cultures, from Latin America to the Middle East. It isn't something we gringos eat a lot, and I can tell you we're missing out. The rich, juicy, slightly smoky barbacoa-style goat was the best thing I ate all night.
We're gluttons, so we also ordered a huarache corn masa "sandal" with grilled short ribs ($10). The meat had a great grilled flavor, but it was too fatty for me and I spit it out. My boyfriend devoured it, though, and I found myself compulsively picking at the queso fresco on top.
I'm not sure whether I loved or hated the house pickled jalapenos ($2) that arrived at my request with my tacos. The thin carrot slivers were sweet and tangy, but the peppers packed more punch than a heavyweight boxer in the fight of his life, and my poor palate got quite a scorching. I had to order a side of crema to cut the heat, and sat spooning it into my beleaguered mouth for quite some time. Still, I can't say that I didn't sort of enjoy the rush, and as soon as my tongue had cooled, I picked up another one and took another bite. (A much smaller bite.)
We ended our meal with a burnt caramel flan ($8). I'd hoped it would change my mind about flan, and though it was creamy and the sweet caramel sauce burnt just enough, in the end it was only flan.
Overall, we enjoyed an above average meal, tasty margaritas, superb service and a few standout bites. I really appreciated the more unusual ingredients on the menu, neither of which I can recall seeing on a local menu before. Our server told us that the goat is raised in Colorado for Niman Ranch, and the huitlacoche is grown for the restaurant by a local farmer. Next time I'm craving Mexican and I want to sit down and linger over dinner, I'll be back.
139 Steuart Street at Mission
Open 7 nights a week for dinner, M-F lunch