Sending the kids off to college? Packing up the lamps and extra silverware for their first on-their-own apartments? Do your Bay Area-bred offspring--and their future social lives--a favor by tossing in a copy of Tacolicious: Festive Recipes for Tacos, Snacks, Cocktails, and More by Sara Deseran with Joe Hargrave, Antelmo Faria, and Mike Barrow. Especially if they're moving to a place where bacon-wrapped hot dogs aren't grilled on the street to sate bar-hopping crowds, and a hangover isn't treated by a steaming bowl of birria, they'll need this book to show off to their new friends and chosen families just what makes San Francisco and its environs so great.
The serious attention that the Tacolicious restaurants give their tacos, salsas, and more can get lost in the party atmosphere, but here, author, co-owner, and longtime Bay Area food writer and editor Sara Deseran blends lively writing about the restaurant's contemporary Cali-Mex approach with recipes ready to inspire easy entertaining, especially among taco-and-tequila-loving twentysomethings.
Tacolicious got its start as a weekly pop-up taco stand in 2009. At the time, Joe Hargrave owned Laiola, a Spanish restaurant in the Marina that had made a splash when it opened in 2007, only to start wilting when the recession hit in 2008.
As Deseran tells it, she and Hargrave (now her husband) had been traveling and eating around Mexico for years. But in early 2009, a trip to Mexico City opened their eyes to the chic, creative food happening there. (It didn't hurt that Rick Bayless had stopped into Laiola the day before their trip and offered a hand-written list of don't-miss hot spots). After years of seeking out and romanticizing street food, "...suddenly, we were experiencing Mexican restaurants in Mexico that were as hip and urban as restaurants in any sophisticated city and were completely void of the cliches Americans love to import: mariachi bands, heavy wooden furniture, servers dressed in guayaberas. San Francisco needed a taste of it. Selfishly, we wanted it for ourselves."
When they got back, Hargrave got a call from Lulu Meyer at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market. Would Hargrave be interested in running a Spanish-food stall at the new Thursday lunchtime market? Inspired and rejuvenated by the trip, Hargrave offered to serve tacos instead.
Well, who doesn't love a taco? As lines grew at the market stand and seats languished at Laiola, Hargrave decided to swap tapas for tacos on New Year's Eve, 2009. Two weeks and a paint job later, the Chestnut Street restaurant had teal walls, new art, and a new name: Tacolicious. Soon, the first brick-and-mortar location was joined by three more in North Beach, the Mission and Palo Alto. The popular taco stand continues at the Ferry Plaza Thursday market.
At a recent launch party in the Mission, Deseran and Hargrave admitted that they had no idea how much work it would be putting the cookbook together. Deseran, the food editor at both San Francisco and 7x7 magazines (full disclosure: this reporter worked with her as a freelance restaurant reviewer at San Francisco in the late 1990s) as well the author of three previous cookbooks, found out the not-enough-hours-in-the-day way that writing a book about food she and her husband--and their kitchen staff--cared deeply about was a nail-biting proposition. The recipes had to work, and they had to be delicious enough to please both longtime restaurant customers and people who might never have heard of the place but just loved tacos and tequila.
As one might expect from a book written by a longtime food editor, the recipes--and stories--are meticulous and detailed. Tacos may be party food, but Deseran shows how careful attention to toasting spices, sourcing good tortillas, avoiding the microwave, and more can make the difference between memorable and merely belly-filling.
While the bulk of the book centers on tacos, there's also plenty of snacks and sides, from a spiced-up peanut-and-pumpkin-seed version of Chex Mix to empanadas, raw-tuna tostadas, tamales swathed in banana leaves, lime-drenched seafood cocktails, and sticky, lick-your-fingers tamarind-glazed pork ribs, followed by a plethora of tequila-spiked drinks and agua frescas, in nifty flavors like white nectarine-blueberry, cantaloupe-ginger, and cucumber-mint.
As a couple with decades of experience in San Francisco's tight-knit restaurant and food-media worlds, Deseran and Hargrave pull in plenty of locals, and local influences to show that what some taco purists dismiss as "Marina Mexican" actually comes from a pretty dedicated place. There's an interview with Teresa Pasion, general manager at La Palma, the longtime tortilleria on 24th Street where the restaurant gets its fresh tortillas, followed by torta-making tips from Armando Macuil, the owner of La Torta Gorda, where Deseran, Hargrave, and their three kids frequently hang out over nopales-and-pineapple agua frescas and Mexican sandwiches. It's all part of what Deseran describes as their "unabashedly Californian take on Mexican food."
As a reporter, Deseran's happy to point out that some pairings--like chips and salsa--are much more American than Mexican. And she shares the story of how the old school hard-shell taco, that staple of family taco nights, became a multi-billion-dollar business. Seems that in 1951 Glen Bell, owner of a drive-in burger stand, started selling hard-shell tacos for less than a quarter apiece. By 1962, he launched his own eponymous taco stand, Taco Bell. By his death in 2010, there were over 5000 Taco Bells worldwide. (And yes, she includes a full Ortega-kit inspired DIY recipe.)
But the real charm of the book is its recipes: salsas galore, meaty braises that double as wintertime stews and make-ahead taco fillings, vegan and vegetarian options, even a handy chart detailing how to turn just about anything into a taco filling. And let's not forget the many, many ways to use up a twelve-pack of Tecate and a handle of Cuervo that this book offers, from chicken marinated in "a shot and a beer" to micheladas spiked with hot sauce and the irresistible, lipstick-pink watermelon cocktail they've dubbed the Lolita Squeeze (recipe below). Of course, there's also a short but info-packed introduction to the better tequilas and mezcals, with a brief explanation of how they're made and categorized.
Armed with this book and The Banh Mi Handbook, your kids will be throwing the best parties on the block.
Recipe: Butternut squash, kale, and crunchy pepitas taco
Drummed up by our intrepid recipe tester Lauren Godfrey, this nontraditional taco, sweet with squash, earthy and nutty with kale, and crunchy with fried pumpkin seeds (pepitas), is—shhhhh—vegan. Don’t tell anyone, but because it is so tasty, no one will care. The cashew crema can be replaced by store-bought crema, but after polling both vegetarian and carnivorous friends, everyone preferred the nutty and rich nondairy cashew version (which must be made with raw cashews to work). To prepare the butternut squash, use a sharp peeler to remove the tough skin before slicing it in half and scooping out the seeds and fibers. Lazy cook’s tip: Some markets sell butternut squash already peeled and seeded and ready to go.
Makes about 12 tacos; serves 4 to 6
Ingredients: Cashew Crema
2/3 cup raw cashews
1 teaspoon cumin seeds 6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 3 limes)
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup raw hulled pumpkin seeds
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Filling 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1 clove garlic, minced
3 cups 1/2-inch-diced butternut squash
1 teaspoon chile powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 cups finely chopped kale
Corn tortillas, warmed, for serving
Chopped white onion, chopped fresh cilantro, and salsa of choice, for serving (optional)
To make the crema, soak the raw cashews in room-temperature water to cover for at least 1 hour. Drain and reserve. Toast the cumin in a small, dry, heavy skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute, until fragrant. Transfer to a spice grinder, let cool, and grind finely. In a blender, combine the cashews, cumin, lime juice, water, and salt. Start the blender on the lowest speed and gradually increase to the highest speed. Blend for at least 1 minute, until a creamy consistency. Pour into a serving bowl and set aside.
To make the pumpkin seeds, heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the pumpkin seeds and sauté for about 2 minutes, taking care that they do not burn. The seeds will begin to puff up and pop. Once they appear toasted, immediately pour them into a bowl. Toss with the cayenne and salt and set aside.
To make the filling, heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for about 3 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and sauté for about 1 minute more. Add the squash and sauté for 6 to 7 minutes, just until the squash begins to soften. Season with the chile powder and salt. Add the kale and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute, until it begins to wilt.
Remove from the heat, taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt if needed. Serve with the tortillas, crema, pumpkin seeds, onion, cilantro, and salsa. To assemble each taco, invite guests to spoon about 1/2 cup of the warm filling into a tortilla and top with some crema and pumpkin seeds. If guests want more toppings, they can finish off their tacos with onion, cilantro, and salsa.
Fresh watermelon juice is given the tequila treatment here for the ultimate refreshing summer cocktail. The juice is easy to make but doesn’t keep well, so make only as much as you can use within a day or so. The chile salt gives it a bit of a wake-up call, but you could skip it if you want something purely pretty in pink.
Chile salt (see below), for coating glass rim and flavoring
Coat the rim of a 10-ounce tumbler with the salt, then fill the tumbler with ice. Put 3 or 4 of the cilantro sprigs and a pinch of the salt in a cocktail shaker and muddle together with a muddler or a wooden spoon. Fill the shaker with ice, add the watermelon juice, tequila, lime juice, and agave syrup and shake vigorously. Strain into the tumbler. Garnish with the remaining cilantro sprig and serve.
Fresh watermelon juice
To make the watermelon juice, scoop flesh from a ripe seedless watermelon, puree it in a blender until liquefied, and strain it through a fine-mesh sieve. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for no more than a day or two
1 cup agave nectar
1 cup warm water
Mix together and strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a glass container with an airtight top. Store in the refrigerator. It should last indefinitely.
We like to rub glass rims with a lemon wedge before dipping them in this salt to coat. Makes a scant 1/2 cup
4 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon chile powder
In a small bowl, whisk together the salt, paprika, cayenne, and chili powder, mixing well.