John Anderson, former reporter, Kennedy campaigner, Hector Berlioz fanatic and downtown ad man’s lawyer — and his tall, elegant, raven-haired wife Jola, longtime San Francisco Ballet board member and founder of La Parisienne, a shop that sold all things beautiful and Parisian — took me for tacos in South City the other evening.
Anderson, who adored the old Jack’s on Sacramento Street, discovered that Rafael Vizcaino, a cook at the restaurant for 26 years, had opened his own taqueria called Los Compadres when the original Jack’s was sold. Rumor had it that Vizcaino would prepare a complete Jack’s meal — given enough warning — at the taqueria.
Jack’s, for you poor souls who don’t remember, was a prescient San Francisco-style French restaurant that specialized in dishes such as mesquite grilled chops, bearnaise sauce, deep-fried eggplant fingers, crab Louie and celery Victor. The menu was printed daily on a single-page. It was the Financial District clubhouse for 100 years.
At any rate, Anderson was so taken by Vizcaino’s home-style Mexican food dished out from behind the Los Compadres counter, that he forgot about resurrecting his beloved Jack’s, loosened his tie and lost himself in a combination plate. I was right there with him.
All the components of Los Compadres mix-and-match menu are so fresh, so perfectly seasoned, so alive, they add up to aluscious Jaliscan feast.
In one corner of the menu board you’ll find Los Compadres Especiales ($8.75), a list of different meats to go with rice, beans, salad and made-to-order corn tortillas. My favorite, al pastor, hunks of barbecued pork with crisp, spicy edges, makes a stunning wrap-it-yourself tortilla package. The juicy, aromatic pork stands up to fresh tomato salsa, chopped salad, a dab of slightly tangy Mexican crema, avocado, a few whole pinto beans and the thick, soft, tortilla, making each bite a miniature meal.
Los Compadres’ menu features fresh, flavorful versions of classic dishes, including, from left, flan, caldo de mariscos (seafood soup), and particularly delicious chile rellenos.
Another category, the combination plate ($8.75), brings together two Los Compadres dishes with all the trimmings. I am particularly fond of chicken enchiladas filled with moist chicken in a green sauce that brings on the heat gradually. The chile rellenos ooze with cheese and frying oil. Reheating them in a microwave doesn’t do them justice. Quesadillas made with fresh corn tortillas that actually taste like corn are a better bet for lovers of fresh, white Mexican cheese.
In addition to these regular items, which include, of course, burritos and tacos, Vizcaino posts handwritten daily specials. They are fabulous, true examples of central Mexican home cooking. One night I had a big bowl of sopa de albondigas ($8), three huge, loosely textured meatballs, savory and deeply seasoned, in an aromatic, dried chile-infused broth scattered with fresh cilantro leaves. At lunch one Monday, I was surprised by a voluptuous Jalisco-style chicken mole ($8.75) in a sea of smooth, velvety, bronze mole sauce scented with sweet spices including cinnamon and clove, and just a hintof the tobacco-y edge of dried red chiles.
I know why John Anderson is as crazy as I am about timeless South City and the immaculate Los Compadres, with its cheerful mustard colored adobe walls trimmed with a painted brown fence and little brown horses. Vizcaino’s plates remind him of what a meal used to be like in San Francisco — big, rich, hearty, and totally indulgent, like a good, boozy lunch at the old Jack’s.
Location: 116 Grand Ave., South San Francisco
Contact: (650) 583-5772
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday though Thursday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Price range: $2 to $8.75
Recommended dishes: Al pastor special plate; chicken enchiladas; combination plates; daily specials including chicken mole and sopa de albondigas
Credit cards: Cash only
Reservations: Not accepted
Los Compadres’ taco trucks are at various locations in San Francisco.
LOS COMPADRES’ TACO TRUCKS
The best items at Los Compadres’ two shiny, metal taco trucks are taquitos — for all of $3. I got two: a lovely little tongue taco on fresh, hot, doubled-up corn tortillas with red sauce, green salsa, chopped white onion and fresh cilantro leaves, plus a taco topped with buttery carnitas. Neatly constructed on a small paper plate, they were garnished with radish slices, an excellent pickled jalapeno and carrot, and a half key lime. Many order the super taco ($5), which comes in a white paper carton and seems more like a casserole. Two corn tortillas at the bottom were completely hidden beneath layers of beans, rice, meat of choice, lettuce, grated cheese, salsa, guacamole and crema, all of which together weighed about a pound and had to be eaten with a plastic knife and fork. Tasty, yes, but non-descript. I’ll stick with the demure soft mini-tacos on which you can really taste Los Compadres succulent meats.
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at email@example.com.