Mexico DF serves soulful, simple fare

The carnitas at Mexico DF looked dry and uninviting, but I picked up a small dark brown hunk of this pork — long cooked in its own fat — and popped it in my mouth. I should have guessed how chef David Rosales’ carnitas would burst open between my teeth, releasing an explosion of pure pork flavor captured in a crackling crisp crust. Its interior was greaseless, moist, lubriciously tender.

When wrapped in a small, hot, freshly made corn tortilla and drizzled with one of three haunting hand-crushed salsas and maybe a spoonful of warm cactus and chayote salad ($5), well, I challenge anyone to find a better mouthful in the Bay Area.

The carnitas were not the only surprise at Mexico DF, a restaurant that opened seven months ago to carping reviews. After several recent meals there, I can’t wait to go back. Mexico DF is the Frontera Grill of San Francisco.

Start at the top of the daily printed menu, with octopus and scallop ceviche ($12), a colorful melange of slivered shellfish, red onions, capers and green olives that is tart, salty, juicy and sweet. Scoop it up with the thinnest house-made tortilla chips.

Or try the lunchtime ceviche of the day ($12), like Kona-farmed kampachi, tossed with tiny cubes of papaya, threads of basil, sea salt and a whisper of lime and olive oil — subtle and elegantly balanced.

Select some little dishes to share. Turnover-style quesadillas ($12), soft masa dough filled with oozing Oaxacan cheese and squash blossoms get punch from a creamy-textured guacamole with an unbashful green chile afterburn.

Crispy flautas ($12) filled with rich roasted duck are draped in anexciting, smouldering-hot red chile sauce, queso fresco and crema, to another layered experience.

Anyone who has been in Mexico knows that a huarache is a leather sandal. At Mexico DF, the huarache ($10) is an elegant ballet slipper of soft masa, topped with thin, buttery slices of grilled short rib, a crumble of dry, salty Mexican cheese and a smoky tomatillo salsa. It’s garnished with a necklace of bones from which the assiduous eater can gnaw bits of meat.

Frankly, anything on this menu thrills — barbecue goat tacos with nopales ($12); addictive lunchtime chilaquiles ($13), fried tortilla chips cooked in a complex hot red chile sauce enriched by a fried egg; juicy, crisp skinned chicken in a light, bright, Michoacan-style mole ($18) accompanied with spinach and fresh shell beans.

The kitchen cooks everything with a light hand and a level of refinement that allows you to taste these Mexican dishes in a new way. Not fussy or overworked, these plates are simple, radiant and just the way I want to eat today.

The small bar in the front room that opens onto the sidewalk concocts top shelf margaritas and mojitos with fresh fruit. Yes, music plays and voices reverberate in the colorful dining room, but not too loudly. The waiters remove eye-catching brightly painted ceramic place settings when they bring square white share-plates. They also organize the dishes you order so that the meal flows nicely.

Maybe at the beginning there were glitches, but how any of my fellow reviewers could have mistaken Mexico DF’s sublime carnitas, salsas, ceviches or huaraches for taco-truck fare is beyond me. The Mexico DF crew turns out highly sophisticated, yet soulful, cuisine.

Mexico DF

Location: 139 Steuart St., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 808-1048; www.mex-df.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m Tuesday through Saturday; 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday

Price range: Small plates, $8-$12; big plates, $15-$26

Recomended dishes: Carnitas, huaraches, chilaquiles, octopus-and-scallop ceviche, tacos

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

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