Satisfy your soft-taco craving at Mamacita

Mamacita, which opened over a year ago in Café Marimba’s old space, continues to wave the banner of regional Mexican cooking made with fresh ingredients.

Mamacita’s longish menu of interesting dishes, all served family-style, still draws on San Francisco’s ample supply of authentic Mexican ingredients, and boasts the local provenance of meats and seafood. Chef/owner Sam Josi knows what people want to eat in a modern Mexican restaurant — spicy, deep-flavored food that isn’t too heavy. He gives us just that.

Though everyone’s first impulse is to start with guacamole and chips, I’d pass here. Garlicky pureed avocado with cooked-tasting tomato salsa doesn’t do it for me.

Jump right into Mamacita’s deluxe chilaquiles ($11), Mexico’s celebration of the refried tortilla chip. The chips are tossed in a frying pan with juicy, shredded chicken, braised peppers and onions called rajas and smoky-hot chipotle cream. Mounded into a flat bowl and topped with crumbled queso fresco (fresh, salty Mexican cheese), this irresistible mixture is soft yet toothsome, smoldering and voluptuous — a destination dish.

Albondigas ($10) are made with Niman ground beef, scented with cumin, sauced with tobacco-y chile-infused tomato sauce and enriched with creamy masa polenta.

Chiles rellenos at Mamacita uses small, thick-skinned jalapeno chiles, hot but not searing, stuffed with goat cheese and pureed black beans. They get a thick, crisp, cornmeal crust and a salad of little lettuces Latin-ized with a dusting of aged queso cotija.

In the seafood department, try escolar veracruzano ($15), a filet of crisply fried fish draped in a tomato sauce chunky with capers and pickled Mexican peppers, atop creamy cornmeal polenta. A cloud of micro-greens, little wisps of nascent vegetation, adds lift.

Maybe the most winning preparations of all are Mamacita’s soft tacos, a holdover from the old Café Marimba. You get three heaped mini-corn tortillas to an order. Mahi borracho ($14), beer-battered fingers of fish drizzled with a pink lime-chile mayonnaise, perch on juicy cabbage slaw. The tacos filled with carnitas ($12), slow cooked-pork, layered with that garlicky avocado puree (which works here); the lively tomatillo salsa, a garnish of Mexican crema and a sprinkle of aged queso, are just plain addictive.

For dessert, dunk hot churros ($7), long, crunchy fritters, into whipped cream-topped hot chocolate.

A nicely balanced house margarita ($8) served in a tall glass over ice will last throughout the meal if your intent is lubrication, not inebriation. For something really special, have one made with Herradura Anejo tequila ($11).

The charming Oaxacan folk art and the bright colors of Café Marimba have disappeared, though the crushing noise level remains. The interior has taken on the more subdued, earth-tone color scheme of an adobe village at night, evoked by twinkling votives and star-shaped hanging light fixtures. A raised communal table next to the bar is almost always full, as is the dining room, which has a policy of keeping half its seats open for walk-ins. And walk in they do.

The crowd is surprisingly diverse, especially during the week, self-selected by those who can stand the almost painful noise level. Mitigating the aural discomfort is Mamacita’s unfailingly cordial and efficient service. My strategy is to come in early or late, when the crush has lessened, for my fix of soft tacos on the north side of town.

Mamacita

Location: 2317 Chestnut St., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 346-8494; www.mamacitasf.com

Hours: Kitchen open 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily; bar open until midnight

Price range: $6 to $16

Recommended dishes: Soft tacos, chilaquiles, albondigas, escolar veracruzano, churros

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted; half the tables are reserved for walk-ins

Patricia Unterman’s San Francisco Food Lover’s Pocket Guide is available at bookstores now. Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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