Food & Drink

Mole and mezcal


FOOD Roughly a month after Sabrosa opened its tinted doors to flocks of the rarer type of Marina patron — one hungry for trend-pushing, flavor-forward cuisine — word got out that the plates outshine the cocktails at this upscale Mexican restaurant and bar.

With Chef Jose Ramos of Nopalito at the stove, braising up a mole-darkened storm of costilla de puerco, it’s easy to taste why. The confit pork short ribs slid off the bone with more ease than it took to scoop up mashed plantains. The Veracruzan Xico mole intertwined spices sweet, savory, and earthy all at once, imbibing the meat with a moisture so viscous (and I say this with only the highest compliments) that I mistook myself for an earthworm and the mole for luscious mud. I wanted to bottle it and drink it through a straw.

Ramos’ dishes manifest from memories of growing up as a child on a small farm in Guanajuato, Mexico. Recipes taught by his mother, aunt, and grandmother surface on the menu, recast as gourmet. The food captures a cultural authenticity of various regions of Mexico while contributing to the newest trend in local eateries: high-end Mexican. Much like the decades-old “California Cuisine” pioneered by Alice Waters, this modern twist on Mexican cooking conjures up a vision of authenticity while keeping a cactus-like claw on top of the fine dining scene.


Take the salpicón de jaiba, where Dungeness crab, chayote squash, carrots, onions, and watermelon radish meld in a kindling of colorful citrus slivers over a turf of guacamole. The dish contains recognizably Mexican elements (guacamole, lime) and familiar American favorites (crab, squash). Yet it also carries hidden flavors — or perhaps creates new ones — through the pairing of exquisite ingredients and techniques.

Chef Ramos was busy the night I was invited to visit. The most I glimpsed of him appeared in the bright green of my salad, which masqueraded briefly as bell peppers, until a slight squish between teeth gave way to delightfully slick, cured nopales amid buttery avocado and sprinkles of cotija cheese. The fresh flavor combination reminded me of my own father’s home-style Mexican cooking — though neither my home nor my father are Mexican.

Matt Stanton, the bar manager, sat down to chat. After opening El Dorado Cocktail Lounge and the Noble Experiment with his brothers in San Diego, Stanton took on the challenge of playing matchmaker between drinks and food at Sabrosa, a position that could be likened to the role of connective tissue in a human body.


First, Stanton had to match the precedence of cocktails set by the previous booze-focused venues of owners Hugo Gamboa, Adam Snyder, and Andy Wasserman. Next, he needed to create a drink menu that would highlight Ramos’ cooking — even create a sort of alcoholic baptism between the varying topographies of the aperitivos, barra fria, tacos y quesedillas, and entradas. Trickiest of all, he hoped to push past the boundaries of swinging saloon doors and run with his ideas, all the while holding hands with the traditional taste buds of the Marina.

“People love their vodka sodas down here,” said Stanton. “But that doesn’t mean the neighborhood isn’t ready to get more adventurous.” Rather than create something revolutionary, he decided to elevate classic cocktails using fresh juices and house-made syrups and grenadines. Next, Stanton incorporated ingredients into the bar that Ramos used in the kitchen, allowing the drink to lead diners into their meals. The Fillmore Añejo cocktail guides your palate into spicy dishes through morita chile-infused honey. With the Macho Margarita, a jalapeño gets lit on fire, then submerged into pueblo viejo blanco, topped with fresh lime, and ringed with cracked salt.

Most of the drinks featured tequila or mezcal, the latter a distillation of agave that many people aren’t yet familiar with. Most who’ve encountered mezcal have drunk a cheap, corn syrup-saturated variety, to which Stanton said, “you might as well stir it with your foot.” (Tip: to test the quality of mezcal, shake the bottle. Bubbles should slowly turn to pearls that cling to the glass, and take a long time to disperse.) So Stanton worked on a few introductory cocktails that would warm diners up to mezcal.

Bartender Adrian Vazquez,however, swore that mezcal is best sipped on its own, the same way it’s drunk in Mexican homes for mystic, medic, and aphrodisiac reasons. Vazquez first gave a salutation to the gods — “Dixeebe!” — then began our mezcal tasting.

Mezcal is made from many different types of agave (not just blue agave, where tequila begins), and is roasted for about five days. The proofs range wildly, as does each flavor. A 42 percent mezcal from an espadin agave grown in the mountains tasted smoky, floral, and pungent, while a 47.8 percent espadin tasted oily and dry from the desert air where it was grown. A third mezcal, smelling of leather, came from a white mountain agave called tobala that grew, as Vazquez put it in his soft accent, “under the shadow.”

When I slipped out of Sabrosa and into the shadows that night, I couldn’t decide which had impressed more: Ramos’ dishes or my newfound taste for mezcal. *




Open daily, 11am-3:30pm (lunch), 5:30-11pm (dinner), bar till 2am

Weekend brunch 10am-3:30pm

3200 Fillmore, SF

(415) 638-6500

Carb your enthusiasm


On a bright November afternoon, I ducked into Biondivino, a tiny but tremendously well-stocked Italian wine shop in Russian Hill, to meet John Pauley and Anna Li of Mattarello — an artisanal, handmade pasta pop-up.

Li, a Europe-raised, multilingual physician by day and tortellini-shaper by night, greeted familiar faces while pulling bundles of sage pappardelle, whole-wheat tagliatelle, parsley-garlic tagliatelle, squid ink spaghetti, saffron cavatelli, and the coveted tortellini al brodo from inside a cooler. Pauley, a former chef at several restaurants including the nearby La Folie, now works as a full-time sfoglini, or Bolognese-style pasta maker, for the couple’s two-year-old venture. If he was tired after spending five-and-a-half hours rolling out 50 pounds of dough (and subsequently stuffing and shaping it into 26 portions of thimble-sized, knotted nuggets), it didn’t show.

Walking me along the foldout table where pastas winked with specks of semolina, Pauley discussed their journey into la sfoglia. Five years ago while traveling in Bologna, a culinary capital known for parmigiano reggiano, prosciutto, mortadella, and tortellini, Pauley apprenticed with pasta makers Franco and Grazia Macchiavelli of Salumeria Bruno e Franco.

“In Bologna, pasta making is pretty much women’s work,” Pauley explained. Naturally, the women at the school were intrigued that a man would come all the way from San Francisco to learn their practice. “We all fell in love with each other,” said Pauley.

Mattarello maintains the same authentic spirit as the pasta made in Bologna. “Tortellini is as Bolognese as the Golden Gate Bridge is [San Franciscan],” said Pauley. Yet he was quick to point out that authenticity means different things to different people. In Bologna, tortellini is only eaten in broth. “To change something, you have to understand where it comes from. You start with a 450-year-old recipe for tortellini.”

In the US, Li and Pauley noticed, the bar for pasta has been set very low. Americans treat it as a vehicle for heaping on store-bought sauce and every vegetable in the pantry. On the other hand, explained Pauley, “the mistake other people make is that bringing a virgin olive oil or cheese back from Italy doesn’t make that food authentic. The spirit of cooking authentic Italian food here would mean, say, using great artisan prosciutto from Iowa.”

Pauley’s version of tortellini involves driving two hours to get the perfect farm eggs. “The hardest part is finding the right coloring. The egg yolks need to be orange to make the pasta really golden.”

He makes almost everything by hand in order to “get intimate with the pasta.” It’s not supposed to look perfect. The tortellini is stuffed with a mix of pork loin, eggs, parmesan, nutmeg, salt, and breadcrumbs; rolled; and sold the very next day.

That night I cooked the golden knots until they bobbed to the top of my boiling pot for several seconds, and slid a spoonful into my mouth. The texture alone was startling — the silk of the broth combined with an elastic, tender chew of pasta, creating a wholly new experience. The flavor came almost as an afterthought, in a delightfully grounding depth of meat, lift of nutmeg, and occasional bite of pepper, wrapped snugly between the sweet broth containing the brined memory of gently bruised vegetables. It only helped that the sky had turned dark and rainy.

The exception to Pauley’s handmade rule comes in the form of squid ink spaghetti, when he swaps the mattarello (or rolling pin, after which the pop-up was named), for the torchio, or “my torture device,” as he calls it. It began as a fun experiment after a trip to the Amalfi Coast, but customers can’t order enough, and La Folie has begun ordering it for its menu. “It’s too good of a product,” said Pauley, shrugging.

I leaned closer to the coiled ropes, noticing that they smelled strongly of the ocean in their pre-boiled state. I pinched one end of a beautiful black noodle, rubbed the Play-Doh-like string between my fingers, and took a bite. Raw, it contained an oddly tender chew. Cooked, it firmed up, yet remained fragile, pliable — I was seized with the desire to create a whole new adjective to describe these noodles, because the ones that came to mind couldn’t adequately capture what I tasted.

An epiphany: Fresh pasta is the dish. You need never wonder what you’re going to do with pasta — you’re not going to dress it, or drown it. You’re going to eat it. I ate these squid noodles in Mattarello tomato sauce for round one, which hid the essence of the sea more than I wished. I went lighter in round two, with a squirt of lemon juice, a plop of butter, a glop of olive oil, grated parmesan, and (this may sound strange) small chunks of avocado. Delectable, absolutely.

Amid San Francisco’s ultra-hip, ultra-now pop-up scene, Li and Pauley have witnessed friends turn their transitory trucks and tables into brick-and-mortar restaurants. They have business-savvy friends who tell them that now is the time to move forward.

“We know we’re at a fork, but we don’t know yet which prong we’re going to take,” said Pauley. He briefly pondered a larger pop-up, or expanding into more locations, but opening an eatery doesn’t appeal. “Anna is a doctor, and I don’t miss the restaurant scene, the appetizers, the entrées, the running around.” Pauley stops to say hi to friends entering Biondivino, then concludes, “I love making love to my dough. I love doing this.” *

Mattarello’s next pop-up is Dec. 22, noon-3pm at Biondivino, 1415 Green, SF. For future locations and pre-ordering, visit


Gobble online


FOOD AND DRINK As Thanksgiving nears, along with the daunting task of writing up the grocery list, more food-savvy family chefs are swapping the commercially manufactured Broad Breasted White for a heritage turkey, which promises better flavor through a higher standard of bird life. Famous local grower Bill Niman of BN Ranch is trying to give his free-range, GMO-free, organic heritage birds a wider audience by offering them for order: starting at $98.98 for an eight-10 pound bird, delivered anywhere in the US, through his website, We caught up with him to ask what all the cluck’s about.

SF Bay Guardian What breeds of heritage turkey do you raise on BN Ranch?

Bill Niman Narragansett, Standard Bronze, and Spanish Blacks.

SFBG What is an average lifespan?

BN From hatching to market, probably 28 weeks.

SFBG How many do you raise for one holiday season?

BN This year we have about 8,000 heritage turkeys.

SFBG What do your turkeys eat?

BN It’s a GMO free ration. We’ve been struggling for about three years now to get something that’s GMO free, and this year we were able to do that 100 percent.

SFBG The other distinguishing factor of heritage turkeys, besides lifespan and feed, is their ability to mate on their own?

BN As extraordinary as that might sound. [Laughs.] And they can fly. And they don’t get sick. And they’re hearty. And they’re interesting, and intelligent. It’s all the things you’d expect from any animal in the barnyard.

SFBG What’s the basic personality of a heritage?

BN Turkeys are really cruel to each other, in the pecking order and whatnot, surprisingly cruel — but they’re really friendly to humans. When they’re young, 6 to 8 weeks old, they fly up and land on your shoulder, they follow you around, and in a sense we become surrogate mothers. You can call, and they follow you. I suspect these turkeys that we raise are so close to being feral, they’re so much like their wild ancestors. They could fly away anytime they want to. But they waddle up to the building, and say, “Kill me and eat me.” That’s probably how turkey became part of Thanksgiving, because they’re ready to be eaten in the fall.

SFBG How do you manage to see the turkeys as both animals and as meat?

BN You mean sending them to slaughter? Well, it is difficult, and it doesn’t get easier with numbers. What’s important is to make sure the animals only have one bad day on the farm. For me and our operations, it’s essential that we are at the slaughterhouse, making sure that it’s done as properly and as humanely as possible. We do that because we respect the animals, but we also know that there’s a very direct correlation between the eating quality of the animals and their temperament at slaughter.

SFBG What about flavor?

BN They rule in taste tests, the heritage turkeys. The entire bird, even though it has a white breast, has the wonderful characteristics of the dark meat.

SFBG Got any favorite Thanksgiving preparation?

BN Yes I do. You cook the turkey till the breast meat is done, take it out, remove the leg and thigh, put them back in covered, and roast them for an additional half an hour, while the breast stays on the carcass on the counter, warm and covered.


Best of the Bay 2013: BEST NEW GOLD RUSH


Friends, we have eaten gold leaf. That’s what they’re serving these days at the new digs of the most lauded restaurant in SF, Saison: a voluptuous dish of sea urchin over grilled root custard in a handmade Japanese ceramic bowl, topped with a generous skin of melted gold. (Let’s settle one question right away: no, our toilet wasn’t gilded the next morning. Nor did we use the leaf to fake a grill.) It’s part of the $248 tasting menu, $396 with insane wine pairing, at this two-star Michelin hotspot. Don’t worry, there’s a bar menu featuring reserve caviar dolloped over corn pudding and grilled Australian black truffle stew, both at $88, cough. Look, we have to hand it to renegade chef Joshua Skenes and sommelier and co-owner Mark Bright — if you ever can/want to shell out $400 for a meal (ours was a press comp), this is the absolutely perfect one. Fourteen courses of the best the world has to offer, served in jaw-dropping ways. Yet it was the metaphorical combination of the dish mentioned above — gold smothering an urchin — that rang particularly true of this moment in San Francisco history. The delicious, flashy rush. And then what lies beneath it, left behind.

178 Townsend, SF. (415) 828-7990,


Best of the Bay 2013: BEST WORLD SOUND BITES


Watch live flamenco and Arabian fusion music while you dance with a side of papas bravas and plantains. Take in the All-Star Latin Band on weekly Cuban and world music nights while munching Andean fresh corn tamales and yuca frita with cashew cream. Yes, North Beach’s intimate cultural center and restaurant Peña Pachamama (“on a little side street in San Francisco’s old Latin Quarter somewhere between Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, and endless Italian late-night cafes”) offers up such startlingly refreshing culinary-auditory pairings, nearly every night of the week. The friendly South American restaurant and performance venue offers an exceptional range of cultural treats for your tummy and mind, and begs this simple question: why is it so damn hard to find vegan, gluten free, and/or deliciously organic cuisine at other music venues in veg-friendly San Francisco? No matter — Peña Pachamama has already delivered the goods, and they are spicy.

1630 Powell, SF. (415) 646-0018,



Spurn the crowds across the street at ever-popular Taqueria Cancun’s Bernal-side outpost. You, a seasoned Missionite, have had your fill of what one of our dear ones likes to call “the Mexican death log.” Burrito fiend you are not — which is why in your wisdom your tummy’s late night call has led you to a late-night Salvadorean restaurant, sounding thusly: “pupusa…” They’re no baby-sized gut bomb, the pupusas at El Zocalo. These traditional steaming pocket-like snacks come stuffed with cheese (of course), but also zucchini, loroco, feta even for those sick of stringy quesos. And lucky you, the family joint stays open until three in the morning, so it’s ready for whenever you graduate to the next level with San Francisco snacking.

3230 Mission, SF. (415) 282-2572

Best of the Bay 2013: BEST POT LUCK


An invention that seems perfect for the busy-yet-locavore-obsessed Bay Area (though test markets are popping up in Brooklyn, New Orleans, and LA) sustainable ready-to-eat delivery service Good Eggs seems to have it all. But for our money — and yes, it’s not exactly cheap — there is one among Eggs’ many intriguing, locally produced offerings that intrigues the most: caterer Max Pouvreau’s Petit Pot. Did you know that everything tastes better in a Weck jar? This is the height of Bay food trendiness on the go: Try jarred lamb shoulder and spring onion tagine with prunes and roasted almonds, followed by a jarred dark chocolate buttermilk cake with coffee whipped cream and cocoa nibs. All delivered to your door! Bonus: $3 deposits on your round glass meal carriers means return customers get a sweet (savory?) discount.

Best of the Bay 2013: BEST NOLA WEST


Appropriately, the Chapel opened last year with a string of concerts by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a group named for its origin point at NOLA’s Preservation Hall jazz venue. That’s the spot Valencia Street’s new place for music worship (officially known as Preservation Hall West at the Chapel) is modeled after, and endlessly inspired by, be it in in the form of design, live music, or eats. This year, the well-crafted, multilevel, many-roomed Chapel has expanded its musical offerings, dabbling in folk, rock’n’roll, and indie bands like La Sera, Magic Trick, and Weekend, along with more traditional jazz acts, and what-the-hell randomly awesome offerings like Sparks or actor-musician John C. Reilly with Lavender Diamond. It also opened the attached Vestry Restaurant, which offers a full menu leaning more on the SF gourmet side, with items like the duck confit flatbread or seared scallops with beet risotto. During shows, patrons can peep live acts from the open upstairs balcony, from the dramatic main room down below, or perched on a bar stool in the shiny wooded lounge with closed-circuit flat screens, high-end cocktails like the Old Overholt rye-based Ward Eight, and yummy bar bites like shrimp po’ boys that subtly wink at NOLA pride.

777 Valencia, SF. (415) 551-5157,