A fire-engine-red edifice and azure doors usher patrons into the technicolor interior of Estrada's Mexican & Caribbean Restaurant, an expansive eatery that celebrates the succulence and spiciness of Mexican and Caribbean cuisine. Semicircle booths with glass tabletops hoist up traditional Mexican dishes loaded with sautéed beef, chicken, and vegetables, as well as platters that circulate the aromas of Caribbean delicacies such as fried yucca and plantains. Patrons who sidle over to the restaurant's full bar receive rewards in the form of south-of-the-border beer, homemade sangria, and Academy Awards for Best Chugging.
To some San Franciscans, a trek to the East Bay qualifies as a lengthy daytrip. One can only imagine their reluctance to travel hundreds of miles for authentic Mexican cuisine. Thankfully, Melissa’s Taqueria brings south-of-the-border flavors to Brisbane with a menu of tacos, enchiladas, and burritos packed with carne asada and al pastor. The kitchen stays busy throughout the day as chefs churn out dinner plates and breakfasts of pancakes and huevos rancheros.
A 15-year fixture in the bustling Mission District, El Tonayense invokes the sizzling flavors of Jaliscan street food with an array of traditional Mexican entrees and coastal seafood dishes. Tacos and burritos fill belly-piñatas to near bursting as diners sample from a meaty smorgasbord of carne asada, al pastor, and succulent prawn dishes. To spice up their south-of-the-border staples, El Tonayense’s chefs craft secret recipes of red and green salsas that dance across palates to the up-tempo beats of chomping teeth.
“Elixirs” and “Edibles,” boasts the gaudy signs out front, and that’s what keeps people coming back to this darkly wonderful Mexican restaurant time and again. Forget true interpretations of Mexican classics; Velvet Cantina is about subversion, in their menu and inside the restaurant. Tall, looming booths swallow up visiting birthday party groups, and the deep red hue that serves as the only light in the place is perhaps better suited to a film developer’s lab than a true cantina. Mirrored walls give an unending depth to the place, while outsized pitchers of margaritas – made with organic juices, naturally – seem equally bottomless. Velvet Cantina is not the place for pitch-perfect chilaquiles or plates of outstanding carnitas – rather, it’s the after-work and occasional weekend party spot for locals looking to escape for a while. Be it into a booth, a pitcher of margaritas or a plate of Americanized Mexican food.
To Drink: More than 60 tequilas make an appearance in margaritas made with fresh, organic lime juice. Guests can also sample mango-infused tequilas or cucumber gimlets spiced with serrano chilies.
The Vibe: According to Amanda Berne of SFGate, the atmosphere is “dark, rather sultry and could pass as a bordello—in a good way.”
Where to Sit: Although the Velvet Cantina has two low-lit dining areas surrounded in warm red hues and copper lighting, the bar area is regularly recommended for its oversize booths and views of the bartenders at work.
When to Go: Weekend crowds tend to be large and boisterous. For a calmer, more casual meal, try stopping by during the workweek.
While You’re Waiting
While You’re in the Neighborhood
Before: Scour the collection of rare and vintage LPs at Explorist International (3174 24th Street).
After: Catch a jazz or indie-rock concert at Red Poppy Art House (2698 Folsom Street), a micro-venue dedicated to promoting local art and culture.
Who’s in the Kitchen
Antojitos: Spanish for “snack” or “little cravings.” It’s used to describe Mexican street food, which can range from tacos and tostadas to fresh fruit and traditional soups.
Mole: there are many regional varieties of this rich sauce, but chilies, spices, and mexican chocolate are the most common ingredients. It’s typically served atop poultry or pork.
While You’re in the Neighborhood
Before: Stoke dinnertime conversation with a flick at the Presidio Theatre (2340 Chesnut Street).
After: Peruse the shelves at Books Inc. (2251 Chesnut Street)—it’s open till 10 p.m.