Customarily when I dine outside the boundaries of the Garden State it’s to cross either the Hudson or the Delaware. Recently, I trekked clear across the country.
Nopalito & Izakaya Yuzuki: Delicious Food at Reasonable Prices
You know how it’s always the locals who know the best little neighborhood places in a big city? Well, imagine my delight when the “locals” in the know turn out to be one of my own daughters and her boyfriend. Nopalito – there are actually two locations because it’s just that popular – serves up simply the best straightforward Mexican food I have eaten outside of Mexico City.
There are two key factors that account for Nopalito’s success. First, many of the ingredients are organic, sustainable, and local. Masa, made from organic corn, is ground in-house and tortillas are hand-formed. Chorizo and queso fresco are made on the premises, too. Blue Bottle coffee is served. Key factor number two: the two chefs behind Nopalito, Jose Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman. They started out at Nopalito’s parent restaurant, the more formal Nopa (which serves Northern California cuisine), where as part of their cooking duties they were tasked with making the “family” meals for staff. These were so delicious, Nopa’s owners offered them their own spinoff.
Nopalito’s setting is casual in the extreme and its short menu covers the basics. Don’t let either of those factors fool you into thinking it’s run of the mill. Ceviche and carnitas are revelations. Tamales change with the season and should not be missed. (In July, I downed the Empipianado, with pork and two kinds of seeds. It’s now replaced with a summer squash, corn, and tomato version.) A pitcher of margaritas would not be amiss (Pueblo Viejo Blanco, Combier, agave nectar, and lime), for $33. Prices, for the quality, are ridiculously reasonable – like $15.50 for carnitas or carne asada and $4.50 for a beef gordita. Plus, the staff is friendly and although Nopalito doesn’t take reservations, you can call ahead when you’re on your way and get put on the list.
I learned about Izakaya Yuzuki, on the other hand, from Princetonian Fran McManus, longtime marketing director of that town’s Whole Earth Center. Yes, it’s Japanese – but it doesn’t serve sushi. Instead, it focuses on cooked dishes featuring “koji,” the fermenting agent used since ancient times to make many essential Japanese foods and ingredients, including (but not limited to) sake, miso, and soy sauce.
In the introduction to her menu, Izakaya Yuzuki‘s owner, Yuko Hayashi, explains that “the preparation of koji…demands much time and close attention. As a result, this beautiful and sophisticated tradition as been cast off for faster, cheaper methods” and mass production. Whatever – the food speaks for itself.
We happened to hit this small storefront restaurant in the Mission (near Tartine) at the tail-end of a weekday happy hour, when both food and sake were offered at prices we couldn’t resist. We loaded up with small plates (and by small I mean a couple of bites each) and a flight of 4 sakes (each in an amazingly different style). Among the many standouts was a combo dish of 3 vegetables of the day that featured smoky sautéed spinach and sweet potatoes with crisp skins and custardy insides. Sweet clams and Japanese cucumbers in red miso also pleased, but what blew me away was – and I realize this sounds dreadful – squid cooked in its own liver. Couldn’t get enough.
Among the consistently excellent larger dishes (although still not exactly large) are Kobe beef tataki and whole, air-dried horse mackerel – crispy skinned and butterflied – with daikon ponzu sauce. More conventional but no less lip-smacking are grilled chicken wings and chicken meatballs on a skewer. As at Nopalito, many of the ingredients are fresh, organic, and from local and sustainable sources, and even the soy sauce and tofu are made in-house.
Izakaya Yuzuki offers 24 sakes, as well as beer, shochu, and a nicely curated list of European wines that are well matched to the fare. One final detail not to be missed: the restroom has a high-tech heated toilet seat.