Mateo’s Taqueria at 2471 Mission St.took over the space left by the very short-lived Jamie’s, which replaced the long-lived torta shop (whose name I can’t remember). I watched the façade change – they painted the Victorian building above black and put in a modern, sleek taco and burrito spot. The question is, did the Mission need a new taqueria, especially one like this?
Most of the taquerias within a five- block radius have been around a good 10-20 years. They’re all a little run-down, they pretty much sell the same items, in varying degrees of authenticity and deliciousness. Everyone has their favorites – La Taqueria, El Ben Sabor, and Taqueria San Jose being a few of mine. Mateo’s looks like a cool warehouse space with its concrete floors and funky, brightly-colored accents. The place, being new, with its large, open, stainless steel kitchen, is spotless, and you get the feeling it’s going to remain that way for quite a long while. The seating is communal, with a few window stool seats so you can watch the crowds go by on Mission.
We spoke to Mateo (“Matt”) on one of our visits. He told us that the taqueria is owned by five friends – four of whom live in the City. Matt grew up in his grandmother’s café in Noe Valley. He bussed tables, prepped, cooked; and one of his co-partners has 12 years in the food industry as well. As for the cooks themselves – he lit up – “They’re really good.” The friends had been discussing opening a restaurant together for four years. They decided upon a taqueria, and wanted to keep it simple, and the price point reasonably low. At some point, Matt says, they may add more elaborate dishes, like enchiladas – perhaps for brunch – but for now, they wanted to stick to the basics. Mateo told us to come by on a weekend – until they get their license, it’s a BYOB situation, and the place has been quite lively.
You can see that Mateo’s is a labor of love, a dedication to food that is free of GMOs, prepared with natural and organic ingredients, local when possible, while still trying to be authentic and tasty.
On our first visit, the BF ordered his standard – a super carne asada burrito, which comes with rice, choice of beans (he went with whole black), guacamole, crema, cheese and of course, the meat. The organic flour tortillas, we were told, were hand-made in Sonoma. The burritos are griddled here, instead of steamed and pressed, which gives them a nice outer crunch. The carne asada shone through all the ingredients; it was a very flavorful beef, well-marinated and seasoned. (The BF is pretty picky about his burritos and said it was now the next best thing to Taqueria Cancun’s, his favorite in the Mission.)
Definitely a Mission-style burrito – as you can see, it’s almost the length of his forearm.
We asked for and received chips and salsa, which one of the owners brought to our table. They charge 75 cents for a large order of chips. They’re really good chips, though, housemade. I really feel taquerias should have free chips – at least one basket – and a salsa bar, which Mateo’s will have shortly. In the meantime, we asked for and were given three salsas – the habanero, tomatillo, and a molcajete (mortar and pestle) red sauce, which had a little bit of a chipotle thing going on (though it could have used a little more, as I found it very tame). All were good and fresh – especially the tomatillo. And the habanero one made me sniffle and tear up – always a good sign.
I ordered the La Mission Taco – a surf-and-turf deal with carne asada marinated in guajillo chile and cactus, and big fat shrimps in a chile de arbol citrus sauce. Those shrimps were perfectly cooked, and the carne asada was really delicious, nice and chewy and a bit charred.
I also had to have a fish taco. Fish tacos are never as good away from the streets of Ensenada, Tijuana, Rosarito Beach…. Maybe you’ll find a place that does a decent job in San Diego, but I’ve never had one that tastes like they do south of the border. Until now. The fish was perfectly crispy on the outside – the batter they use must be so light, but there was good coverage, and the wild cod was meltingly tender on the inside, with a tangy crema, and a slaw that contained the only downside of the whole thing – some mango. I love mango. Just not in my salsa/slaw. Not on my fish taco, please. I wish I’d picked it out. But other than that, the taco was a delight. Both tacos benefited from the habanero salsa. I’d have both again.
I had an agua fresca – Jamaica – with my meal…
Jamaica is made with hibiscus flowers and has a lovely ruby color. This one was very refreshing and tart.
On our second visit, the BF got an al pastor burrito, super, of course. Unfortunately, their al pastor isn’t assertive enough to withstand all those fillings. Al Pastor should sing out to you proudly, it should announce its smoky, pinapple-y goodness in whatever form it takes. I’m afraid this one doesn’t hold a vela to Taqueria San Jose’s (arguably the king of al pastor in the Mission.) The meat itself had a really good chewy texture, and I could certainly taste pineapple, but where was the chipotle, the smoke? The BF said it was almost like eating a veggie burrito, since he couldn’t taste the meat. The carne asada had certainly been flavorful enough to hold its own in his burrito our first time. Hopefully they’ll tweak their recipe some.
We got an order of guacamole, and again asked for salsa with the chips – you need both! But the guacamole was really delicious – fresh, very creamy, yet with nice chunks of avocado, and not too limey. I’d like a little more onion flavor to it, but that’s just a quibble.
I got their chorizo and potatoes taco – a classic combination that isn’t on every taqueria’s menu – it was excellent. They make their own chorizo, and you can taste it – it was very fresh and light, not greasy, but really well spiced, juicy, with a good texture, and larger chunks than the norm. Surprisingly, there was very little potato in the mix, which at least means they’re not using it as filler. I would definitely order this again too.
For my beverage this time (they don’t have their beer and wine license yet, but when they do… SANGRIA!), I ordered an horchata (a sweet rice drink – think liquid rice pudding). It came with a whole cinnamon stick and a sprig of mint – a nice touch – and though it had a very slight chalkiness to it, you could tell it was homemade.
Not cloyingly sweet. Delish.
I also decided to try something a little different. I ordered their Dulce Diabla (“Sweet Devil”) quesadilla, which comes with fried plantains and carnitas in a chipotle sauce. I should have known – I guess I just don’t love fruit in my Mexican food very much (other than the pineapple in al pastor). It would have been very good without the plantains. The shredded carnitas, at least, had a good porky flavor. They also make a Mar y Tierra version (the same as my shrimp and carne asada taco), so I’d be all over that.
Our most recent visit, I ordered the Ensalada de Mateo – a nice fresh salad of mixed greens, cabbage, whole black beans, avocado, crispy tortilla strips, crema, queso fresco, a lime epazote (a pungent herb) vinaigrette, and your choice of meat, if you desire. We got it with the carne asada. The salad was really nice, refreshing, crunchy, fresh…though it did need a bit of salt.
The BF got a carne asada taco.
The only problem with our salad and the taco was that the carne asada was not as flavorful as on our first visit; I’m hoping that they’re still working out consistency issues, as carne asada is what we truly measure a taqueria by. Liberal dollops of their habanero sauce came to the rescue, though, and I wolfed the salad down, panting all the way.
So much so, that I had to take half of my short ribs torta (Mexican griddled sandwich) home.
It doesn’t appear on the menu – there’s a burrito with costilla corta, but you can also get it as a torta, and it comes just stuffed with meat, avocados slices, crema and a red cabbage slaw, warm and pressed. The short ribs were to die for – succulent, superbly tender, and rich. When we told Mateo we especially loved the torta, he excitedly told us that was because the meat is braised in a tamarind (a pod-like, tart fruit) sauce for 24 hours. And there went my fruit and Mexican food theory – another dish I’d absolutely get again.
And finally, another refreshing agua fresca: tamarindo! Really good.
They have breakfast items too – I am dying to try their chilaquiles. And, in addition to the beer and wine offerings to come, they’re also going to have a patio out back, probably sometime next year.
Of course, I’ve already heard people complaining that this is a “techie” joint, that it will cater to the Vida crowd (that new monster condo complex just half a block away), that it’s not authentic, etc. At least two of the owners have been on site on each of our visits – manning the cash register, taking orders, and serving food to our table. Everyone has been warm, friendly, welcoming, eager to please and answer questions. Yes, they seem very proud of the fact they’re using organic food and local vendors, yet I got no sense of hipsterism, nor that they felt any moral superiority for doing so.
And no, it’s not your usual Mission-cheap joint. A taco here will set you back $4.00 – 5.00. But the portions are hefty, and of good quality; I’m willing to pay the price now and again. I’m a huge fan of all the old school taquerias near us, and we frequent them often. But I just don’t believe it has to be an either/or situation. I think Mateo’s is a welcome alternative in the Mission, and I’m happy to have a new family in the neighborhood.
2471 Mission Street
Between 21st St & 20th St
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