El Buen Comer (“The Good Eating”) is a fairly new endeavor as a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Isabel Caudillo, chef and owner, opened it only last July, after having cooked and sold her wares at the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market with the help of La Cocina, the Mission District food organization that helps establish low income women as food entrepreneurs. Before that, Chef Caudillo served homey meals right out of her own kitchen to the locals in the Tenderloin. She now lives in the Mission, and we’re lucky to have her and her family-run business. Homestyle cooking with flavors right out of Mexico City. El Buen Comer stands to become an old-school place from the get-go.
Caudillo is known for her “guisados” – slow-cooked stews. Moles are some of the better known stews that come out of Mexico and El Buen Comer has a good offering of them, as well as others that become juicy tacos, or overfilled sopes – thick corn tortilla disks that serve as edible plates, topped with any number of delicious Mexican delicacies.
I was fortunate enough to try it my first time with a large group of people, so we got to taste a lot. Of course, we started with guacamole and chips.
Super limey, creamy guacamole with some good chunks, cotija cheese, served with excellent home-made tortilla chips. You’d best come hungry. Chip basket after chip basket seems to disappear here, what with all the dipping to be done…
Chile de arbol, tomatillo and a simple salsa fresca.
And Margaritas, natch – only these are made with Sabé Blanco, a concoction of tequila mixed with sake, classified as a specialty wine, which allows El Buen Comer to serve ‘ritas with only a beer and wine license. So you can have a few and not feel guilty about it. The drinks had a lightness that was very appealing.
Refreshing and fiery, with their dried chili pepper/tamarind rims. Ay dios mio!
Our group ordered family style and we tried a couple of the moles on offer that night. First up, the Pollo en Morita – braised chicken in a dark, rich, chile morita sauce. Moritas are red jalapenos that have been smoked, not quite as long as chipotles, and they aren’t as spicy
This was lovely and complex, with deep flavors of chocolate and tobacco that come from the peppers. A delicious, comforting dish. I’d definitely order this again.
The mole verde with pork was equally good.
A creamy, dreamy sauce made from pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, cilantro and epazote – a plant used often in Mexican cooking that rather resembles oregano. Simply delicious, the sauce here is the thing. Again, complex and rich.
We also ordered a variety of tacos.
Chicken tinga – pulled chicken stewed in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and chipotle, with cool, creamy queso on top, on their wonderful, homemade corn tortillas. We wolfed these down.
Also, tacos of chorizo and papas.
These may have been my favorite. Lovely, spiced-but-not-hot chorizo, fried potatoes with grated queso fresco on top. There is just something so satisfying about potatoes in a corn tortilla. Another winner.
And finally, egg and rice tacos.
Now, these really captured my imagination, because they combine three of my very favorite things: eggs, rice and corn tortillas. But they were a little dry, even with the salsa provided. The rice for me lacked a little flavor, too. I could see if the eggs had been not quite hard-boiled, or if they had been fried and oozy, of course, but these just didn’t work for us.
We also shared a big olla (earthenware pot) of black beans.
To some, beans are a throwaway dish – they come on the side of your plate, or buried in your burrito as filler. But these are the star of their own show; very flavorful (also cooked with epazote), cooked perfectly, and full of hearty, beany goodness. A bowl of these and their tortillas? Heaven.
About those tortillas – I asked Chef Caudillo (yes, she’s onsite, cooking!) about them.
I asked her what made her tortillas so good, did she just use a better masa harina? She explained that they got their fresh organic masa from a place in Oakland – a place, presumably, that grinds its own corn, so that what you get are super-corny , thick tortillas. They’re not free, here at El Buen Comer, as they are at most Mexican restaurants, and people sometimes take issue with that. But again, like the beans, tortillas are not an afterthought here, and you’re definitely paying for what you get. We had at least five baskets for our table, and they were worth every penny.
The BF also ordered a special, a dish that wasn’t really meant for sharing, but he ended up passing it around the table: Milanesa – a breaded, pounded, fried steak, served with rice and beans. Milanesa is typically served very thin, but this one was so paper thin, and cooked so well, that it was actually a bit dry. Good flavor, though.
Some at our table ordered dessert – churros – Mexico’s answer to donuts – served with hot chocolate and dulce de leche, and a round of flan. The churros weren’t my favorite – a little two sweet, not as crispy as I would have liked – but the flan was a good version, nice and creamy. I probably wouldn’t order it again, but that’s just me and desserts.
On our second visit, it was just me and the BF.
Now, all of the taco fillings can also be ordered as sopes, which are essentially a form of tostada, but with a much thicker corn masa. They’re ideal for holding El Buen Comer’s lovely guisados, as they have a bit of a raised lip.
These were chicharrones braised in a salsa verde – basically, pork rinds simmered in a tomatillo sauce, and while the flavor was lovely, the chicharrones lost all their signature crunchiness from being immersed so long. I know this was intentional, but what resulted was a dish of little texture save for the sope. Still, we really liked this – bright and tart paired with the earthiness of the sope.
We got an order of their guac and chips, and then split a plato fuerte (“strong” or main dish) of chicken in a chipotle cream sauce.
Everyone else in the restaurant seemed to have ordered it too, and we really enjoyed it. The sauce was rich and creamy, with a hint of smoky heat, and the chicken tender.
There are a couple other dishes I’d like to try at El Buen Comer – their albondigas, their chilaquiles…, but their sopes and guisados are what I’d come back for. Having grown up in Los Angeles, I’ve often complained that we don’t really have a lot of authentic Mexican food that isn’t a taqueria in San Francisco, the way they do down south. Well, no more. You can tell Chef Caudillo has really put her heart into this endeavor. That phrase gets thrown around a lot, but here you can really sense it, taste it. From the pottery she brought in from Mexico, to her family members still working at her side, Chef Caudillo’s food really does have heart. And, in case you needed another reason, El Buen Comer participated in the recent Day Without Immigrants event, shutting down on February 16th to protest Our Beloved Leader’s new Draconian executive order, and to highlight what this city – or any city – would be without our immigrants. If the food’s not enough reason to support Chef Caudillo, that certainly is.
But the food is worth it.
El Buen Comer
3435 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110