Summer cooking may spur thoughts of backyard barbecues, but for festive foodies who believe true summer love exists between warm, earthy handmade tortillas, it is the glorious taco that steals our hearts at this time of year.
What is it about Californians' enduring love of the taco? Is it the comforting flavors of slow-cooked, slip-off-the bone braised meats? The heat from jalapeños? Or the creative freedom to build upon your meats a medley of bold salsas and zippy cremas?
Certainly, Mexican food is woven into the fabric of our food culture. Taquerias pepper the Bay Area, from San Jose to San Francisco and Oakland to Concord.
Some, like the wildly popular Tacolicious, have become Mexican food game-changers.
Co-owner and celebrated food writer Sara Deseran explains the taco allure rather simply. "They're soulful," she says. "When done right, they are humble, comforting and personal."
In a few short years, Deseran and her husband, San Francisco restaurateur Joe Hargrave, have taken Tacolicious from a Ferry Building food stand to four, drool-worthy, line-out-the-door restaurants in Palo Alto and San Francisco, where hipsters tuck into tacos filled with lamb adobo, house-made chorizo or "shot-and-a-beer" braised chicken.
Those braising liquids and their salsas are now available at Williams-Sonoma, and come September, Deseran, editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, will debut her new cookbook, "Tacolicious: Festive Recipes for Tacos, Snacks, Cocktails and More" (Ten Speed Press, $22, 212 pages) so you too can re-create the restaurant's colorful cuisine at home.
By colorful, we don't mean Mexican restaurants with loud, twitch-inducing mariachi music or tacky sombreros. Tacolicious eateries are chic and urban -- you can tuck into a kale, butternut squash and crunchy pepita taco then wash it down with a pineapple infused-tequila cocktail rimmed with toasted coconut salt.
At the Mission District location, for instance, Weezer blasts on a recent Monday afternoon to a near-capacity dining room, where cheerful guests share family-style taco platters and know better than to merely dip chips into the colorful accompaniments. A glossy, smoky habanero salsa gets its neon yellow hue from turmeric, and the cumin-lime crema is the ultimate topping for Tacolicious' Baja-style crispy fish tacos.
In the rear dining room, where the teal walls are decorated with Paul Madonna prints, Deseran and Hargrave -- he grew up in Modesto and has had a lifelong love affair with Mexican food -- discuss the philosophy behind Tacolicious: that is, to take the memorable and inspiring dishes from their travels to Mexico and punch them up with fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.
"This is a San Francisco take on Mexican food with a deep respect for the original cuisine," Deseran says. "When I travel, I might say, 'This food is great but it's really heavy,' or, 'I want this brighter or fresher.' So we come home and make it more San Francisco."
Ironically, Tacolicious was born out of necessity, Hargrave says. In January 2009, the recession was hurting his upscale Spanish restaurant, Laiola, in the Marina District. He was selling off equity in the restaurant at an alarming rate and decided to take a break, escaping with Deseran to Mexico City with restaurant recommendations from famed Chicago chef Rick Bayless tucked in his wallet. He hoped things would look brighter upon his return.
A few days in, they had eaten two revelatory meals: unadorned steak tacos accompanied with complex salsas at El Califa, a full-service taqueria in the chic Condesa neighborhood, and, at Contramar, a seafood brasserie in Roma, a tostada topped with raw ahi marinated in lime and soy sauce and finished with chipotle mayo, avocado slices and fried leeks. (An homage to that fusion dish is now a best-seller on the Tacolicious menu).
They took it all in. The see-and-be-seen clientele. The taqueria-restaurant fusion. And, most of all, the unsurpassed quality of the simple ingredients.
"We looked at each other and said, 'Why isn't there anything like this in San Francisco?'" Deseran recalls.
Upon their return, the couple accepted an invitation from Lulu Meyer to do a food stand at the Ferry Building's then-new Thursday night farmer's market. But, instead of Spanish food, Hargrave, a guy who had always stashed a plastic baggie filled with chipotle chile-based recado in the glove box of his SUV, said he would like to make tacos instead.
He came up with a few guisado (braised meat) recipes, and they had lines on day one. On New Year's Eve, the couple shuttered Laiola and, with the help of their parents and staff, reopened it two weeks later as the first brick-and-mortar Tacolicious.
They haven't stopped growing since, and recently opened Chino, a San Francisco-style Chinese dumpling and noodle house. "Sometimes Joe and I just look at each other in awe of how successful the restaurants are," Deseran says. But Hargrave knows better.
"Tacolicious was born during a recession," he says. "It was practical, affordable and seasonal at a time when people didn't have a lot of money to go out."
And delicious. Fortunately, none of those things ever goes out of style.
Follow Jessica Yadegaran at Twitter.com/swirlgirl_jy.
3 tips to mastering Mexican at home
In the forthcoming book "Tacolicious," author and restaurant co-owner Sara Deseran shares three cooking techniques essential to mastering Mexican cuisine at home. Here's a taste:
Toasting whole spices: This is a great way to bring out the flavor of cumin seeds, coriander and even Mexican oregano. Put whole spices in a small, dry, heavy skillet, stirring for about a minute, until the aroma hits your nose. Transfer to a grinder, let cool, and grind.
Toasting, frying and soaking dried chiles: To intensify flavor, dried chiles are lightly toasted in a dry, heavy skillet or fried quickly in oil. From there, grind the chiles into a powder or soak them in water until soft and ready to blend. Remove seeds based on heat preference.
Roasting, broiling and grilling vegetables: These methods impart a smoky flavor to onions, garlic, tomatoes and tomatillos. Roast the vegetables (without oil) in a high heat oven, broil them briefly over the flame of a gas stove or simply grill them on the barbecue.
-- from Sara Deseran's "Tacolicious"