There’s a lot more to Mexican food than tacos and burritos (burritos are actually much more of a Mexican American dish). And while San Francisco boasts a seriously eclectic Mexican food scene, when you widen your culinary curiosity to encompass the 33 countries that comprise Latin America, the options for an eating adventure start to really pile up—especially in this city.
And just as many Mexican restaurants will serve some riff on the taco, other Latin American eateries have their own common comfort food staples.
From the pupusas of El Salvador to the lomo saltado of Peru, read on for a rundown on five Latin American staples—and where you can find them. These dishes just might have you passing up your favorite taqueria the next time you get a hankering for a savory, spicy bite.
Panchita’s Restaurant in the Mission District makes a seriously addictive pupusa. I often have to force myself to not pick up at least one every week. Similar to a stuffed tortilla—these pouches of masa harania and meat (or veggies or cheese or all of the above) never fail to warm the soul. Pro tip: if you aren’t putting a mountain of curtido (a spicy cole slaw) on top of their pupusas de frijole, you’re not doing it right.
True, Oaxaca isn’t technically its own country. But the southern Mexican state—known for producing world-class mezcal and mole—features a cuisine that is, in many ways, worlds apart from the dishes one might find in northern Mexican cities. Tlayudas are large, crispy tortillas topped with refried beans, meat, Oaxaca cheese (of course), cabbage or lettuce, avocado and salsa. Gringos have been eating an Americanized approximation of the Tlayuda for years: Taco Bell’s “Mexican Pizza.” But one bite of the tlayudas from La Oaxaqueña in the Mission and anyone with even a remotely discerning palate will realize that nothing can hold a candle to the genuine article. Pro tip: Wash it down with an agua fresca (or “spa water” as TikTok likes to say).
Though you might associate stir fry with Asian restaurants, one of Peru’s most popular dishes—Lomo Saltado—is made by rapidly searing veggies and meat, mixing them together with a soy sauce gravy and serving over rice (or, just as often, french fries). You can sample this Peruvian staple in the Marina District at Jaranita’s. This restaurant offers a wide varitety of Peruvian dishes and a beautiful atmosphere. The Yunza tree in the center of the restaurant, decorated with colorful streamers and sparkling fairy lights is particularly beautiful. Enjoy a hearty plate of Lomo Saltado with one of their Jaranita Rita’s (or three if you make it for their happy hour special). Pro tip: Peru isn’t the only Latin American country to make ceviche, but many swear it is the best. There’s only one way for you to make up your mind. Give it a try.
The bright cyan building of Parada 22 is hard to miss in the Haight District, especially with its Puerto Rican flag hanging in the window. Mofongos are a staple dish of this island nation. Made with mashed green plantains mixed with ham, veggies and the option of shrimp, bistec, chicken and pernil asado, mofongo is nothing if not hearty. Pulling up a chair at this cozy eatery feels a bit like taking a seat around the dinner table in a Puerto Rican household. That feeling is only underscored by the restaurant’s home cooked flavors, which feel like a warm hug. We have a feeling Bad Bunny would approve. Pro tip: If you want to keep your Caribbean culinary excursion going, pay a visit to the neighboring Cha Cha Cha for another glass (or pitcher) or sangria.
The Chilean empanadas from Chile Lindo, are as delicious as they are quick. They offer a variety of flavors—including chicken, jalapeno and ham and cheese. Located on 16th Street, this small spot offers quality Chilean food while using locally sourced ingredients. Pro tip: For the true Chilean experience, you’ll want to try the classic empanada de pino, which is made with beef, olives and hard boiled eggs.
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