El Cachanilla / Los Jarritos

A quintessential nugget of urban romance

Mexican food is weirdly hard to write about. In San Francisco it tends to retreat into the background, to become synonymous with “burrito” and thence with “food.” The burrito issue is a religious rather than a culinary one: I believe in Taqueria Can Cun with the fervor of a creationist, and I’m happy to take you there for a conversion experience, but if your preference is for Pancho Villa or El Toro I’m not going to start a crusade about it. And most neighborhood Mexican restaurants, away from Valencia’s main strip, exist largely beneath the scrutiny of Anglophonic critical awareness.

Take for example El Cachanilla, a family restaurant on the corner of 21st and Treat. I would say that El Cachanilla is a dark, cozy place, but I have no idea whether that’s true or not because I’ve never been inside. What I have done instead is order tacos from a window on 21st Street, a literal hole in the wall. The hole-in-the-wall concept is a quintessential nugget of urban romance—the idea that tucked into nooks and crannies of the metropolitan experiment are minute outposts of sustenance and delight. What’s weird about this conceit is how often it’s justified, as it is at El Cachanilla. The tacos are small and sloppy and you can get four for a very reasonable six bucks, because they’re $1.50 each. They come in a dozen flavors: the mainstream beef, pork, chicken, fish, and sausage, of course, but then also your more exotic options like head and brain and tripe (or, as the menu charmingly translates it, guts) and tongue.

I did a little stunt eating there recently, and I can report that the tongue is fatty and kind of tasteless, but the brain is really interesting, with a gentle and distinctive flavor that’s just slightly rancid but not meaty, a bit like an unfamiliar cheese. Further: (a) it has a soft texture that turns to paste when you press it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue, and (b) it looks exactly like you would imagine brain would look, with those cauliflowery folds and crevasses and that distinctive science-fiction surface.

The chicken and fish are average. The real stars, the tacos I will be returning to again and again, are the al pastor (pork) and the chorizo (sausage). The former is soft and shreddy and tender and comes in a viscous, tangy medium not unlike barbecue sauce. The latter is a salty, piquant marvel.

El Cachanilla charges extra for sour cream, cheese, and rice—a little sign on the window announces that they won’t even give you a plastic fork with your taco, although the patriarch of a large family in front of me requested forks and obtained them without a struggle. And yet they leave a dish of seemingly homemade guacamole, which almost always requires a surcharge, on the little counter at the window’s lip next to the salsas. I don’t know what to make of that.

These tacos can be accompanied by a bottle of Jarritos, a sugary Mexican soda that I started drinking at the restaurant of the same name. Los Jarritos, on an untrafficked corner of South Van Ness, gets twenty coolness points for being named after a soda, but as a dinner restaurant it is frankly unexceptional, with adequate burritos and rather chewy beefsteaks. It comes into its own at breakfast. On a Sunday morning, while crowds wait for an hour or more outside Boogaloo’s or Dottie’s or Miss Millie’s, you can get a table at this variegated space in five minutes and tuck into Mexican egg dishes far beyond huevos rancheros before noon.

For a long time, Los Jarritos was where my girlfriend and I would go the morning after a big fight, and so I have come to associate it with the way a big plate of salty food tastes better after you’ve been crying for several hours. Now we don’t fight quite as often, and the fights end sooner, and so we go there for a special treat. “Ooh, want to go to Los Jarritos?” we say to one another, in the tone of voice in which some people say “Ooh, want to do a bunch of coke and go to a strip club?” The fact that a delicious Mexican brunch can turn from normal meal to special treat is one of the tragedies of no longer being exactly as young as you used to be, along with creeping tonsorial retreat and matching glassware. But I don’t miss the fighting.

The dish to beat is the chilaquiles—tortilla strips, eggs, and cheese, fried up with some kind of red sauce that kicks the whole thing into the stratosphere. It comes with huge portions of beans and rice, which I tend to mix in with the chilaquiles to form a kind of Mexican breakfast mush. The souped-up version is the chilaquiles remo, which has chicken and sour cream: the chicken is usually not too fatty and gives you the feeling that you are not just eating egg nachos for breakfast.

A prerequisite for a brunch place—and certainly for a post-fighting brunch place—is professional-quality coffee, and Los Jarritos delivers the goods in this regard. Almost as essential, and yet much harder to find, especially at a non-yuppie restaurant, is the excellent fresh-squeezed orange juice, which is somehow reliably sweet even out of season. But when a restaurant is named for a soda, at some point you have to try the soda, if only to distract your girlfriend from whatever stupid bullshit you said the night before. Jarritos is a sugary pop that comes in a dozen flavors. A while back we ordered mandarin and, in a fortuitous mishearing, got tamarind. I subsequently looked up tamarind on the Internet and learned that it is a datelike fruit indigenous to tropical Africa and popular in Indian cooking. More to the point, it’s a great flavor for a soda: mildly sweet and slightly sour at once, with a nice sharp bite. (Thankfully, the flavor scientists at Jarritos Inc. haven’t oversweetened it the way they have with the mandarin.) Were it not for an accident of history, the tamarind might be where the cola nut is today, and then the South would win the Civil War and freeze Hitler’s brain or something. And guacamole would be free but you couldn’t get a plastic fork for love or money.