The Mexican food scene in the Bay Area is undeniably diverse and delicious — and if you dig deep, you’ll also appreciate how regionally specific it can get, particularly when it comes to Yucatecan cuisine.

From juicy cochinita pibil, the unmistakably orange-tinged roasted pork dish, to big bowls of relleno negro, a black chile turkey stew darker than the nighttime sky, you’ll find all sorts of regional specialties from the Yucatan peninsula right here in San Francisco, so long as you know where to look.

The city’s relatively large number of Yucatecan restaurants (there are at least a dozen) reflects its sizable population of Yucatecos, many of whom are the workforce powering kitchens in your favorite Bay Area restaurants. San Francisco is in fact home to one of the largest Yucateco communities in America — approximately 10 to 15 thousand people, estimates Remedios Gómez Arnau, the consul general of Mexico in San Francisco. Many immigrated in the mid-20th century and in large waves in the 1990s and 2000s, driven by natural disasters such as hurricanes.

“There’s great food all over Mexico, but in the Yucatan, it’s just a different animal — it’s arguably the most distinctive cuisine the country has,” said Julio Bermejo, son of the late Tomas Bermejo, who was born in the Yucatan, immigrated to San Francisco and opened the famed Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in 1965. Over the years, the restaurant has acted as a hub for countless Yucatecos who also immigrated to the city and passed through the kitchen.

Part of what makes the food from the Yucatan so unique is its use of traditional Mayan ingredients and techniques, such as strong red and black recados (concentrated chile pastes) that help create powerfully seasoned and complex stews. Habanero peppers, of which the Yucatan is the world’s largest producer, provide heat. And the naranja agria, or sour orange, is another key ingredient used to both tenderize and marinate meats.

“Our gastronomy, it’s an exuberant food,” said Lydia Candila, executive director of Asociacion Mayab, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to Yucatecan culture.

Yucatecan cuisine also stands out visually for its colorful mix of components on a plate, or more specifically, on a tortilla: Bright pink pickled red onions, shredded green cabbage, black beans and orange habanero peppers on the side. “The color of the food, it’s very attractive,” Candila said. ​

Don’t just look. Use the recommendations below as a guide to explore some of the best dishes at some of the best Yucatecan restaurants in San Francisco.
What’s tastier than a tortilla? A puffy tortilla that’s lightly fried and then crowned with protein like pulled chicken or roast pork. These are known as salbutes, a Yucatecan specialty, from the Mayan zal (light) and but (stuffed). But what’s better than a salbute? A tortilla that’s stuffed with pureed black beans, then fried, then topped. These are known as panuchos. Accompanied with tart pickled red onions, crunchy cabbage and sometimes a sliver of creamy avocado, salbutes and panuchos pack more flavor and structure than most tacos. A squeeze of lime and a squirt of habanero-based salsa takes the heat of these antojitos to another level.
2909 16th St., San Francisco, CA 94103
It’s worth trying every restaurant’s version of salbutes and panuchos, but Cocina Mayah on 16th Street in the Mission excels with versions handmade from fresh masa ($4.50-$5.50). The restaurant also operates a bakery next door, where you’ll find everything from conchas to cookies to cappuccinos.
One of the most popular preparations of pork in the Yucatan is poc chuc, which are thin cuts of pork marinated in sour orange then grilled over charcoal until lightly singed and crispy. The name derives from Mayan poc, which means toast, and chuc, which means charcoal.
2886 16th St., San Francisco, CA 94103
You can get poc chuc-topped panuchos and tacos all over, but not surprisingly, the namesake plate ($16) at Poc-Chuc Restaurant on 16th Street is the one to seek out. Matriarch Delmy Ruiz opened the restaurant in 2008, and the plate comes with large, fresh handmade tortillas in a warmer, super savory vegetable bouillon rice, grilled red onions and a side of black bean puree.
Another popular pork preparation is the super savory cochinita pibil: pork pieces marinated with achiote (annatto seed), sour orange, garlic and other spices, then tightly wrapped in banana leaves. Traditionally, this dish is cooked in an underground oven (pib) slowly and surely until it’s fall-apart tender; in restaurant kitchens, the meat is slowly cooked in an oven for a similar result.
Location changes daily. See food truck schedule on website.
The colorful Cochinita truck, run by wife-and-husband team Karen Gonzalez and Sergio Albornoz, does an excellent version of their namesake dish, using both pork butt and shoulder. It’s juicy and savory, complemented nicely with their charred habanero salsa. Get it in taco, salbut or panucho form ($4.15-$5.75), topped with the requisite pickled red onion, of course. Their location changes weekly, but you can often find them in Golden Gate Park and on Marina Boulevard in San Francisco.
You can find empanadas in various forms and preparations all over the world, but the Yucatecan ones are made from masa that’s deep-fried. Stuffed variously with cheese, pulled chicken or pork, they’re often garnished with tomato sauce, cabbage and pickled red onion.
655 Larkin St., San Francisco, CA 94109
Before opening Los Yucatecos last year, Jesus Kauil had been cooking in classic San Francisco kitchens for over 15 years at places like House of Prime Rib, Original Joe’s and Tadich Grill. His empanadas are generously sized: a small plate’s width. Get the cheese one ($4.75) that’s stuffed with four types of cheese; covered in tomato sauce that’s been cooked down with onion and lard; and topped with cabbage dressed in lime, salt and pickled red onions.
Relleno is a black chile turkey stew that leans more savory than spicy. It gets its dark color from chiles that are charred until blackened then pulverized into paste. The dish also comes with a ground pork meatball that encases a hard-boiled egg yolk, which soaks up the sauce nicely and adds a textural contrast. It’s served with tortillas for you to dip into the broth or assemble your own tacos.
2164 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94110
Once upon a time, you could get both Vietnamese and Yucatecan fare at Yucatasia on Mission Street, but these days the menu focuses strictly on food from the Yucatan, which were the restaurant’s best-sellers. Unlike many places that substitute chicken as the poultry pick in relleno negro, Yucatasia sticks to traditional turkey ($13.95). Its super savory broth, darker than a Nine Inch Nails album, is more mild than spicy; you can also get it in taco, salbute or panucho form.
You can find tamales throughout Mexico, but Yucatecan tamales are wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks before steaming, imparting an earthier flavor to the masa, similar to Oaxacan tamales. The difference here is the final layering of reduced tomato sauce on top.
5929 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94121
Tommy’s sources the masa for its tamales ($14.95) from La Palma in the Mission and uses a mixture of both shredded pork and chicken cooked down with epazote, annatto, salt, pepper and tomato. Before serving, the tamales are opened and given a racing stripe of tomato sauce. They’re served with rice and black beans, and they pair well with margaritas.
Codzitos — from the Mayan word codz (to roll) — are essentially deep-fried rolled tacos, similar to taquitos or flautas in other parts of Mexico. They’re served with a black bean puree, a tart and tangy tomato sauce and fresh cheese, often all smothered on top.
2052 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94105
Castillito Yucateco, one of the many Yucatecan restaurants in the Mission, is one of the few that have codzitos ($18.99) on the menu. Theirs are stuffed with shredded chicken that remains juicy in contrast to the crispy tortilla exterior. Rather than smothered, the black beans and tomato sauce are served on the side to dip at your leisure.
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