This is going to hurt a little bit.
Like all high-end Mexican restaurants, particularly in California, Nopalito has a competition problem. Good tacos and quesadillas are abundant in SF, most at ridiculously low prices. That's not to say expensive Mexican food can't be done well - see the Empellon empire - but it's not like every French restaurant has to go up against the street-corner guy selling Dover sole and duck confit.
So what's an enterprising restaurant to do? Two possibilities: higher quality ingredients and more creative, upscale preparations. We fully support this strategy. But the fancier food still has to taste better. Ideally, a lot better. And this is where Nopalito often falls short.
One example is the highly-praised carnitas. They're okay, but not exactly packed with flavor, and their oiliness is not as well-disguised as with those in a good taqueria burrito. The fish tacos are remarkably unmemorable. The pozole rojo (pork shoulder soup) consists of pork chunks floating in a giant bowl of mostly flavorless broth.
That said, some of the dishes are above and beyond the standard. We'll crush their version of chips and salsa - served with a mound of cheese, onions, and cream - until the end of our days. But for every totopo-level achievement, there are a couple of letdowns, like the quesadilla roja. Pork belly quesadilla? Sounds awesome, right? Unfortunately the giant greasy fried tortilla wipes out whatever flavor lurks within. It does make a good Instagram photo, though.
It's not that we have big issues with Nopalito, but it always leaves us wanting more. We can't shake the feeling that it's aiming higher, and missing.
Totopos con Chile
Best chips and salsa in the game. We ain't met anyone who feels differently.
A lot like every other set of taquitos you've ever had. The vegetables do not improve the product.
Tacos de Pescado
The giant fried tortilla monster, while cool-looking, doesn't taste that good. It's pretty greasy, and the pork gets lost in the wash with the miscellaneous cheesy goos inside.
Ceviche de Pescado y Calamar
A tasty, acidic, spicy fish mixture. We enjoyed it.
Just not that much better than the carnitas on any block in the Mission. We're sure the pork is far more expensive and sustainably sourced, or something, but the taste differential is not there.
We are always excited to eat a spicy soup with well-cooked pork. Alas, the broth has no flavor. We get the feeling other people who rave about this have had it on different nights or something. Unfortunately we gotta go on what we've been served.