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Mexican fare prepared with loving care at Chico’s Grill

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Chico’s Grill
  • EVAN DUCHARME/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • At Chico’s Grill, the chicken mole with its smooth, flavorful sauce and blue-corn tortillas are menu standouts.
There are so many Mexican places in San Francisco, one can afford to be choosy, and yet some seem to get passed over before they even get a chance.

Chico’s Grill is quiet, with few visitors for a spot on Mission Street that looks like it will be the next to be gentrified. But it’s memorable for its off-menu, housemade, organic blue-corn tortillas and its rich, complex sauces.

It’s a new place where the chef comes to the table, takes your order and comes back himself with dinner.

Then again, it really isn’t so new. It used to be Olivia’s Brunch and Fine Dining. But chef-owner Hilario Chico, a former line cook at One Market and Tadich Grill, wanted to do something that reminded him of his home — Puebla, just north of Oaxaca.

Breakfast is hearty, comforting, and zingy with flavor and personality. The chilaquiles are slightly wetter than what might be found at Primavera’s market stall at the Ferry Building, but the tortilla chips still have crunch.

I liked the chile verde sauce better than the ranchero — you get a choice — and the liberal saucing made it easier to taste the chilies in the extra savory sauce, light on the piquant notes of tomatillo, heavy on earthy chilies. It was equally delicious on the expertly braised pork in the evening.

The mole poblano, which performs its balancing act juggling chocolate, chiles and dried fruits with poise, is another must-try. With three kinds of chocolate, it doesn’t taste chalky, the way some moles do, or muddy flavored. The sauce is smooth, earthy, bright and pretty darn sexy over tender white chicken, and it’s a pleasure to eat with its side of black beans and tortillas.

It’s long been a dream of mine to eat blue-corn tortillas, which aren’t easy to find around here, and like all dreams brought to reality, they weren’t what I thought they would be. They’re not as sweet or chewy as white corn, but they’re tender, and perhaps a touch earthier. We received plenty.

The only real weakness was the tortilla chips that accompanied the guacamole, which were stale. No, the strength is in Chico’s sauces.

The walnut cream sauce is skillfully made, with the taste of cream, nuts and a hint of anise seed distinct on the tongue. It goes on top of the chile poblano and the tamales; both are stuffed with a mix of zucchini, carrot, corn and broccoli, and both are rich, wholesome and filling, but not disgustingly so.

Service is personal and attentive, and it’s obvious that the every detail about the food comes from Chico, down to the cubed orange in the sangria.

The restaurant’s quietness belies its level of quality, the brightness and color of its entrees, and its heartfelt knowledge of a regional Mexican cuisine. On both of my visits, diners were few. It seems a shame that it’s currently undiscovered and potentially lost in The City’s vast array of Mexican restaurants.

Chico’s Grill

Location: 3771 Mission St., S.F.

Contact: (415) 970-0385, chicos-grill-sf.com

Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays

Price range: $7.95 to $12.95

Recommended dishes: Chile verde con puerco ($10.95), mole poblano ($12.95), chile rellenos de verduras ($10.95), chilaquiles ($8.95)

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Not accepted