Fancy, authentic Mexican cuisine at Sabrosa succeeds wildly 

click to enlarge Sabrosa
  • Juan Pardo/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • At Sabrosa in the Marina district, the ensalada de nopalitos deliciously combines frisee, avocado, pickled onions and cactus.
Upscale Mexican food is having a moment, but it’s a bit of a rough one. When La Urbana dropped into the Divisadero corridor months ago, it opened its doors to a swarming lament. “Overpriced!” we cried, quick to damn its chili “froth” and fancy crema, grafting our angst onto the latest emblem of gentrification as if we know, because everyone knows, that Mexican food is not expensive food.

Well, it’s a silly thought. At places such as Nopalito, Padrecito and Comal, where Mexican food is clawing its way into the realm of high-end, conceptual playthings, the payoff is big.

At Sabrosa, it’s even bigger.

Chef Jose Ramos plucks flavors from his childhood growing up on a small farm in Guanajuato, Mexico. The roots give way to a robust approach and seemingly brazen authenticity.

While mole only pops up in a fraction of the dishes, it feels like the backbone, the embodiment of Ramos’ style.

Take the costillas de puerco con mole — pork confit ribs draped in a swamp of earthy dark Veracruzan xico mole. Under the smoky sweet, nut-speckled mole, pork falls away from the bone with the gentlest suggestion. One could manage with a spoon. The dish is deep and rich, grounded in a dirty, soft sweetness that begs you to burrow your face in it. If such things weren’t frowned upon in the Marina, I would have.

In the ensalada de nopalitos, a helping of frisee and avocado is balanced by the punchy sweetness of pickled onions, setting a swell stage for the distinctive, plump crunch of cured nopales. This is what happens when cactus comes to the Marina. It gets frilly, but that’s good.

A brothy chicken and rice soup — caldo Xochitl — reveals restraint, but lacks the kick and heart of the spiced-up meats and cheeses that populate the rest of the menu.

The singular best thing to order, though, is called the tlacoyo con punta de res a la pasilla. It is, simply, a pile of things on a toasted masa and chickpea bed.

It’s a beautiful and hectic nest, with braised beef tips and the dry heat of pasilla chili mixed in a towering mess of roasted onions, crema, jalapeños and avocado. Nopales add a popping plumpness. A keen double play, the stack is refined enough for the neighborhood, but good in a primal kind of way — like the unique joy of off-roading in a Bentley.

Cocktails careen around a mezcal theme, which would be good if they weren’t so sweet. The mezcal margarita and the Oaxacan Firing Squad — mezcal with Pueblo Viejo Blanco, grenadine and angostura — both come off like candy-coated campfires. For best results, stick to beer.

Sabrosa is pricey, but not flashy. As it helps redefine what Mexican food is, or ought to be, it’s authentic in two ways: first, to the roots of its chef, and second, to the neighborhood, forging a taste that breaks apart the story of Mexican food, if only a little. And for that, I’m willing to pay.

Sabrosa

Location: 3200 Fillmore St. (near Greenwich Street), S.F.

Contact: (415) 638-6500, www.sabrosasf.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Fridays, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. daily

Recommended dishes: Tlacoyo Con Punta De Res A La Pasilla ($10), Costillas De Puerco Con Mole ($18)

Price range: $8 to $28

Reservations: Suggested Credit cards: All major

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Molly Gore

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