Like a Jimmy Buffett daydream, the idea for Copita was hatched on a boat, over margaritas.
Restaurant mogul-yacht owner Larry Mindel had some friends out on the water last year. One of his guests, food luminary Joanne Weir, had just wowed the crowd with a fresh batch of margaritas. On the spot, Mindel made a magnanimous, tequila-fueled promise: He would partner with Weir on a Mexican bar-in-restaurant, if she found the right space.
Copita opened in April, and it certainly feels like a project born of sunshine, waves and easy money. No fluorescent-bleached taqueria, this; it’s a handsome, well-designed spot to breeze in for cocktails and $14 tacos.
I happily succumbed to the embrace of Copita’s warm interior, anchored by a gorgeously tiled wood stove and a glittery tequila bar. Weir (known to many from her PBS cooking show) was an excellent party hostess, doling out hugs and bon mots, making first-timers feel like old friends.
And the margaritas — full-bodied and complex, with hints of fruit and fire — infused me with warmth and brotherly love.
It’s the type of glow that made me want to be generous, to put away the microscope and blindly enjoy my dinner. But call me a stickler: With few exceptions, the food came up short.
Copita’s menu has been described as Mexican-meets-Chez Panisse, using the well-worn formula of traditional fare enhanced with fresh and local ingredient sourcing. Veggies come from weekly trips to the San Rafael farmers market, with some grown in-house; meat comes from Niman Ranch and Mary’s.
As it turned out, there’s a wide gulf between ingredients and execution.
The starchy sopes were all texture without taste, corn patties topped with a dense wad of cactus and queso. A side portion of muscle-bound, smoky salsa wasn’t enough to resuscitate the dish.
Chorizo, potato and cheese quesadillas resembled a pair of corn-based empanadas. There was barely any cheese in one, and little chorizo in another; the gaps were filled with an excess of stiff, greasy dough.
The coctel mixto ceviche had an array of fresh-tasting lobster, scallops, shrimp and halibut, brightened with chilies and fresh orange juice. But the sweet-to-heat balance was off, and the cloying juice eventually overpowered the mix.
Guajillo chickens rotate over Copita’s wood fire, providing both aroma and ambiance in the surrounding space. My chicken was tender, with crisp, peppery skin, but one underdone breast was alarmingly pink. Conversely, the savory 24-hour carnitas were a tangle of dry, overcooked pork shreds.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Like many restaurants of this ilk, the guacamole was fresh and chunky, with a measured blend of citrus, cilantro and spice.
And two meals were buoyed by tacos, including one with juicy shrimp and sweet corn and another with stewed chicken tinga (a little brown sugar sweetened its chipotle burn). I’d also love to buy a package of Copita’s tasty corn tortillas, handmade by sous-chef Dilsa Lugo.
In two short months, the restaurant has built a sizable fan base; lines form on even the less glamorous weeknights. Is this due to Sausalito’s scarcity of Mexican food? Perhaps, but I think there’s more.
There’s a palpable good vibe at Copita, with Weir’s good intentions infused in every meal. The food may be uneven, but you want it to be good, and you may keep returning until it is.
And let’s not forget: the margaritas alone may justify a visit.