Mexico City Meets Marin at El Huarache Loco

Strip malls are frightening things to me. I often get lost in Bed, Bath & Beyond, and I am constantly bewildered as to how I convince myself every time that having an oversized frozen coffee drink and a cinnabon (and maybe an Aunt Annie’s pretzel too) constitutes a reward for finding my way out of the napkin rings aisle. The Marin County Mart is a little different, because as one could imagine, it’s a bougie strip mall. The Golden Gate ferry line comes here, so San Francisco dwellers can enjoy the bar on board before getting organic ice cream at Three Twins, eclairs at Miette, or a vinyasa flow at YogaWorks. While the Bed, Bath & Beyond looms over the parking lot, the outside patio of Marin Brewing Company opens up to the sunset, and aside from the abundance of northface vests and khakis, it seems like a nice place to have a beer. For those things alone, I obviously wouldn’t make it here. However, after going to dinner at the Mart’s newest addition, I decided that this weekend (and possibly the next and the next) I’m going to have to call my friends and ask the unthinkable: “Wanna go to a strip mall in Marin today?”

El Huarache Loco launched out of La Cocina’s incubator kitchen and has been serving Mexico City inspired cuisine at the Alemany Farmer’s Market for about five years. A huarache is a corn masa cake that’s filled with beans and shaped like the soul of a shoe (the original meaning for huarache is sandal). It’s cooked on a griddle and then served on the street. Just last week, Chef Veronica Salazar, who grew up working in her family’s restaurant in Mexico City, opened permanent diggs of her own, placing the aromas, flavors and vibrant colors of Mexico City’s most popular street food in a beautifully designed open-kitchen restaurant in Larkspur.

When my sister and I were on our most recent trip to Mexico we had a running joke about the growing list of local specialties that had bases of corn masa, and often tasted very similar to each other. “You have to try the garnachas!” people would tell us in Veracruz, compeling us to try their fried corn cakes topped with beans and chicken that as far as we could tell, tasted just like the sopes we had in Oaxaca. Had all these dishes been topped with unique ingredients, we may not have made so many smug jokes.

At El Huarache Loco, there’s nothing funny or ordinary about the list of toppings or masa options. In fact, their menu calls for some very thoughtful decision making. Here you’ll consider your choice of gordita (thick tortilla filled with ground pork), quesadilla, tlacoyito (a blue corn masa stuffed with cheese), taco or sope (handmade tortilla with pinched edges). There are eight types of meat toppings, the most carnevorous one called alambre: steak, chorizo, bacon, grilled peppers, onions and cheese. Vegetarian toppings include some of my favorite Mexican specialties, like oxacan cheese with a strong herb called epazote, and nopales (fresh cactus) with tomatoes, onions and cilantro.

For our first meal we had two items, the first was a huarache with tinga. Tinga is a chicken dish simmered in a chipotle sauce and onions, and I’ve had it more often in home kitchens than in restaurants. Theirs was flavorful and juicy, the salsa verde underneath was fresh (could have been spicier, but hey, it’s Larkspur), and the huarache itself took me right back to Mexico City. While our second item might sound out of the ordinary, I encourage you to try it. Huitlacoche is a truffle that grows on corn and is considered a Mexican delicacy. Corn fungus, basically. It’s black and shiny, and kinda grosses my sister out when she thinks about it. The good news is you don’t have to think about it, you just have to eat it — on top of a tlacoyito, with a delicious and creamy red salsa. It tasted earthy and satisfying, and best of all, like something I never had before.

Specialties run from $6 to $7.50 and one is enough for a meal. They also serve full entrees with rice and beans for $8 to $11, including a mole recipe that comes from the Chef’s family restaurant in Mexico. There’s more to try as well: they serve breakfast, dessert, and there are plenty of agua fresca options. Well-priced, tasty Mexico City street food — if that’s not enough to get you to Larkspur, I’m not sure what is. (Perhaps these?)