This new S.F. shop sells hard-to-find Mexican food and drink. Here’s what to get

Helena V Berbie

Steven Sadri and Emily Thompson have spent years immersing themselves in Mexico’s food and spirits culture, visiting off-the-grid mezcal producers in the mountain ranges of Oaxaca and living in Valle de Guadalupe, a wine region filled with top-notch restaurants.

They’re bringing that knowledge to life at Tahona Mercado, which opened in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood last week. The shelves of what they call a Mexicatessen — a.k.a Mexican delicatessen — function as a love letter to the producers they’ve met in their travels to Mexico and their restaurant careers in the Bay Area and Southern California.

It’s stocked with smoky mezcal, hard-to-find Mexican wines, piquant salsas and snacks made by chefs from nonprofit La Cocina. It’s a gold mine for home cooks and mixologists: There’s blue corn masa to make fresh tortillas, Rancho Gordo beans and Oaxacan mole paste. For drinks, find ceiling-high shelves of Mexican spirits, tonic syrups and a habanero salt that’s “born to mate with mezcal and tequila,” as the store website says. Those seeking picnic fare can find yucca chips and salsas, among other snacks, plus cold beer and Michelada mix.

“While we had seen specialty stores for other cultures, we hadn’t seen anything for Mexican products. That’s where this idea was born,” Sadri said.

Sadri, a Bay Area native who’s half Mexican and half Persian, has been hooked on mezcal ever since a fateful sip during a shift as bartender at Roy’s in San Francisco. He later met Thompson when they were both working at Cala, famed Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara’s now-closed San Francisco restaurant. They also run Tahona, a Mexican restaurant with a mezcal tasting room, in San Diego. Marsilo Gabuardi, a former bar manager known for starting a mezcal dinner series at Cala, is also working with them at Tahona Mercado.

Like at a wine shop, this is the kind of place where you should tap into the owners’ expertise and ask for help if you’re unsure what to buy. Sadri might point you to a briny, herbaceous mezcal, or Thompson will tell you how they like to use Oakland-made Kuali’s salsa macha at home.

They plan to grow the market as they get settled, with plans to host mezcal and food pairings and to serve more food and drinks, like aguas frescas and café de olla.

Here are six exciting things to eat and drink at Tahona Mercado. There’s no seating, but head just two blocks away to the tranquil Huntington Park for a makeshift picnic.

Don Bugito sal de gusano

Don Bugito's sal de gusano, made with agave worm and chile powder.

Don Bugito’s sal de gusano, made with agave worm and chile powder.

Courtesy Anna Bruce/Rambling Spirits

Tahona Mercado carries several edible insect snacks from Don Bugito, one of several La Cocina producers at the market, but the owners’ favorite is the sal de gusano. Typically, orange slices get sprinkled with the salt and offer a palate cleanser in between sips of mezcal. Monica Martinez of Don Bugito makes hers from sea salt, chile powder and toasted chinicuil, an agave worm from the mountains in northern Mexico. It’s earthy, salty and spicy — perfect for using as a cocktail rim instead of Tajín, sprinkled on popcorn or on fried eggs, Thompson said.

Casa de Chocolates

Latin American-inspired chocolate bars from Casa de Chocolates in Berkeley for sale at Tahona Mercado in San Francisco.

Latin American-inspired chocolate bars from Casa de Chocolates in Berkeley for sale at Tahona Mercado in San Francisco.

Elena Kadvany/The Chronicle

Sadri’s eyes pop out bit when he talks about pairing Casa de Chocolates’ chocolate bars with his favorite mezcals. The Berkeley confectionary, run by Amelia Gonzalez and Arcelia Gallard, makes Latin American-inspired chocolates, infused with ingredients like Valencia oranges, tequila and hibiscus. Don’t miss the mole bar, 61% cacao sprinkled with 11 chiles and warm spices like cloves and all spice, which Sadri said would pair well with a bottle of bright, citrusy Mal Bien mezcal. Other desserts of note at the market include fruit paletas and pints of lobonada ice cream (half mango and half watermelon, topped with chamoy and Tajin) from Lobo’s Ice Cream in Novato.

Salsa macha

Kuali Salsa

Kuali Salsa

Tahona Mercado is currently the only place in San Francisco where you can find jars of Kuali’s much-coveted chile-oil salsa macha with pumpkin seeds, which also makes an appearance in the market’s breakfast burrito. Los Angeles masa purveyor Masienda also has salsa macha here. It comes in three unusual flavor combinations: chipotle-coffee-peanut, which Sadri spreads on toast; spicy guajillo-cranberry-hazelnut; and potent arbol-nori-sesame, with the added punch of Sichuan peppercorns. Sadri and Thompson like to spoon any of them over roasted vegetables, pizza, salads, quesadillas and tamales.

Real Minero mezcal

The mezcal selection at Tahona Mercado in San Francisco.

The mezcal selection at Tahona Mercado in San Francisco.

Courtesy Anna Bruce/Rambling Spirits

The family that owns Real Minero in Oaxaca has been distilling mezcal in clay pots since the 1800s. Producing mezcal in clay pots is far more labor intensive and risky — the pots can break easily and are hard to clean — but the payoff is high, Sadri said. “Because the clay pots are porous, they impart these beautiful flavors into the mezcal — more earthy tones, even caramel and butterscotch,” he said. Tahona Mercado carries several of their mezcals, including a complex, almost savory pechuga mezcal (which is distilled with a piece of lamb hanging above it, so the meat’s fat drips into the liquor) the couple served at their wedding this summer. Other bottles were produced through Real Minero’s Proyecto LAM, an effort to restore agave varietals that are close to extinction. Pick up a few veladora glasses, Catholic prayer candle holders turned shot glasses from Oaxaca, for at-home imbibing.

Vinicola Bruma wine

In addition to mezcal and tequila, Tahona Mercado carries a unique selection of Mexican beer and wine.

In addition to mezcal and tequila, Tahona Mercado carries a unique selection of Mexican beer and wine.

Courtesy Anna Bruce/Rambling Spirits

Mexican wines remain few and far between in the United States, so Tahona Mercado’s selection is noteworthy. The store stocks about 30 Mexican wines, including the recognizable, natural Bichi and producers that are less well-known in the U.S. like Vinicola Bruma. The winery in Valle de Guadalupe is run by Lulu Martinez Ojeda, a native of Baja who studied wine-making in Bordeaux, France, for over a decade, and is known for putting Mexican wine on the map. Tahona Mercado carries three Vinicola Bruma wines, including a mineral and not overly oakey Chablis-style Chardonnay and a medium-bodied, well-balanced rosé.

Tortas, quesadillas and Mexican pastries

Tahona Mercado's torta uses carnitas from La Palma and fresh bread from the Norte 54 pop-up.

Tahona Mercado’s torta uses carnitas from La Palma and fresh bread from the Norte 54 pop-up.

Elena Kadvany/The Chronicle

Tahona Mercado doesn’t have a full kitchen, so they’ve gotten creative with their hot food offerings — which double as another way to highlight local Mexican producers. A quesadilla stuffed with tender mushrooms and poblano chiles gets a bright infusion from Pass the Sauced’s herb salsa, another La Cocina alumna whose sauces are for sale at the market. A carnitas torta, the meat from San Francisco institution La Palma, gets smeared with serrano tomatillo salsa from Bolita Masa, a pandemic-born pop-up. Former Nopa baker Raquel Goldman of the Norte 54 pop-up is responsible for the yeasty foundation of the sandwich: a baguette-like bolillo, crusty on the outside but soft on the inside. You can also find Norte 54 pastries at Tahona Mercado on weekends, like garibaldis, or small pound cakes, topped with pluot jam.

Tahona Mercado. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. 1168 Leavenworth St., San Francisco.

Elena Kadvany is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ekadvany

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