Restaurant Review: El Cotorro

El Cotorro Combines Concept And Craftsmanship

Hosho McCreesh
6 min read
Tacos and Ice Cream In One Place?!
Elote (Eric Williams Photography)
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When it comes to crowd-pleasing ideas to build a restaurant around, the concept of El Cotorro is hard to beat. "Craft tacos and craft ice cream" is a simple enough idea, while still one that can easily go wrong if you don’t deliver on either front. But with a bustling Nob Hill location, ever-changing (but always tasty) specials and an outdoor patio that seats about 15, I’m happy to report that El Cotorro delivers.

For either tacos or ice cream, you order at the counter and grab a table. Despite a personal policy of dessert before the meal, I’ll start with the tacos. The selection is wide without being overwhelming—if you’re building your own taco, the trick is to work backwards from a protein to extra toppings and flavor profiles. The same is true of the salsas: start by choosing the level of spice you want, and work through what looks best for the tacos you choose. Another thing to mention up front—the quality of the tortillas. Hand-made in house, they are fresh and flavorful, with enough binding agents and lipids to keep them from breaking into bits—a huge plus.

I chalk it up to kitchen troubles on the day in question (a gas leak meant limited menu choices) but the pork of the
al pastor ($2.85) was just a touch dry. No complaints, though, with the flavor. It was well-seasoned and served up with grilled pineapple, chopped onion and some terrific cilantro sprouts. The microgreens across the board were well-considered, adding another layer of texture to the dish. The pork on the pork carnitas ($2.85) was a bit juicier—a solid offering with a balanced interplay of citrus, cream and a bright, sweet corn pico de gallo. The shrimp taco ($3.50) was a delight. Fresh arugula, a slice of avocado and their pipian salsa join a few luscious, garlic-sautéed shrimp, all topped with toasted pepitas for texture and salt. I’d definitely order it again. That’s if I don’t get the chicken tinga ($2.85) every time I go … though I just might. As one of my all-time favorites, I am notoriously hard-to-please when it comes to chicken tacos. But El Cotorro pulls theirs off with aplomb. The chicken has a deep-steeped ropa vieja vibe to it, with mild spice and heat, punched up with thin-sliced radish, pickled red onion and cilantro sprouts to make one of my favorite chicken tacos in town.

As for the vegetarians and vegans, some tasty tacos also await. The bean and cheese taco ($2) was simple but executed with style. The refried beans were rich and flavorful, with a great melt of asadero cheese on top. I’d add a salsa to jazz up the spice some, but the taco is solid either way. If I had to pick a salsa for it, I’d go with the salsa
roja—the hottest of the red salsas—even though they recommend the salsa puya. The nopales taco ($2.85) was a terrific surprise. Thin-sliced ribbons of cactus (yes, cactus!) pads, breaded and fried, with crispy blades of green onion on top make for a unique bite similar to bell pepper or even green beans. The vegan chorizo and potato taco ($2.85), while a limited option, was exactly the thing that’d make a non-vegan happy. The smoky spice of the "chorizo" worked perfectly with the papita-style potatoes, so I’d hope they bring it back from time to time.

The appetizers and sides were limited. The chips and guacamole ($4) features small fried triangles of their homemade corn tortillas, served with a lime-forward guacamole. But how can you go wrong with
frijoles borrachos ($3)? Again, fresh micro greens join the tomatoes, onions, garlic and bell peppers, plus the slight vinegary brine in the smoky beans themselves, all finished with an earthy grate of cotija cheese. Kick them up with a ladle off the made-fresh-daily salsa bar which features five salsas, plus a spicy pickled veggie medley. Of the red salsas, even the mild had a decent bite, so be sure you want extra heat. The salsas run the gamut from vinegary to smoke, deep red to light orange, thick to thin—and the greens, while both mild, go from garlicky to a little bit of citrus and avocado. The combinations of taco and salsa would take years to truly master.

To drink, kiddos can take a sugar-cane Coke or Dr. Pepper ($2) out of the cooler … always a treat. Adults can choose from a few local beers, a couple Mexican lagers—the perfect taco accompaniment—or the spicy margarita ($5). It’s sweet lime plus the hint of heat and spice in the tall, cool and refreshing crowd-pleaser, with jalapeño slices as a garnish. But save room for dessert!

On offer at the
heladería next door are some knock-out ice creams, sorbets and paletas, with seasonal offerings depending on what’s ready. The Azteca is their take on a chocolate—but with cinnamon and the slight spice of chipotle. The Mexican vanilla and the tres leches are, for native palates, creamy and comforting. Try all three in a house-made biscochito waffle cone ($4.75 for a medium, $5.50 for a large) for the perfect regional ice cream treat! The sweet double strawberry flavor had fruit for days, and the tangy lime of the margarita was more sorbet than ice cream. But no matter what flavors you go for, don’t miss at least a taster of the Marble Double White ice cream. As advertised, it’s got everything you love about ice cream, and everything you love about Marble’s Double White … together somehow in a tasty and surprising concoction.

Be it tacos or ice cream, El Cotorro is careful to offer some vegan-friendly options as part of their staple of winning recipes. They go the extra step with each ingredient and each order, resisting the temptation to rest on their winning-concept’s laurels. If there’s a complaint, it would be that understaffing meant the side-work and up-keep suffered a bit—something I’d keep an eye on but certainly nothing that would keep me away. And with the innovative tacos and ice creams on offer, you won’t want to miss out.

El Cotorro

111 Carlisle NE


Hours: 11am-8:30pm, Sat 9am-8:30pm, Sun 9am-8:00pm

Alibi Recommends: Tacos: Chicken tinga plus a spicy margarita; ice cream: Azteca, Mexican vanilla and tres leches ice cream in a biscochito waffle cone

Vibe: The bustle of a winning concept and the indoor/outdoor energy of Nob Hill students and shoppers

Tacos and Ice Cream In One Place?!

Eric Williams Photography

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