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Here are the eight best places to eat tostadas in the Bay Area

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 8/2/2022 By Cesar Hernandez

There’s a multiverse of potential food inside a kernel of corn.

Mexicans — the real children of the corn — have relied on the stuff for millennia, particularly in the form of the tortilla. But just like corn, a tortilla has many functions. The most popular is the taco, but I think it’s time we give its fried counterpart, the tostada, its due.

Just like tacos, tostadas are both a dish and a delivery system. But the humble tostada has one upper hand: texture.

In a typical Mexican home, tostadas are a common snack, sometimes served with little more than beans and a sprinkle of cheese. Other times, fried tortillas act as a supplement for soups like pozole — they’re smeared with crema and hot sauce and eaten in between spoonfuls of hominy. The other benefit of a tostada is that it isn’t beholden to a heat source. It can be every bit as delicious hot or cold, perfect for the warmer months. There’s nothing worse than a cold taco (the original sin), and you never really have to worry about that problem with tostadas. Though, depending on the ingredients, you may have to inhale it before it gets soggy.

In the Bay Area, there’s plenty to try but they are also somewhat elusive. The most common place to find a tostada as a constructed dish — meaning dressed and primed for eating — is at a mariscos (seafood) spot. But even then, it can be rare to find a composed tostada as opposed to entire orders of ceviche and aguachile, with tostadas on the side.

This is a tribute, and a plea, to recognize the tostada as an equally enticing option as a taco, burrito or quesadilla. While there are a few aquatic choices, I mostly wanted to showcase the tostada’s versatility. It can be complicated and involved, limited only by imagination, or stupefyingly simple. Some only have two elements, while others create abstract art on a disk of fried corn. Some are so complex and layered that they defy cataloging.

Here are eight varied ways to eat tostadas around the Bay Area, in order of preference.

Tacos Sincero

My favorite comic book artists are the ones with distinct styles and extremely detailed illustrations — artists like Frank Quitely, Katsuhiro Otomo and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. I think Sincere Justice, founder of Oakland pop-up Tacos Sincero, was one of those artists in another lifetime, except his canvas is the tortilla. Justice’s pop-up specializes in the many forms of a tortilla, but lately he’s focused on tostadas. The options range from fresh to saucy and even traditional, each pulling from a different culture and its cuisine. The egg salad tostada ($10) takes some inspiration from Japanese konbinis (convenience stores) but slips in newness like salt-bomb capers, fragrant preserved lemons, calamansi kosho and ginger. It might seem like the last thing you’d expect on a tostada, but I grew up eating tuna salad with canned peas and carrots on tostadas, so there are no limits. Inspired by his upbringing in the San Gabriel Valley, the Sriracha tinga tostada ($11) takes the simple stewed chicken and transforms it into a more acidic but still saucy version.

Follow www.instagram.com/tacossincero for pop-up locations or email tacossincero@gmail.com for more information.

Cenaduria Elvira

This one-of-a-kind home restaurant specializes in tostada raspadas ($13), a fried sheet of corn with bubbly ridges. Don’t expect a discus of corn — these take their shape from a metate (a stone Mesoamerican tool for grinding corn). It starts with a partially cooked tortilla that’s scraped from one end of the metate; the masa becomes paper-thin and is peeled off and left to dry. These thin corn planks are fried the day of service and topped with liquidy beans, shredded pork, cabbage, queso fresco and mild tomato salsa. Dab it with a bright red and searingly hot chile Yahualica (arbol varietal) salsa — a few drops is all you need. These things of beauty come from Zapotlanejo, Jalisco, where owner Elvira Varela’s family is from. The home restaurant is open on weekends, where you can dine-in, take food to-go or, if you live near East Oakland, have it delivered. Don’t sleep on the other items like crispy tacos and pozole.

Follow on www.instagram.com/cenaduria.elvira/ for address or call/text 510-944-8359 for details. 1-7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

El Garage

Sometimes certain items on a restaurant’s menu are so undeniably good they feel transcendent. The avocado and bean tostada ($5) drizzled with salsa macha at El Garage is one example. It gives such a clear glimpse into the role of the tostada in a Mexican household and the ways that we snack. Dissecting the dish reveals that it’s actually a complex mix of textures: creamy avocado and black beans are made spicy and smoky with salsa, layered on a crunchy tostada. It can be enjoyed cold or warm, eaten fast or slow, and usually it’s the first of many. This tostada speaks to my soul on so many levels that I think I prefer it over El Garage’s star dish, birria, which is also great. The other tostada option with tinga ($6), shredded chicken in chipotle sauce, is good if you desire extra protein. But really, try the vegetarian one, and get it with a strawberry horchata that tastes like liquid fresas con crema with extra cinnamon.

1428 Macdonald Ave., Richmond. Noon-7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. www.elgarage.online

Tacos Oscar

Taco phenom Tacos Oscar always has a tostada on the menu that’s focused on seasonality. It sort of operates on Heraclitus’ theory of rivers: You can never step twice in the same river. That means that there will certainly be some tostadas you get a chance to try and many that you’ve already missed. But the river keeps on flowing. You might encounter one with jumbo-size white beans, crisp watermelon radishes and salsa macha ($7), or one that’s essentially a salad on a tostada ($7) made with chicories and acidic, vibrant green goddess dressing. (The tostadas are usually vegan.) Since it’s tomato season, the current tostada ($8) is made with colorful heirloom tomatoes, grilled corn, ranch dressing made with Shared Cultures miso and abundant seeds. Chef Oscar Michel saw the tostada as a vehicle for a salad in part thanks to its crunchy texture, but mostly because it’s a plate that you can eat. Savor these edible plates in the parklet in front of the shipping container restaurant or in the back seating area.

420 40th St., Oakland. 5-9:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. tacososcar.com

La Calenda

The last place you’d expect to find the coastal food of Ensenada, Mexico, is in Wine Country, but that’s exactly where one of my favorite mariscos tostadas lives. The tostada de atun ($20) from Yountville’s La Calenda seems to take inspiration from the powerful Ensenada mariscos cart La Guerrerense, except it’s served in a fast-casual setting surrounded by grape vines. Layered on a crisp tortilla is sliced raw tuna, radish and avocado, plus thick, oily salsa macha made with chile costeño from Mexico. It’s hard to eat this crunchy thing without getting red oil on your face, but really, who cares? The tuna is tender and the avocado adds creaminess, but it’s the salsa that makes the whole thing a success. It’s smoky and hot and adds an unctuous richness that’s intense yet magnetic. It’s so strong that a bite might send you into a fugue state, entranced by oily peppers. La Calenda is part of the Thomas Keller Group and it’s the sort of place you might stop by for a casual weekend lunch in between wine tasting, where you can dream of the Baja California beaches.

6518 Washington St., Yountville. 4-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Sunday. lacalendamex.com

Mariscos Costa Alegre

Mariscos Costa Alegre in San Jose is a restaurant specializing in nautical, coastal food. You’ll find everything from shrimp tacos to marisco cocktails to ceviches and aquatic-themed soups. But more importantly, it’s one of the places you can get aguachile tostadas. The aguachile verde ($10) starts with raw shrimp marinated in a mixture of lime juice, green chiles and cilantro along with sliced cucumber, avocado and onions for textural variety. It’s a spicy, acidic journey into the ocean guided by snappy fried corn. The mixta aguachile ($18), on the other hand, has more seafood components, like octopus, abalone and scallops, as well as mangos and red onions. Any of the aguachiles can be ordered with different sauces, color-coordinated to match the chiles and ingredients: red uses chile de arbol, green uses serrano peppers, and black uses several chiles and gets its color from soy-based Salsa Maggi. Like most mariscos restaurants, the menu options are overwhelming, but the tostadas are an easy way to sample the various ceviches and aguachiles without having to commit to an entire order. The mariscos operation has two other locations in San Jose.

855 N. 13th St., San Jose. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. mariscoscostaalegre.com

La Guerrera’s Kitchen

Nestled inside Oakland food hall Swan’s Market is newcomer La Guerrera, which serves up tacos, tamales and quesadillas. The Mexican restaurant usually only has one tostada on the menu with oregano-scented vegetables like mushrooms, corn and cubed squash, topped with finely shaved cabbage, a tomato coin and salsa. It’s meant to highlight veggies but you can add Mexican crema and queso for extra heft. The mixture of freshness and layered ingredients is an awesome display of what a tostada can do. The excessive toppings are similar to what you might find in a Mexican household, where the only inhibition is what you have on hand but the sum of its parts makes a thing of beauty. Occasionally, there’s an off-menu option with shredded chicken in a silky green sauce, similar to a chicken enchilada. The extra heat from the salsa keeps things saucy, and the crema regulates the heat. The tostadas are fried in-house so they taste of fresh oil and are more brittle than the store-bought kind. Take your loaded fried corn circles and enjoy them outside in the parklet.

907 Washington St., Oakland. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. laguerreraskitchen.com

Poc Chuc

This Mission District restaurant offers a casual taste of Yucatecan food, including various tostadas. They make an appearance in the platillo Maya ($16), which is sort of like a Mayan appetizer sampler of masa concoctions, including a tostada with black beans, queso fresco and tomato salsa. This particular tostada displays the flexibility of the form: While it can veer maximalist, it can also operate on an ethos of simplicity, which doesn’t need much more than one or two elements to please. The other option is a trio of tostadas ($12), one with shredded turkey, another with sauteed veggies and a third with picadillo (spiced ground beef). Each corn disk has its own attitude, but they’re all united under the banner of fried elote. Add a bit of green habanero salsa to each tostada for heat and acid, and wash it all down with a tangy jamaica (hibiscus) agua fresca. The restaurant is located in a corridor with a couple of other Mayan restaurants and a bakery if you want a baked good for later. Indoor and outdoor seating available.

2886 16th St., San Francisco. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday (closed Wednesdays), noon-6 p.m. Sunday. pocchuc-restaurant.com

Cesar Hernandez is The San Francisco Chronicle’s associate restaurant critic. Email: cesar.hernandez@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @cesarischafa

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