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Regional Interests

A New Taco Stand Is Bringing Indigenous Flavors to the Outer Sunset

[dropcap]B[/dropcap]y 7:30am on Sundays, Nomar Ramirez is already bringing food to the people. To wake up half-asleep shoppers at the Outer Sunset Farmers Market & Mercantile, Ramirez’s taco stand, Molcaxitl Kitchen, plays hip hop and cumbia. And, even more invigorating, it slings bold, pre-colonial Mexican flavors rarely found in the Bay Area.

Molcaxitl’s tacos are colorful: green, pink, red and brown all visible through the steam rising from hot, freshly pressed blue tortillas. But it’s the decadent turkey mole dripping from the tortilla that catches the eye—a nod to the wild turkeys that were eaten by Mexico’s Indigenous peoples before European colonizers brought chicken to the continent.

“You don’t eat mole in a taco,” Ramirez says of customers’ typical response to the dish. “People don’t understand that the Indigenous diet looked like this.”

For Ramirez, cooking dishes like those mole tacos is healing. The 22-year-old college student at San Francisco State says it’s the least he can do to make San Francisco more like home. The tacos also reflect the core mission for Molcaxitl, which has made a splash in the ten months since it opened with its focus on Mexican foods that have Indigenous influences, many of them listed on the menu by their proper Indigenous names.

Ramirez identifies as Chicano, a term for U.S.-born Mexican Americans first popularized in the 1940s by Los Angeles-based Mexican Americans, who embraced an Indigenous Nahuatl word that described their Aztec homeland. The activist Ruben Salazar famously defined a Chicano as a Mexican American with a “non-Anglo vision of himself.” 

Ramirez, for his part, leans into that activist, political aspect of his Chicano identity. For him, creating space in the San Francisco food scene for Chicanos like himself means a good deal of at-times-awkward pioneering. It means making the movement more inclusive of what it means to be Mexican and Indigenous, and opening up a dialogue through food.

Chef Nomar Ramirez shows off one of his indigenous-influenced tacos. (Ricky Ryan Silva)

Born in Pasadena, Ramirez grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He remembers eating tacos at midnight with friends at one of what felt like two billion taquerias. For the past four years, though, he has found himself in a much less overtly Mexican area: the Outer Sunset.

Food was not always an obvious career option for the former engineering major. But when Ramirez was growing up in Los Angeles as the oldest of three siblings, cooking was always integral. Sincronizadas, a sandwich-style quesadilla consisting of two tortillas jammed with ham, bacon and Valentina hot sauce, was a particular favorite. “I’d make this preteen, greasy grub,” Ramirez laughs.

The women in his life taught him a lot, Ramirez says. In high school, he even spent a day at his aunt’s San Bernardino ranch fully processing a chicken from slaughter to platter. As a college student in San Francisco, he would have loved to work in a restaurant kitchen, but without a resume in cooking—and with COVID hobbling the economy—no employers were interested. Instead, Ramirez side-hustled his van into a moving business and started doing cooking tutorials on Instagram Live.

While helping Sunset Mercantile co-founder Angie Petitt-Taylor move last year, Ramirez discovered she was opening a new farmers market on 37th Street. It wound up being just the opportunity he’d been looking for. By this time, he had become a business major, but even before graduating he’d already gotten his business license for Molcaxitl Kitchen. In October, he bought a tent and started selling tacos every Sunday. 

A Tool for Social Change

At the same time, Ramirez’s classes at SF State were teaching him about what it meant to be Indigenous in California. He sent for a genetic tracing kit from “23 and Me.” The results said he was 40 percent Native American.

“That’s when I realized ‘Oh, I’m Native American,’” Ramirez says. “I had never felt connected as this Chicano kid from L.A.”

A sense of validation mingled with the perennial identity crisis that often afflicts mixed and displaced people. For Ramirez, it all pointed toward the plate. He saw that creating food with a reverence for Indigenous people could not only be edifying for his own sense of self, but that it could also serve as a tool for social change.

“I live in the Sunset and I’m dried out of all that Mexican shit that I grew up with,” Ramirez says. “Five years ago I wouldn’t have even thought my own family was Native. I want to bring fluidity to being Mexican.”

Molcaxitl founder Nomar Ramirez serves up a box of tacos. (Ricky Ryan Silva)

Every little detail about the taco stand is part of Ramirez’s effort to create space—to recreate the feeling of stepping into a Mexican grocery store. The feeling of cleaning the sauce off your plate with a tortilla (which Molcaxitl makes on the spot). The feeling of home.

Ramirez says, “I’m half Mexican. I’m half American. But I want that space to be a feeling of unity.”

Toward that end, he also launched a live event called “To Be Latino,” held on Tuesday nights in the same location as the Outer Sunset Mercantile. Local businesses like La Reina Bakery and Mixcoatl Arts and Crafts, have a chance to showcase the beauty of Mexican cultura. Musicians like Chris “L7” Cuadrado keep it lively.

As a Mexican who looks not even a little bit Mexican, I had a hard time not hyping Nomar up throughout our conversation. His work means the world to a multiethnic multi-hyphenate like myself. 

The food, meanwhile, speaks for itself. The produce is sourced from local farmers on Saturdays for the food Molcaxitl sells on Sunday. The corn for the tortillas is heirloom blue, shipped from Mexico. The nectarine pico de gallo goes hard—it’s made with red onion, firm tomatoes and nectarines from Ponce Farms. “You can go up this block and buy from the people who grew this,” Ramirez says. 

Ramirez likes to tell customers that plant-based food is the future, just as it was in Mexico in the past, during pre-colonial times, before European colonizers introduced so much meat into the local diet. And he’s happy to push those vegetable-forward dishes along in the Outer Sunset.

The chiles gueros, named for the light color of the pepper, really struck me. My brain anticipated chile rellenos, but instead I was served crisp, fresh peppers with coarse sea salt sprinkled on top. In another dish, a tamarind, cumin and pecan salsa worked to bring out the flavor in the squash flower. The dish was affordable, abundantly floral and frankly genius.

“The squash flower is super Mexican,” Ramirez says. “The zucchini is indigenous to North America. It’s used a lot in quesadillas, roasted with cheese. It’s big L.A. stuff, plus the Mexican roots.”

Ladling broth over Molcaxitl’s totolin, or turkey birria. (Ricky Ryan Silva)

He’s received all kinds of reactions to his food. Some white people treat it as exotic. Some Mexican folks raise their eyebrows at those turkey mole tacos (though Ramirez is not the first San Francisco spot to serve the traditional Indigenous dish). 

“They’re judgmental,” Ramirez says. “I’ve overheard people say ‘Nah, I want real Mexican food.’ They don’t speak to me like I’m Mexican.”

He’s found that fellow Chicanos, on the other hand, are more open. 

Magaly Ramirez (no relation) joined the Molcaxitl team as soon as a job for a tortilla maker popped up on Instagram. She had frequented the new farmers market during the pandemic and was drawn in by Molcaxitl’s vegan options and its delicious horchata. “It’s funny because it’s just kids under a tent,” she says. “They’re all 20-year-olds.” 

As a first-generation Mexican American from Los Angeles, she was inspired by how the food stall had brought its own particular take on Mexican cuisine to the Outer Sunset. “There’s always this push and pull of being Americanized and being in touch with your own culture,” Magaly says.

Dontaye Ball, owner and founder of Gumbo Social, is another fan. As the vice president of the Bayview Merchant Association, he gave Ramirez feedback on his ideas when he was first setting up his farmers market booth. Recently, coming off a 45-day vegan cleanse, the first thing he ate was Molcaxitl’s turkey mole. “Slow-braised in a fantastic mole,” Ball says. “Hit all the right notes.”

Xitlali Soto Ryan is another follower who found the Sunset Mercantile through Instagram. As a Latina and the daughter of artists, she finds the ambiance of Ramirez’s stall familiar: all of the colors, the flowers and the Jarritos on the table. She loves a drink made with cherries and tunas, a cactus fruit similar to dragon fruit. 

“I know the importance of having to support your people,” Soto Ryan says. 

Sharing the Vision

Ramirez says he enjoys being on the street. If Molcaxitl were to go brick and mortar, however, he would want the food to feel fancier than it does right now. 

“We’re trying to bring respect to Latino culture,” Ramirez says. “These recipes are complicated. Meanwhile, it’s France and Italy that get so much reverence.”

He says connecting with nature is key. “I would hope that people see Indigeneity as being a caretaker of the environment,” he says. “There’s a spiritual connection to that food. You are born from this dirt. It sustains you, and you sustain it.”

And he wants to expand to other farmers markets to share his vision of what it means to connect with the farm-to-plate movement in this critical way.

Molcaxitl’s menu features Indigenous words like totolin (turkey) and ayotli (zucchini). (Ricky Ryan Silva)

Magaly Ramirez, the tortilla maker, says she’s still grappling with her own sense of identity. “I can never consider myself an Indigenous person,” she says. “Our food doesn’t follow the exact same practices. We use a propane stove. It’s more of an homage.”

For the business’s 22-year-old founder, threading that needle of authenticity and acculturation is a day-by-day practice. Whether or not he’ll turn Molcaxitl Kitchen into a full-time career after graduation is still up in the air.

“I’m just figuring this shit out,” Ramirez says. “I’ve never even worked in a restaurant.”

Molcaxitl Kitchen is open Sundays from 9am to 3pm on Sundays and Tuesdays from 3pm to 7pm.

Copyright 2021 KQED