Noe Valley Voice September 2010

Store Trek

By Karen Topakian

Store Trek is a regular Voice feature profiling new stores and businesses in Noe Valley. This month, we introduce two businesses that share a passion for local suppliers: HeliotropeSF, a natural skin care products store on Church Street, and The Little Chihuahua, a Mexican restaurant at 24th and Castro.



1515 Church Street near 27th Street


“Anybody who’s left college needs to moisturize,” says Jonathan Plotzker, the co-owner of HeliotropeSF, a skin care products boutique that opened in late June  at 1515 Church Street.

Plotzker, his business partner Don Snider, and architect Michael Mullin redesigned the interior space (once the home of Jaboh and Green Twig hair salons), to make it more “open, airy and spacious,” he says.

The shop now has walls tinted soothing shades of yellow, green, and blue; custom-built cupboards and shelving; a huge abstract painting by artist Marta Resende; and a long teak table where customers can create their own blend of body care products, Heliotrope’s stock in trade.

What you won’t find is a person behind a counter. “I didn’t want one of those counters that separate you. It is about the interactivity of working with the client,” explains Plotzker.

Customers can select from more than 50 products in the Heliotrope line of shower gels, scrubs, bath soaks, skin toners, shave creams, bath salts, and massage oils.

“Not only is [the line] locally sourced, it’s in recycled packages, and pretty much everything also comes fragrance-free,” says Plotzker. “If you want to, we have an entire aromatherapy line, called the aromatherapy bar, where you can create your own fragrance or blend.”

By adding essential oils such as lavender, bergamot, and tea tree, or blends with names like warming, rejuvenating, or spicy, clients can design lotions that are a match for their skin and temperament. Plotzker says he maintains a “personalized scent database” for customers, who can come back for refills using their own recycled containers.

Many of Heliotrope’s wares sound good enough to eat. There are body lotions made with organic aloe olive avocado shea butter ($16), a cream cleanser scented with rose and ginseng ($18), and an organic aloe shea butter shave cream that does double duty as a moisturizer ($24). A local aromatherapy soap maker created the shop’s 6 oz. bars of soaps, made of aloe and cucumber, goat’s milk, rosemary mint, and black fig cardamom ($8).

Heliotrope also sells other skin-care labels—Mission-based River Soap, Juniper Ridge of Berkeley, and EO of Corte Madera—and chocolates from Poco Dolce of Dogpatch.

With 20 years of business experience, including stints at Williams-Sonoma and Bare Escentuals, Plotzker says he has learned a lot about both skin care products and customer service. He says he and co-owner Snider, who’s a specialist in website development and online marketing, chose the name Heliotrope, which means flowers turning toward the sun, because the shop’s products are “turning toward nature, the source of everything that’s good for us.”

As for the location in Noe Valley, Plotzker says, “There were two valleys on my list, Noe and Hayes.” He also wanted a place within walking distance of his home on Corwin Street.

Starting in August, HeliotropeSF will host events on the last Thursday of the month in concert with the shop’s neighbor, Loft 1513. “We’ll find fun excuses,” says Plotzker, who hopes to highlight the work of Bay Area chemists, aromatherapists, and soap makers.

HeliotropeSF is open every day except Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Hours on Sunday are noon to 6 p.m.


The Little Chihuahua

4123 24th Street at Castro Street


While searching eBay for knickknacks for his new business back in 2007, Andrew Johnstone found more than a few tchotchkes. He found a name.

“I was looking for something not traditional, that creates a discussion,” says Johnstone. What he found was a vintage sign saying “Little Chihuahua Fresh Mexican Food.” The sign now hangs behind the cash register in his flagship restaurant, The Little Chihuahua, on Divisadero Street.

“It has worked. You don’t forget the name. It tells you we’re not typical.”

They’re also successful. The second Little Chihuahua, the Noe Valley outlet, opened in mid-June in the former home of Bistro 24 at 4123 24th Street.

Johnstone—the restaurant’s chef, a native of New Zealand, and a recent U.S. citizen—co-owns the Noe Valley cafe with his wife, Camila Fernandez, and Chris Patella, who had been managing the Divisadero Street restaurant.

Drawing on 20 years in the restaurant business, Johnstone designed the new place for both dine-in and takeout. He describes it as somewhere “between a taqueria and a restaurant without table service,” which “keeps the prices down” so he can use higher-quality products.

The Little Chihuahua offers traditional Mexican food—burritos, enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas, and tostadas—but with a twist. Says Johnstone, “We’re strict on who we buy from—local produce, fresh and sustainable.”

The restaurant uses Niman Ranch meats and free-range Petaluma Poultry, and the shrimp is labeled Clean Fish by a company that specializes in sustainable seafood. With five kinds of salsa at the self-serve salsa bar, patrons will enjoy trying the horchata drinks and agua frescas, which are made from scratch, Johnstone says.

Topping the menu favorites are the fried plantain and black bean burrito ($8.45) and

the garlic shrimp burrito ($9.95), Johnstone says.

Weekend brunch features huevos rancheros and other egg dishes, as well as the cafe’s signature Mexican French Toast, a battered flour tortilla grilled and served with fried plantains, Applewood smoked bacon, and warm maple-agave syrup ($8.95). Desserts will soon be added to the menu, including Humphry Slocombe ice cream and a Mexican chocolate sorbet.

The Little Chihuahua has a special children’s menu offering kid-size portions for $3.95.

A family man himself—he and Camila have two small children—Johnstone says the partners chose Noe Valley because the neighborhood offered a “fairly heavy family demographic of people who think about food.”

Customers can order their food to go, or sit inside at the bar, at wooden tables, or in comfy booths in the back beneath paintings of Frida Kahlo by local artist Martha Rodriguez. Look for expanded seating on the back patio, which Johnstone plans to complete this month.

The Little Chihuahua is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Weekend brunch is 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.