Quixote's Mexican Grill

A fire in the blood
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paulr@sfbg.com

Literary nerds will note a slight irony in the naming of a Mexican restaurant after Don Quixote — a.k.a. Alfonso Quixano — the touchingly quixotic unhero of Miguel de Cervantes's novel El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, first published in Spain in 1605. The novel has nothing to do with Mexico, though Mexico has plenty to do with Spain, beginning with a shared language and faith and including a certain goriness in cultural mythology. The restaurant in question, Quixote's Mexican Grill (which opened toward the end of winter in a little run of shops behind Muni Metro's Forest Hill station), serves an excellent sangria. I love sangria and soak it up like a sponge, but sangria (the name is derived from sangre, "blood") isn't Mexican. Sangria, as probably most of us know, is a wine cocktail, and Mexico produces almost no wine. Spain, on the other hand, produces tons; it is one of the world's great wine-producing lands, and sangria is a distinctively Spanish drink, something to sip, or swill, late on a sun-splashed afternoon under a parasol somewhere on the Costa Brava.

I come not to pick nits, though, because Quixote's is a charming neighborhood place that turns out some interesting, unexpected dishes, and sangria is lovely whether on the Spanish coast or at the wild intersection of Dewey and Woodside, with a cold city summer sweeping in on wings of Dickensian fog. Sangría de rojo ($7 for a goblet) slyly raises expectations, and the kitchen at Quixote's, while capably turning out the Mexican standards that have become American favorites (tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and so forth), also offers a dish, Sancho's borrecherra ($18.95), that features a sauce concocted from beer and wine. New World meets Old, and they dance; more on this anon.

Let's begin in the middle of the degree-of-sophistication scale, with an old friend that gets restaurant treatments of varying appeal: the chile relleno ($5.95). My companion, a connoisseur of chiles rellenos, wrinkled his brow skeptically when the plate was set before him, but he was relieved to find the pepper — the proper kind, a poblano, deep green and tapered, with a breath of heat — had been roasted and peeled, not dunked in batter and deep-fried. He also approved of the cheese inside (molten queso blanco, oozing) and of the ranchero sauce. I agreed, while noting with satisfaction the sets of ketchup squirt bottles on each table, one filled with red salsa, the other with green. Caveat: the red kind is quite hot.

Caveat, continued: a number of the dishes can be quite hot, as we discovered at dinner one evening. We opened with a sweet-tempered queso fundido ($5.50), a crock of melted cheese presented with a foil envelope containing a huge flour tortilla cut into quarters. The most sensitive palate could have eaten this dish and enjoyed it as we did. That same palate would also have responded warmly to the ocean tacos ($3.50 each), filled with grilled mahimahi, shredded lettuce, and mango dice for a bit of ripe sweetness. But the firestorm was not far off.

Sancho's borrecherra — a prawn dish — looked tame enough, its sauce the rich color of ale, the prawns peeled and easy to eat. But the seemingly benign amber liquid turned out to be so spicy that the prawns themselves, lightly splashed with it, were little torches, bearers of flame, though shrimp flesh is famed for a delicate marine sweetness. My companion, who has grown less tolerant of spicy food over the years, accepted my offer of a straight-up trade for my mahimahi tacos, and we agreed to joint custody of the borrecherra's two side dishes, black beans and cayenne corn.

The black beans were fabulous, deeply tasty with no incendiary properties. But the cayenne corn was another matter. Corn, like shrimp, is naturally sweet and takes well to a judicious enlivenment with cayenne pepper. But ... not too much!

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