By Paul Reidinger
Pending the results of the next big earthquake, the Mission remains beachless, unless we count rooftops and the southwest corner of Dolores Park. No summertime water there, other than from the lawn sprinklers, but plenty of ephebes in Speedos for your voyeuristic pleasure. Maybe we shouldn't fixate on water, anyway. The Mission, while landlocked, does offer lots of sun, a pleasantly hazy slacker ethos that would do credit to those surfer-dude haunts on the San Mateo County coast, and, since early in the year, Mission Beach Cafe, at the corner of 14th and Guerrero streets.
Decriers of Mission gentrification need only take a short roll down 14th, from Market to Folsom, more or less, to have their sense of the world restored. Grit has not yet been totally expunged from this city, and a less likely setting for an urban beach you would have trouble picturing. A few years ago, I wrote about another café, just a block or so away from Mission Beach on the 14th Street corridor, in which all the food was made in little ovens convection, toaster, microwave while nefarious types knocked about outside, on curbs and in alleys.
The little portable-oven place folded after a few years, but the advent of Mission Beach Cafe tells us that while 14th Street is still a realm of used-car lots, body shops, gas stations, kinky porn, and maybe even some lingering nefarious types, it is also sufficiently on its way up now to sustain a genuinely gorgeous little restaurant latest in a long series of labor-of-love, neighborhood jewels that give this city of neighborhoods its distinctive restaurant character.
The gentlemen behind Mission Beach Cafe are Bill Clarke and Alan Carter. Carter is a baker, and this aptitude finds expression in the café's morning persona pastries to go with your Blue Bottle coffee as well as on the evening shift, whose menu can include a rabbit pot pie ($17.50) with a homemade crust. We saw quite a few examples of this dish making appearances around the dining room. Part of its appeal doubtless has to do with the continuing exotic appeal of rabbit, and part of that probably has to do with the fact that cooking with rabbit is tricky. Like turkey, rabbit is lean and dries out quickly, and so sealing it in a pie, with peas, carrots, and thick gravy, is a good strategy. The pie isn't a true pie, incidentally, an enclosure of pastry. The crust is just a disk fitted over the top of the bowl in which the dish is baked, and there is no edible bottom.
The general drift of the kitchen's intentions is captured by a single entry on the dinner menu: ahi tuna tartare with ginger and soy sauce. I've never had a bad version of this dish, but I've had it so many times, and seen it so very many others, that sampling it no longer seems necessary. But it does tell us we're in the heart of the heart of California cuisine, a reality of mixed and eclectic influences and local, sustainable, and often organic ingredients. And even if this is familiar territory, it can be made exciting by sharp execution and the occasional twist.
Let's put some grated fresh ginger in the gazpacho ($4.50), for instance, and some sake too. I didn't pick up the sake, but the brassy fruitiness of the ginger was unmistakable, while the soup's appearance was unforgettable: a silken smooth purée of Pepto-Bismol pinky peach. A turkey sandwich ($6 for half) wasn't quite so striking in either dimension, despite avocado, bacon, and aioli, but a vegetarian sandwich ($9.50) made clever use of sun-dried tomatoes' meatiness as a supplement to grilled eggplant, avocado, and smoked mozzarella.
Succotash ($4.50), a classic dish of the American Indians, is so simple and tasty that its slender popularity nowadays is something of a mystery.