Elisa's Cafe and L's Caffe

One F or two?
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paulr@sfbg.com

No matter how you prefer to spell café — or caffe, or even cafe — you probably have a favorite one. Haunting a particular café is a prerogative of city dwelling, and in a coffee-involved city like ours, the possible forums for such socially acceptable loitering are vast, even including places that don't have espresso machines. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Cafés, you see, don't have to be about coffee, really, though most serve it in some form and some serve it in many forms. Cafés can also be about food, and in this sense we use the word in more or less the same sense the Parisians do, to describe the most casual sort of restaurant, the sort of place that doesn't necessarily have full table service but does have tables where you are welcome to linger and discuss and rap your knuckles for emphasis even after you've finished eating whatever it was you were eating.

And what were you eating? Nacatamales? Have my typing fingers gone into spasm? Did I mean to type tamales but succumbed to overenthusiasm? No: I meant to type nacatamales because the nacatamal is the tamale of Nicaragua (and Honduras), and you can get them at Elisa's Café, along with other Central American delicacies. Along with coffee — but not espresso.

Elisa's opened late in the spring in the Excelsior space occupied for a number of years by Bistro E Europe, a restaurant that served the foods of Hungary and the Roma (a.k.a. the gypsies). The rather Spartan-looking space has been given a nice freshening, with peach paint and black furniture, and you no longer have that forgotten-city feeling while sitting in the window, watching the world go by.

Nacatamales ($5.50), as prepared by Elisa's kitchen, are bigger and squarer than ordinary tamales. They're about the size of a watch box and are steamed in plantain leaves, which are peeled away before the plate is presented to you. Otherwise, the similarities are manifest; we are talking about a squarish molding of masa (a close, corn-meal relation of polenta) in which potatoes, rice, tomatoes, onions, raisins, mint leaves, and possibly beef, pork, or chicken, have been cooked, as in a clafoutis or berry muffin. The boundary between the filling and the enclosure is indistinct, in other words.

The nacatamales are big. One is plenty for a single person and might even be splittable if you open your repast with, say, some soup. Soups vary according to the day of the week, and some are pricier than others. The least costly appears on Friday and is meatless: a black-bean soup ($4.50), whose namesake legumes are reduced to a thin purée in which bob peeled boiled eggs and coiled ropes of red pepper. Since the soup is basically mild, enlivenment is provided on the side in the form of a white salsa, a mince of onions steeped in vinegar. The sauce emits almost unbreathable fumes, but once in the soup it settles down to the general benefit.

Other dishes seem more familiar — the sorts of things you might find at other restaurants serving the foods of Mesoamerica — including bistec encebollado ($8.75), several pieces of beef sliced minute-steak thin, then pan-fried and finished with a tousled cap of sautéed onions. There's also a salad on the side, iceberg lettuce with cucumber coins and quartered tomatoes. Quite American, I thought, as if the shock of Nicaraguan cooking must be buffered somehow for yanqui sensibilities.

When you are sitting in L's Caffe, on 24th Street between Bryant and Florida, you are sitting in what I think of as the deepest heart of the Mission. And because the Mission is changeable and ever-changing, a café at its heart would almost necessarily be polyglot. The principals of L's are all named Lozano — which is a Spanish name but also turns up occasionally in Italy.

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