DINE On the hunt for the Little Chihuahua one unsettled April evening, we came upon ... a little cockapoo, or maybe a Tibetan terrier. The dog, wrapped in a coat of shaggy fur the color of milky coffee, was moored to the façade of a Lower Haight storefront and had been provided a stainless-steel water dish, which seemed superfluous. Since the storefront was occupied by the Little Chihuahua, a Mexican restaurant opened by Andrew Johnstone two years ago, we naturally wondered whether the dog was just waiting for its person (or persons) to finish eating within or was a mascot of sorts. Did Little Chihuahua's chihuahua take the day off? The dog lay on the sidewalk, staring intently through the open door, which I interpreted as a clue that a vigil was being patiently held. Or maybe the smell of the food appealed.
Mexican food gets my vote as one of the world's most underappreciated cuisines. Recently I made this claim to a health-nut friend, who scoffed at first but gradually warmed to the evidence. This includes: the dominance of whole-grain corn (in many varieties and cultivars), the omnipresence of beans, a light hand with red meat, a wide range of vegetables, herbs, and spices, many of them indigenous, and of course salsa, whose flavor-to-calories ratio is unmatched among condiments I can think of.
Little Chihuahua lays out an impressive salsa bar to enhance the chip-dipping experience, although the chips are pretty good naked — warm, with just enough salt to make the corn flavor pop. The salsas themselves range from a rather mainline version (tomatoes, garlic, chili, cilantro, lime), to a spicy tomatillo kind that looks like melted emeralds, to a chipotle-charged concoction with the innocent face of ketchup.
A small irony of pozole, the wonderful soup-stew of hominy in chili broth, is that it traditionally features pork, a meat brought from the Old World by the conquistadores. La Chihuahua's pozole ($7.95) deploys pork, in the form of a small semi-slab of baby back ribs, but its most striking elements are the rich, slightly viscous guajillo-chile broth and an abundance of hominy kernels and pinto beans. It's more stew than soup and very sustaining.
If Mexican food's reputation has suffered on this side of the border, a good part of the blame must be attributed to the burrito, a neither-here-nor-there hybrid that emphasizes mass at the expense of just about everything else and, worse, comes wrapped in a flour tortilla. The flour tortilla must have its virtues — I've never seen burrito-sized tortillas made from masa — but we eat more than enough wheat flour in this country already. Having said that, the quesadilla with shrimp ($8.95) is lovely, with a blistering like that of a good pizza crust and a pronounced melody of marine sweetness proclaiming itself through the cheesy murk. For a bit of refreshing balance, the spicy cabbage salad ($3) makes a good choice; it's basically like cole slaw without the mayonnaise (and fat) and is a bowlful of virtue, though we didn't detect much spiciness, just plenty of lime juice.
There is a slight party atmosphere to the Little Chihuahua. Seating is mostly at long communal tables, and the clientele is young. So it's no surprise that the nacho plates pack some real throw-weight. Even the meatless one ($7.95) will keep three or four hungry people busy for quite a few minutes. Of course it isn't quite meatless if you get it with the refried pinto beans, which are spiked with chorizo and bacon. But there is a wealth of avocado, salsa, and sour cream, along with enough melted white cheese to make it seem like somebody spilled a bottle of Elmer's Glue all over the chips.