A Mission spot that rocks, summoning kitchen folk wisdom in hefty dishes
DINE Across the street from Brisas de Acapulco, on a breezy stretch of Mission Street, is a concern named Roccapulco, a salsa-dancing venue that's also a supper club. Roccapulco does serve food, in other words. So it was with a sense of mild bemusement that we found ourselves, on a recent (breezy) evening, watching a party of four young, or at least young-ish, men jaywalking their way from Roccapulco straight into Brisas. Ahead of us. The implication of this journey seemed to be that Roccapulco was fine for salsa dancing, but if you were hungry, you might find crossing the street to Brisas to be worth the trouble. One of the jaywalkers was an interestingly fantasticated drag queen wearing a dress, wig, and black, blocky spectacles. Is there a Jonathan Lethem look-alike contest at Wigstock now?
Inside we found — under an almost threateningly low ceiling — an elderly, perhaps Mexican couple having dinner while watching World Cup tumult on a flat-screen television mounted in a high corner and tuned to a Spanish-language station. The Roccapulquistas took a table almost directly under the screen. And ... everyone lived happily ever after. If water is the universal solvent, then food — particularly good food — remains the great uniter. And while Brisas de Acapulco might be a neighborhood joint, its neighborhood is wildly interesting, an exuberant splashing of subcultures, languages, social practices, and ethnicities worthy of a Jackson Pollock painting.
And its excellent food (Mexican and Salvadorean) reminds us that there's no cooking like home cooking, really. Yes, how marvelous that aspiring young chefs are sent off to expensive schools to study food — to dissect and analyze it, deconstruct and reconstruct it, then be duly approved by an educational bureaucracy. But there is much to be said for folk wisdom, for the passing along of old ways, old recipes, into new hands. The New World — new, at any rate, to some if not to others — was born in revolution, replacing an ancient human mosaic by another one, restless, innovative, and brash. These are the qualities that have come to define us. We believe in revolution and the scientific method, and we have little use for old knowledge.
But even the brashest and most revolution-minded among us would probably like the tostada de camarones ($4.95) at BdA — a flat, crisp tortilla heaped with shredded lettuce, cilantro, and countless bay shrimp seasoned with plenty of garlic and lime. It's simple, elegant in its way, and unimprovable. Also shareable.
Given Acapulco's balmy coastal setting, it isn't surprising to find seafood besides bay shrimp figuring prominently on Las Brisas' menu. There is an excellent, puckeringly tart ceviche ($11.95), as well as a wonderful dish of knuckle-sized prawns ($13.95) sautéed with garlic and chilies that melt into an addictive red sauce with just the right hint of heat. Caveat: although the prawns are headless, they remain in their shells. At first I failed to notice this and found myself with a mouthful of quite tasty shell. No doubt cooking the prawns in their shells adds to the flavor, but there is no graceful or spatter-free way for a patron to shell cooked shrimp swimming in sauce the color of blood. Recommendation: shell the prawns, please.
Despite the abundance of seafood at Brisas, meat is not neglected. If the gold standard for carnitas is set by Nopalito's paper-wrapped version — at, say 24 carats — then Brisas' version is 18-carat gold. The meat was crispy-moist, intensely flavorful, and shredded but not overshredded. It made a superior filling for a taco ($1.95), where it was by far the principal ingredient and did not find itself having to compete for shelf space with bales of lettuce or huge blobs of salsa and sour cream.