Bringing some Puerto Rican sunshine to a bleak stretch in Upper Haight
Out at the west end of Haight Street, what do we find? Not a pot of gold, sadly, though plenty of pot, whose haze hovers fragrantly above the pavement like hippie ground fog. Also: a McDonald's, complete with parking lot. This has always faintly depressed me. Across the street, an emerging Whole Foods (with parking lot), while a block to the east, the old I-Beam has been obliterated in favor of condos.
In the midst of all this corporate commotion, it would be easy to overlook Parada 22, a tiny restaurant that opened last spring serving Puerto Rican food. The western run of Haight Street, while rich in places to eat, has never really been known for its restaurants, yet Parada 22 is worth seeking out. If I hesitate to describe it as a destination restaurant, it's only because that label might raise expectations to curse (in the sense of "hex") level.
We are talking, after all, about a restaurant with concrete floors, crayon drawings, and old newsprint on the walls (including the San Francisco Chronicle's unforgettable reporting on the outbreak of the Spanish-American War), no host's station, and a table set just inches from the front door, the better for the people seated at it to be buffeted by winter drafts as diners come and go.
But we look closer and find grace notes. Each table holds a flickering candle, along with an old coffee can supplied with utensils and napkins. Even better: one of the chefs, on a cold evening, brings everyone a little cup of pork and vegetable soup, made from a pork leg roasted earlier in the day (and with stock made from the roasted bones). You might call this an amuse-bouche — if it was more whimsical and less sustaining. I warmed my hands with the cup, since concrete floors can make a place seem cold even if it isn't.
Puerto Rican cooking involves versions of and variations on foods that are characteristic of the Caribbean basin. It's on the rustic side, with plenty of beans and rice, roasted plantains, and cassava root (an appealing alternative to the potato that has never found much traction in our own potato-involved cuisine). The root stars in a salad ($7) that, when warmed, provides a strong contrast to the chilled greens, carrot tabs, and tomato dice. (The advertised avocado was a no-show.)
There's also plenty of meat, at least as Parada 22's kitchen prepares the cuisine, with an emphasis on pork. Pork's cultural meaning is complex; pigs are fecund scavengers that thrive across a wide range of habitats, which means they are efficient producers of protein and therefore a boon to human populations in less than bountiful circumstances. And pork, along with wine, is about as closely associated as a comestible could be with Latin Christianity. Eating it — or not eating it — can be a powerful assertion of cultural identity.
I love pork as a cook would love it, for its compatibility with so many different treatments and seasonings, its modest cost, and its relative ease of handling. Parada 22's pernil asado ($12), which reached the table as a heap of oval slices, reminded me of how good pork can be even when lightly adorned (with garlic and oregano) and simply roasted: the meat juicy and giving a hint of ropiness for texture. As, perhaps, an echo of humankind's ancient fear of going hungry, the plate was finished with failsafe heaps of Spanish rice (studded with bits of ham), white beans (simmered with potato, carrot, and winter squash), and a green salad. Even without the pork, there would have been a meal.
Just as meal-worthy was a pot of red beans ($3.50) simmered in a spicy red sauce with bits of ham and chunks of cassava root. If you had only a fiver in your pocket, you could go to the McDonald's a few blocks away and end up with God knows what, or you could have Parada 22's red beans — a stew, really — and be much more genuinely nourished.