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The mole

By Paul Reidinger

GIVEN THE CLUTTER of well-known restaurants on Mission Street between 19th and 20th Streets – the Cha Cha Chas and the Charangas and the Bruno'ses – it's probably not surprising that Mission Villa isn't better known and more loudly celebrated. Because it isn't fancy, doesn't have cool signage, hasn't closed and reopened a hundred times, and has been around since 1906, which is a serious problem when calculating the trendiness quotient. A San Francisco restaurant founded in 1906 that doesn't make some reference to that year's great event (the Big One, if you missed it) is just, well, what? Stale? Irrelevant? Old?

As a general rule, old = death in the restaurant biz. We are a youth-worshipping culture; we want what's young and fresh, what's new. We want unfamiliar experiences: stimulation. All this would seem to spell trouble for a restaurant approaching its centenary, but aficionados of Mexican food (of whom I am one) will indeed find an unfamiliar experience at Mission Villa despite its age. They will find Mexican cooking of enormous variety prepared with great know-how and care; they will find Mexican food handled lovingly, as a kind of art.

Which is not to say you won't find the standards: the burritos and tacos and other such items we've come to regard as staples of the modern Mission District. You will. You will also find dinner plates heaped with vast side servings of rice and beans – a reminder, first, of their potent recombinant effect and, by their vastness, of the physical labor typical of life in preindustrial societies. (Surely one of the reasons Americans are so fat is that most of us eat as if we were out tilling the fields from dawn to dusk, working up huge appetites as our mid-19th-century forebears were, instead of spending the bulk of our waking hours in front of one sort of glowing cathode-ray tube or another.)

But ... the eye scans Mission Villa's menu and alights on such possibilities as mole oaxaqueño, carne a la tampiqueña, and enchiladas aguascalientes – all of which refer to a city or region of Mexico. Then there are the preparations of (presumably) Aztec or Maya origin whose names have been terrifyingly rendered with Roman letters: quesadillas de huitlacoche. There's "a fair jaw-cracker" to pronounce, as Sam says to Frodo in describing Dwarvish.

We began cautiously, with pronounceable dishes – on one visit, quesadillas a la plancha ($4.50), flour tortillas stuffed with diced sautéed mushrooms and grilled to a beckoning gold; on another, gorditas de frijol ($4.50), fabulous fat tortillas stuffed with beans and deep-fried to resemble Hungarian langos, along with a bowl of chicken soup ($5.50), a peppery broth laden Mexican-style with whole chicken pieces, quartered zucchini, and chunks of potato.

All that, following on the heels of excellent crisp chips and slightly salty tomatillo salsa, left us with the familiar Mexican-restaurant feeling of being quite near to full before the main courses arrive. And of course they did arrive. My cautious friend hugged the shore on successive visits, beginning with a fine if unremarkable chimichanga ($9) – basically a deep-fried beef burrito – and some days later moving on to carne asada ($12.50), a svelte piece of beef grilled and served (along with the slatherings of rice and beans) with a wealth of golden potato coins that reminded me of doubloons recovered from a sunken galleon on the Spanish Main.

I was curious about mole, the chocolate-based sauce, since it's one of the great signatures of Mexican cooking and, in my experience, is often uneven (read: bitter). But it isn't bitter at all in the enchiladas aguascalientes ($12); if anything, the mole reminded me, in its fruity sharpness, of a good zinfandel sauce, and it made a nicely tart contrast with the scatterings of rich chorizo and Mexican cream across the tops of the chicken-stuffed enchiladas themselves.

Gallina de cuauhnáhuac ($12) turned out to be far less forbidding, or exciting, than its eye-exam-chart name hinted. The foundation of the dish was a nicely braised quarter bird, given a ratatouille-like sauce of tomatoes, peppers, and onions, the whole thing overlaid by golden strips of fried plantain that were certainly pretty, and tasty enough, but after a bite or two became overwhelmingly rich.

Of course, we were pretty well stuffed by the time the plantains – to finish or not to finish? – became a real issue. We chose not to finish, knowing even so that we didn't dare weigh ourselves when we got home. We weren't in a huge rush to get home, anyway, since Mission Villa is, among other things, quite homey, its walls lined by secluding wooden booths and strings of tiny twinkling lights, its bartender engaged in jovial conversation with regulars – its whole mood, really, set for the comfort of those regulars. Are they aware, do they care, that next door sits the chronically reincarnated Bruno's? Not likely. When you've been around for a century or so, you're not too concerned about young'uns. You know what to do and what to make, and you know that when you make it, they will come – young and old, one and all.

Mission Villa. 2391 Mission (at 20th St.), S.F. (415) 826-0454. Dinner, Mon.-Thurs., 4-10 p.m.; Fri., 4 p.m.-midnight. Continuous service, Sat., 10 a.m.-midnight; Sun., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. MasterCard, Visa. Not noisy. Wheelchair accessible.