June 05, 2002


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cheap eats
by dan leone

Waiting for to go

AT CAFE LA Taza on Mission Street in the wake of Carnaval, the line for the bathroom was longer than the line for coffee. In fact, there was no line at all for coffee, or food, and there were not a lot of people sitting down at tables. So I thought it would be a good time and place to take a load off. My feet, I mean. Sit and stare out the window at the aftermath, which consisted of churro carts and other kinds of carts rolling down Mission in pursuit of either revelry or relief, the clang of bleacher seats being dismantled, and the scrape of sliding traffic barriers. Then came the street cleaners. Then came a fire truck. All in all, it was more interesting than the parade itself. At least you could see it, for example, without the threat of ligament damage. And although it wasn't dancers in colorful costumes with gigantic feathery headdresses, it wasn't traffic, either. Yet. Which is saying something.

I passed a pleasant half-hour, 40 minutes in Cafe la Taza enjoying said scenery and making small talk with a plate of fajitas and a salad and a glass of water. Then when I went back up to the counter for a cup of coffee (no wait – everyone was still standing in line for the bathroom) I found out that really I was actually passing my minutes at Martha and Brothers. There was a letter taped to the wall next to the cash register announcing as much, in 11- or 12-point type. Although the name of the place would thenceforth be Cafe la Taza, according to the letter, its loyal customers should rest assured that it was still Martha and Brothers at heart. Same menu, same coffee and stuff, same friendly service, blah, blah, blah.

Never having been a loyal customer of Martha and Brothers (neither here on Mission Street, nor on Cortland, nor in Noe Valley), I wasn't sure what to make of this news. Off the top of my head (or jerk of my knee), the fajitas and salad that I'd just so pleasantly partaken advantage of were suddenly not sitting so smoothly. For me, chains – even small-scale local, family-owned ones, such as Martha's – conjure images of squirrely Batman villains behind the scenes somewhere, holed up in hovelly headquarters and plotting to take over the world, or the city (in the case of small-scale local, family-owned ones) and homogenize our coffee. That's McStarbucks, I know, but as long as there's a Java Bob's or some such ma-and-pa joint in walking distance, I'd rather go there, on principal, than Martha and Brothers.

You're thinking: ma and pa, brothers and sisters ... what's the difference? There's a big difference. Ma and pa are a couple, an entity in and of themselves. They can handle one store and exactly one store. Maybe it sucks, maybe it's great, but at least it's unique. You start talking brothers and sisters, who knows how many there are going to be? I myself come from a family of 11. Then you mix in the in-laws, at least one of which, according to the law of averages, is bound to be something out of some old Batman episode ... blammo: homogenization. The root of all evil that money itself isn't already the root of.

Wow. I went on way too long with that. The point is, on account of the above prejudices, I probably wouldn't have eaten at Cafe la Taza if I'd known that it was Martha and Brothers – so shrewd businessfamilymanship, changing the name like that.

As for the food, what can I say? It was good. Aji fajitas, which I'd thought were going to be fish (as in ahi) fajitas, turned out to be my good friend beef – juicy strips of it with red and green peppers (I think maybe aji is a kind of pepper, maybe) and onions, served over angel hair pasta. And for $6.95, it came with a side plate of salad and bread. And the salad was good, too: mixed greens, cucumber, and tomato, with a vinaigrette dressing.

I also saw some good-looking big-potato breakfasts. Other than which, they serve sandwiches, salads, bagels, and all the standard coffeehouse stuff.

Oh, and coffee. I didn't like the coffee. Maybe because I don't like Martha and Brothers coffee, and I knew by that point where I was in the world. Or maybe because I distinctly said "for here" and they gave it to me in a paper cup. Whatever ... I drank it to be polite, and I drank another glass of water, and by then the line for the bathroom was down to one or two people.

Cafe La Taza. 2475 Mission (at 21st St.), S.F. (415) 437-9240. Mon.-Fri., 6 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Takeout available. American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa. No alcohol. Wheelchair accessible. Dan Leone is the author of Eat This, San Francisco (Sasquatch Books), a collection of Cheap Eats restaurant reviews, and The Meaning of Lunch (Mammoth Books).