January 29, 2003

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Hope and glory

By Paul Reidinger

IN AN AGE of diminished – and still diminishing – expectations, the Hobbesian principle more than usually obtains, and the lives of restaurants become more than usually nasty, brutish, and short. Places still come and go, but more go than come, leaving behind empty shells. It's like a game of musical chairs in which players, rather than chairs, are steadily removed.

There are quite a few empty chairs around these days – I sadly marvel whenever I pass the beautiful brick building on 17th Street between Harrison and Potrero that used to house Moxie – and quite a few nervous players. The owner of a well-regarded Italian spot in North Beach took me aside a few weeks ago to confide the news that his dinner business has alarmingly dropped. I was not surprised: no tourists, fewer business travelers. Those numbers can only be crunched one way; or perhaps "compacted" is the word that more neatly captures the sense of shrinkage.

One of my favorite neighborhood spaces, at the corner of 16th and Sanchez Streets, has lately joined this dismal parade. After a long run as the Port Deli, and a shorter but respectable interval as the Port Café, the space lasted only a few weeks last year as Grub, despite a handsome sleeking of the interior and a decent comfort-food menu. But hope springs eternal, as a friend of mine noted as we recently stepped into what has become Tangerine, with a basket of tangerines on the long bar and a coat of orange paint on the exposed brick wall at the rear, adjacent to which the round port window remains as a kind of memento mori.

Apart from these citrus-related visual cues, Tangerine doesn't look too different from Grub. The main changes are the removal of those bizarre shrub screens from the tables, and the replacement of the decent comfort food with a vividly executed, jolly jumble of dishes that was described to me over the phone as "fusion" but turns out to be more mix-and-match, with perhaps a modest Asian predominance.

That predominance is plainest on the dinner menu, virtually all of whose main dishes are given Asian seasonings. The exception is the seafood gumbo ($14.95). What is it doing there? It's almost like a test in which you have to choose the one item that doesn't belong with the others. And it's an unflunkable test. Yet the gumbo, deeply flavored and spicy, very much does belong. The soft-shell-crab fiend, having demolished the honey tamarind-basted soft-shell crab ($14.95) and the underlying mountain of garlic noodles, quickly closed in on the gumbo when I couldn't finish it, overcoming his usual allergy to rice.

Grub suffered from a too-heavy reliance on the deep fryer, and Tangerine has taken note. As a tribute to a fallen predecessor, the menu does offer lemongrass tempura-battered, deep-fried calamari ($5.95), served with a chunky salsalike cocktail sauce. But for the most part the kitchen steers resolutely in less oily directions. Heavenly drums ($6.50) – a pair of golf-ballish fish cakes, mounted like little caramel apples on stalks of lemongrass – are steamed, which is a relief to the calorie counter but does produce a distinctly rubbery texture. And, at lunch, a crispy Caesar wrap ($6.50), essentially a chicken Caesar salad wrapped in a tortilla with a peppy dressing and mozzarella cheese, is baked to a crispy brown – another boon to the calorie conscious, this time without rubberiness.

The matter of sauce is a happy one at Tangerine. From the Caesar dressing to the cocktail sauce to the luxuriously thick and spicy peanut sauce on a Thai chicken satay sandwich ($6.95), the kitchen's embellishing potions bring a large measure of taste, texture, and color to the dishes they adorn. Without them, the food would be no better than bland – but of course that's no criticism, since neither would most Italian food if not for generous dollops of balsamic vinegar and gratings of parmesan cheese.

If any of the food is subpar, it would be the soups, which cost, à la carte, $3.50 for a cup and $4.50 for a bowl but are included with lunchtime wraps and sandwiches. A cream of mushroom soup was full of earthy flavor but had a disheartening floodwater brown color unrelieved by even a bare sprig of parsley or a squirt of basil oil, and its texture was sludgy, like cream whipped to soft peaks, with a bit of unwelcome grit. Butternut squash soup was also on the thick side, with a slightly pallid color and a heavy Thanksgiving-stuffing perfume of sage.

Still, we ate them and were satisfied, even as we puzzled over why such a beautiful space should have seen such woe and turmoil over the past few years. It's true that there's less foot traffic at 16th and Sanchez than there is along Market Street, a block away; but for some of us that only enhances the appeal of looking out the west windows at a (comparatively) quiet, tree-lined street while nibbling away at tasty food. Glorious. Tangerine. 3499 16th St. (at Sanchez), S.F. (415) 626-1700. Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Tues.-Sun., 5-10 p.m. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Beer and wine. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Comfortable noise level. Wheelchair accessible.